Is Nationalism Biblical?
Is Nationalism Biblical?
By Peter Nicholas
As strange as it is for a Brit to be writing a blog post on nationalism so recently after ‘Independence day,’ I do want to say that apart from the unfortunate episode of wasting perfectly good tea by tipping it into the sea (a crime few Brits can condone), there are no hard feelings!
On a more serious note, anything that has a hint of nationalism at the moment is, in light of recent cultural tensions, more than a little controversial. Monument wars, protectionism, the rise of the Alt-right, the counter movement of Black Lives Matter on one side of the Atlantic and Brexit, the global refugee crisis, and cries for harder national borders on our side, have all made nationalism a touchy subject.
So is nationalism biblical? What should be our thoughts about nationalist tendencies?
To answer this, we need to briefly unpack the biblical understanding of identity and how it relates to this issue.
Our Identities as Christians
In Scripture, identity is represented a bit like an onion (yes - just like Shrek said!). There are layers to our identity. Some of the layers are more superficial and some of them more foundational and core.
From a careful reading of Scripture, one can discern a kind of taxonomy of those layers. Note for example the pattern that Paul addresses things in pastoral application: Christian identity at our core, family identity, work, wider society (see for example, Colossians 3:1-25, Ephesians 5:1-6:9, Romans 12:1-13:7). Partly the order of application is shaped by the relative importance to the life of the believer.
Most anthropologists would argue that ethnic and national identity is either part of or closely connected to family identity. So it is a very deep part of who we are, but in the biblical scheme, it is not the core of who we are. In Scripture, our core identity is shaped by who we are in Christ.
Problems occur in our identity in two ways. The first is when we make something other than who we are in Christ the core of our identity - this is actually what the Bible calls idolatry because we are ascribing ultimate ‘worth’ (which is where our word worship comes from in the English ‘worth-ship) to something other than God. Secondly, we have a problem when we upset the right order of the layers.
This was one of the great insights of Saint Augustine - sin is not just doing bad things, but sin is disordered desires. Think for example of when a person prioritises their work over their family. Why is this so problematic? Because they are upsetting the proper ordering of their identity.
With this framework in mind, do you see how we have gone back and forth in putting our nation in the wrong place in our identity? In traditional societies, your family and national heritage defined you, it was the thing that determined your identity. Tragically this idolatry led to embedded racism and wars between nations. In Modernity, the concept of self shifted away from nationality, ethnicity and family to becoming more individualistic (things like your work, your resumé, your relationships, your material possessions). But this meant that, for a while, we were being told that ethnicity and nationality didn’t really matter, we are all part of one global humanity without ethnic and national distinctions (technically Cosmopolitanism).
This seemed to lead to increased peace and harmony for a time as globalisation took place. Unfortunately it was always an inherently unstable situation, because it was disordering the right layers of identity. Little wonder then that in reaction to Cosmopolitanism there has been a swing back and a resurgence in nationalism in the West both sides of the Atlantic.
Christ Over Nation
The key then to address the swing back and forth is to have a properly ordered identity with Christ at the centre. This will on one hand relativise the importance of ethnicity and nationality to those who would seek to make it ultimate, but at the same time it will elevate the importance of ethnicity and nationality to those who would denigrate it.
So celebrate your nationality as it is a vital part of who you are. But take a leaf from the vision in Revelation 7:9-10, and do not celebrate it as fervently as you do who you are in Christ;
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
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