“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
-Albert Einstein, Jewish German immigrant to America
In 1942 Gerald Smith founded the Christian Nationalist Crusade, a political organization aimed at making America more Christian. What did that mean? Using their magazine, The Cross and the Flag, Smith’s organization took a stand against, among other things, Jews, jazz music, and interracial marriage. To make America more…Christlike?
When people feel threatened with losing their cultural identity, their ability to be ruled as they wish, and the security of being surrounded by like-minded people, a curious force erupts. Wars are fought over this kind of thing, this idea that you and the people around you have a right to call yourself something in solidarity, to maximize the power of that solidarity, and to maintain that power and the privileges that go with it, even to the exclusion of anything or anyone that does not fit within the borders of that vision.
Nationalism is not a singular or easily defined philosophy, but a broad concept describing zealous and exclusive feelings of community for one’s homeland. Nationalism, in general, refers to a politically motivated desire for a nation to maintain a singular identity and look primarily after its own interests. Nationalism can also be understood as the systematic and symbolic devotion to a nation of people.
While we can define a modern nation as people who share a piece of land and are under a set of laws, nations are accentuated and defined also by their symbols, anthems, languages, myths, and leaders. What exactly makes a nation is always fluid, but nationalism always seems to narrow and solidify that definition in the name of a particular vision of what that people should be.
In the grand narrative of the Kingdom of Christ, one kingdom is spoken of as having any permanent significance to God. All others are fated to rise and fall, and the Adversary is the ruler of them. All great nations of the earth are compared to Babylon, and to a great Beast, the only exception being the nation promised to Abraham, the nation that blossomed from a fragile ethnic minority in the pocket of countless empires to a trans-ethnic, global network of people all devoted to the teaching and living of an eternal king.
The Kingdom of God, which is not of this world, is made up of people who live in this world. All of us have some kind of status in relation to some secular body. Some of these secular bodies seem easier to fall in love with than others. The temptation to succumb to nationalism arises. Harboring nationalism in your heart can harm the Church. Here are 7 reasons why it happens:
1. Nationalism ignores our true citizenship in Heaven
Paul told the Church in Philippi that enemies of the cross of Christ trade glory for shame and set their mind on earthly things, “but our citizenship is in Heaven.” Citizenship singular. The glory of belonging to an earthly nation feels good, but if it’s bound by movable Occupying yourself with your citizenship in any earthly nation will make you forget you are primarily a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Swelling with the pride of being a citizen of any earthly nation will eclipse the glory of the citizenship paid for by the blood of Christ. Being in Christ, we are the aliens and strangers in the lands we dwell in.
2. Nationalism makes us complacent with a worldly culture
In the name of solidarity with an earthly nation, nationalism calls for us to behave like the people around us. Sometimes this is harmless. Other times it is disruptive to our walk in the Way. Identifying too strongly with the ways of a people other than the Kingdom of God confuses our notion of what the Kingdom of God is, a kingdom that by nature is “neither Greek nor Jew,” etc. If we are not to be “conformed to this world,” trying to adapt our customs to the surrounding culture in the name of being called a people runs against the grain of being transformed by Christ, who has called us to be his people.
3. Nationalism often includes racism and xenophobia
Many forms of nationalism define a nation in terms of ethnicity. We don’t have to look at extremes like Nazi Germany for this. In America groups like the KKK preach that caucasians are the superior race and that America is (and should be) primarily the heritage of European Americans. In the 1950s Jerry Falwell preached that ending segregation would mean the end of the white race. When you ask the question “what makes a people a nation?” it can be too easy to define your vision in terms of ethnicity. Historically, nationalism has leaned in the direction of marginalizing minority groups who do not have the same kinship as the majority. While nations will tend to view the immigration outsiders with caution, the Church’s very mission is to continually make new citizens from outside the “borders” of our body.
4. Nationalism distracts us from our mission
Paul only ever used his Roman citizenship to maneuver himself in a better position to spread the gospel and to critique injustice. We see him giving no indication of caring otherwise for how Roman he was. Assuming that the people around us are going to be “as Christian” as we are prevents us from witnessing Christ. It gives us the tendency to view religion as merely a tool for national unity, Christianity as merely “a part” of our identity, or the official civic religion of our country, rather than a Way in contrast with how the world operates. Being too attached to one land limits the Church’s will to go into all the world and make disciples. Identifying too closely with an empire will cause the world’s seekers to lose trust in our missionary efforts, assuming us as agents of an earthly nation, and not ambassadors of the Christ.
5. Nationalism limits our spiritual imagination
Jesus told his disciples that in the world of Gentiles, leaders have authority over people and lesser people serve greater people. But with Christ’s followers, the opposite should be true. For Christians, belief in nationalism politicizes the most important thing in our life, reducing the elevated Way to an earthly battle. Nationalism tempts us to “make people more Christian” by urging leaders to legislate our morality, rather than engaging with people of the world through our behavior, discussion, and demonstration of the love and power of God. Our teachings become grotesque “issues” we press on others out of context with the kingdom. Jesus died to purchase a kingdom of people who do not accomplish his will by writing laws and policing behavior, but by living the law of love and demonstrating transformed behavior.
6. Nationalism invites us to defend evil in the name of God
James in his letter asks why there are wars among us, then supplies an answer: “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” Nationalism exalts a nation based on its own merits. A nation wants what it does not have in order to be made great, and so develops hostility towards people in its way. Nations grasp militarism as a safeguard against threats real and imagined, and put this military to use in ways that will enrich the country, sacrificing morality for strength. This in turn leads to justifying war, oppression, colonization, torture, internment, and even genocide. The “golden rule” is shoved to the side in the name of preserving a certain way of life. When we love an earthly nation too much, we become blind to its many faults.
7. Nationalism divides the allegiance we owe to Christ
In his letter to churches, James challenged those who forgot where their primary loyalty lies: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?” Nationalism is not only friendship, but camaraderie with the world. It is not the solidarity of people who know one another’s suffering or have known the love of God, but the kinship of those who say “we all live here and look alike and act alike and have the same law, so let’s exalt ourselves!” But James goes on to say in this letter,
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”
In the words of George Orwell, famed author of 1984, nationalism is “power-hunger tempered by self-deception.” A nationalist, he explained, “is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. ” Nationalism fools us into believing that we need more power to have a stronger identity, an identity other than Christ. Nationalism says “my country is the best country.” But if we say that about our physical homeland, we say it to the exclusion of our spiritual homeland, a kingdom whose ruler reigns in the here and now.
The Kingdom of God a chosen nation, a royal priesthood, God’s unique possession. Our national identity is in Christ. We may participate in the culture of the nations around us to an extent, and we are to submit ourselves under the authorities, but pledging allegiance to a body of people other than the Kingdom of God puts us in a position to divide our loyalty to God. The more we believe in our secular nation, which is transient and impermanent, the less inclined we will be to focus on the nation Jesus Christ purchased with his blood. His nation has no physical borders, no required language, and no banner but his love.
Any nationalism in a Christian’s heart should be completely reserved for the kingdom of God. Celebrate our symbols, our heritage, our ethnic diversity, our multiple languages, our dominion, our grace-given habits, and most of all, our great leader and savior! We declare the Kingdom of God is here!