Gods of This World: Nationalism
The history of “Christianity” is full of many distressing events. Many people are familiar with the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even to this day we often hear of religious justifications for going to war, promoting some political platform, or justifying a belief that a given nation has “favored status” before God. The New Testament, however, does not seem to promote any of these. What happened?
During New Testament times and for a couple of centuries afterward, national powers, especially Rome, were generally hostile toward Christianity, as is demonstrated in figures in Revelation 13-19. Yet, by the fourth century CE, Rome’s attitude toward “Christianity” changed, and that led to an entirely new temptation, difficulty, and challenge for believers: the connection between the earthly authority and the Kingdom of God.
The Roman authorities’ attitudes changed because many of them saw an opportunity: as opposed to fighting “Christianity,” “Christianity” could be used to promote and advance the purposes of the state. In Rome’s case, “Christianity” was used to unify the dividing empire. Later kings of later empires and states would use “Christianity” to justify their position of leadership while mandating a certain code of conduct.
Meanwhile, those who claimed to be Christians found few problems connecting the Kingdom of God to earthly kingdoms, and in the guise of the Roman Catholic church in the medieval period, attempted to combine religious and earthly authority in one person. The compromise was complete!
This challenge has existed for Christians ever since. There is a long history of how participation in worldly power has led to compromise of the principles God has established in the New Testament. After all, you do not read the New Testament and come away believing that the Crusades or the Inquisition were justified!
The temptation has become particularly acute in the modern world, for nationalism has become the “god” of many a group of people. Nationalism involves a fervent loyalty to and promotion of a nation-state, based on cultural, ethnic, and/or geographical boundaries. According to nationalist views, “our” nation is better and superior to other nations. Where there is belief in a higher power, it is believed that said higher power favors the nation as opposed to other nations. Furthermore, the actions of the nation are almost always justifiable for the benefit of the nation.
Few countries take this as far as Adolf Hitler did in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, but the danger still remains. We should not believe that America and Americans are immune to this: in fact, American nationalism is strongly promoted not just by the government and in the schools but also by many in churches. It is common to hear that America is the greatest nation in the world and there are always plenty of justifications for American actions and policies, no matter how Biblically justifiable such actions and policies may or may not be. Those who question American nationalism are often deemed as “unpatriotic” and their loyalty to the nation and its ideals are questioned. It is also often heard that America is a “Christian nation” and that God provides special favor toward America and Americans.
Let it be clear: there is no difficulty in appreciating the nation in which one lives and to appreciate the blessings that come from it. It is right and proper to respect earthly authorities and to obey them and to pray for all men, especially those in authority, so that those in the Kingdom may have peace (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, 1 Peter 2:11-17).
The Old Testament provides a demonstration of nationalism: God chose Israel and participated in the wars of Israel and the waxing and waning of Israelite power (cf. Exodus 19-2 Chronicles 36).
But we now live under the new covenant made under better promises (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, Hebrews 7-9). The Kingdom of God has come and broken to pieces all the kingdoms of the world (cf. Daniel 2:44-46). All of those who are part of the Kingdom of God have their citizenship in Heaven while living under different physical nations (Philippians 3:20-21).
National ideologies will, by nature, conflict with the truth of the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God has members in different national and ethnic groups (cf. Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). The Kingdom of God includes ethical guidelines that nation-states cannot live by and survive, including loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek when provoked (Matthew 5:38-48), and that the greatest is the servant (Matthew 20:25-28). When people try to reconcile nationalism and the Kingdom of God, the principles of God’s Kingdom are inevitably compromised. That is what led to the Crusades and the Inquisition in times past. Therefore, let us not be seduced into serving the god of nationalism, but always be first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)!
Ethan R. Longhenry