Why Sufjan Stevens Is Right About Nationalism and Christianity
February 13, 2017
Griffin Jackson is a former editor with the Chicago Tribune. For the last year and a half, he has worked in humanitarian aid in Lebanon and refugee resettlement in Chicago.
The globalism that created international organizations and cross-border communities like the European Union is not dying, but it faces revived competition in the form of individually-focused nationalism.
Christians of all stripes are speaking out in response to the changing tide. Hundreds of evangelical leaders, including Tim Keller and Max Lucado, took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the protectionist executive order that put a moratorium on refugees entering the United States.
Churches and organizations like World Vision and World Relief have written letters in the same vein. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens decried the temptation to put any allegiances above or alongside our allegiance to God in an open letter posted to his Tumblr, saying, “for God has no political boundary." He also captured the thoughts of Christians who have expressed confusion at seeing Evangelical peers align with a nationalist doctrine with the words, "A 'Christian Nation' is absolutely heretical. Christ did not come into this world to become a modifier."
Nevertheless, the America-first doctrine is still making ground both within and beyond the Church. Such a doctrine places American interests above the interests of other countries and yet, the United States is not the only country seeing this trend rise among leaders. Nationalism has been the sentiment du jour in Russia, China and Turkey for many years, and countries like England, France, Hungary, Austria, India and Egypt are moving in the same direction.
Who can blame them? Years of attempts at international harmonization have achieved some great things, but haven’t been a cure-all. In the United States, blue-collar workers still feel discarded. Wages have risen, but income inequality has worsened. The fear of terrorism is pervasive. Racial tensions persist.
But, as Christians, we must not elevate the distinction of national, ethnic or cultural identity over our higher identities as disciples of Christ and as human beings, both of which expand our most important communities far beyond the borders of the United States.
It is neither helpful nor fair to critique swelling American nationalism by alluding to pre-WWII Germany. On the other hand, it is equally unhelpful to approvingly equate American nationalism with the nationalism of ancient Israel. Jumping to the most extreme cases to draw comparisons is rarely useful. Nevertheless, history and theology have things to tell us about the phenomenon we are confronted with today.
The Difference Between Nationalism and Patriotism
Nationalism is frustratingly difficult to nail down. Basic dictionary definitions describe a simple loyalty to one’s country, though expanded definitions paint a sharper image. Nationalism includes “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others,” says Merriam-Webster. The Oxford dictionary echoes, noting nationalism’s “feeling of superiority over other countries.”
Many international relations scholars say a prominent feature of nationalism is primary loyalty to one’s group. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says historical nationalism includes the belief in “the supremacy of the nation’s claims over other claims to individual allegiance.”
Patriotism, as a general love or devotion to one’s country, is much simpler than nationalism.
The distinction is important, especially for followers of Jesus. Nationalism asks you to put your country’s interests above all others. Patriotism asks me to love my country but not at the expense of any other.
Of course, not all nationalism is created equal. Some, like the Third Reich, are totalitarian, seeking the destruction of outsiders. Others are isolationist, meaning they mostly want to be left alone, keeping wealth in and undesirable foreigners out. Still others fall in the middle, seeing other nations as rivals and viewing economics as a zero-sum game in which, when the home country loses, other countries win.
The point is, while patriotism requires a certain devotion to one’s country, nationalism is intrinsically a matter of inclusion and exclusion, of us versus them. Certainly, there are real distinctions between groups of people. There is nothing wrong with admitting that some people are Americans and others are not. But, as Christians, we must not elevate the distinction of national, ethnic or cultural identity over our higher identities as disciples of Christ and as human beings, both of which expand our most important communities far beyond the borders of the United States.
Nationalism and Worship
To some degree, every country puts itself first. Governments are built on promises to protect and prosper the people they rule. We should not expect regimes to stop being nationalistic, though we can hope and work for international justice and development. The question is not whether our political apparatus will favor the United States above anything else, but whether we as Christians will.
It is easy enough to counter nation-first claims with biblical calls to love the stranger (Matthew 25:40; Luke 10:27; Hebrews 13:1), put the interests of others above our own (Philippians 2:3-4), recognize the Christian community has nothing to do with ethnicity or borders (Galatians 3:28-29; Colossians 3:11) and acknowledge the image of God in all people (Genesis 1:27). All of this means Americans are not worthy of more protection or money than anyone else.
But the danger of national idolatry is just as significant. Scripture warns us not to put our hope in earthly powers (Psalm 146:3). No government, or the wealth and security it promises, can be placed above God or his commands (Deuteronomy 6:13-14; Daniel 3). Nationalism easily slides into such subtle idolatry. In God’s economy, the United States cannot claim superiority.
To be sure, many Christians throughout history have been nationalists. Modern nationalism in Europe and the United States also has considerable backing in churches. Such history demonstrates that nationalism, while rallying people around seemingly noble virtues, has a nasty way of feeding state propaganda, fostering a go-it-alone attitude over a cooperative one and diverting blame for national problems onto outsiders.
It is of course not true that all nationalist Christians in the United States are worshipping the country. It’s not wrong to desire safety or comfort, but to desire our own safety and comfort above that of others is the problem. Have we put our own security ahead of the security of refugees, immigrants and foreigners in general—many of them Christians? Have we put the comfort of Americans ahead of the comfort of orphans and widows who will suffer because of the greed and egoism of the United States?
If the answer is yes, we may be in danger of letting our national loyalty override our allegiance to God. That's idolatry. That's false worship.
Jesus and his followers tore down barriers of culture and ethnicity. Nations will continue to exist, and diversity is important and valuable, but not to the point of overriding human bonds in the image of God and the Church’s bonds in the unifying blood of Christ. Jesus and Paul defended Gentiles as much as Jews. (Acts 11; Romans 10:12) They critiqued Jewish and Roman leaders alike. (Matthew 23; Mark 10:42) They sought the well-being of Jews and Samaritans and centurions. (John 4; Romans 8)
The image of God is international. So is the Kingdom of God. For Christians, our loyalty to the Church and our neighbor comes before our loyalty to country. Our loyalty to God comes first of all.
Wherever possible, American Christians can joyfully seek justice for fellow Americans. But that justice must not neglect justice to outsiders here or abroad. We can love our country patriotically without deifying it nationalistically.
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