18 November 2016
The gospel and nationalism
Nick Harris is part of the team at New Community Church in south-east London and is studying for a MA in biblical studies at King’s College, London.
Last week saw the news that Donald Trump was chosen to be the president-elect of the United States of America.
This week saw the news, and subsequent social media storm, that a supreme court judge termed the EU Referendum as "not legally binding".
It has also been the week when papers reported that the killer of Jo Cox, MP, shouted "Britain First" as he shot and stabbed her.
2016 as a whole has been a tumultuous year. Not only marked by the tragedies of the ongoing crisis in Syria and numerous notable deaths, but also a year of huge political upheaval triggered by the everyday person utilising his or her democratic right to vote.
I wonder whether there’s a lesson from history that should start to pose questions to us as Christians; and that is the rise of nationalism and national identity. Numerous social media and satirical posts have alluded to an apparent parallel between President-elect Trump and the rise of nationalism in the lead up to the Second World War. It is important to note that the vast majority of them are hyperbolic in the extreme and frankly dangerous to presuppose and we only have to consider the mainstream nature of the Scottish National Party to get a better perspective on nationalism. However, within the story of the last few months is one reality that I think is undeniable – the increasing narrative of ‘Make *Insert Country Here* Great (Again)’, and of ‘our country, our lives, our jobs’ within political and social agendas. our jobs’ within political and social agendas.
Given the popularity of this narrative – Trump and Brexit’s successes – it should make us wonder: are we, as British – or any other nationality – Christians, really ‘British’ Christians or are we Christians who live, work, and serve in this country?
Although patriotism is normal and can be a good thing, the distinctions regarding nationalism are important. Not least because, in our fallen world, God’s narrative will be – should be - radically counter-cultural: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).
Peter is adamant that the Christian is a "foreigner" and "exile" in the nation that they find themselves in (1 Peter 2:11). The wonder of the gospel from Peter’s perspective is that every Christian once stood a traveler and a wanderer. To use Paul’s language, he or she was a member of the people marked by Adam – far from the fold of God, stuck in his or her sin, shame and death; without hope, without anything worth considering merit.
Yet in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that all changes. The Christian is made a part of a new nation: God’s own people. They are His own nation, a nation of priests and kings, not a band of damned orphans.
As such, as our identity is changed, so also must our allegiances. In light of the work of Christ, our allegiance is to King Jesus, and to every single brother and sister worldwide who belongs to his new nation.
For the first century reader to hear the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ was a world changing statement of allegiance. It was to declare: "Jesus is my King, no other." When the ruler of your ‘nation’ considered himself to be a god the early Christians understood that nationalism was incompatible with the gospel.
Should we desire the flourishing of the nation we find ourselves in akin to the Jews in exile (Jeremiah 29:7)? Absolutely. Should we learn what it means to submit to God’s authority expressed in earthly governments (1 Peter 2:13-25; Romans 13:1-7)? Unquestionably.
But do we neglect those who are in need of love, care, support? Never, and I can’t help but feel we have to think about our stances if we’d refuse to show generosity and hospitality to a brother or a sister from another nation who needs it.
Of course, taking an interest in the flourishing of our nation is by no means an ungodly attribute. Throughout history we can see how God used people to impact their nation through figures like William Wilberforce, William Booth, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Lord Shaftesbury; the list goes on! I’m stirred by how the early Christians eventually became such model citizens of their nations to the degree that it resulted in an entire empire being reached with the gospel. The second century apologist, Aristides of Athens wrote to defend the Church to the Emperor Trajan by saying:
“They walk in all humility and kindness, falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They do not despise the widow or grieve the orphan. He that has, distributes liberally to him that has not. If they see a stranger they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him as if he were their own brother… For they observe scrupulously the commandments of their Messiah” (Aristides, Apology, 15).
It’s a stunning picture of the Church. How stirred are we by the stories of people who have gone before fighting to make their countries more reflective of the kingdom of God?
Yet the early Christians, and all the figures listed above, all caught sight of the national shift of the gospel: We are part of God’s own people and because of this, we seek the good of our nation.
As such, let us eagerly desire our nations to flourish but let us not forget that we are citizens of heaven first. After all, Jesus is quite literally 'the hope of the nations'.