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And the winner is… nationalism

George Moody reflects on the outcome of May’s General Election

George Moody

Figure Image
photo: iStock

The voters have spoken. Yes, the Conservatives are back, but it is in no small part due to the rise of nationalism.

So what is nationalism? It can be defined in different ways. In one way, the emphasis is on the feeling of affection or identity with your own country. Such a sense of loyalty or pride at being a member of a particular nation is often highly visible during sporting events. For those of us lucky enough to be present at the London 2012 Olympics, it is hard to forget the pleasure of being part of a great national moment. We had put on this great show, even if we had actually done nothing more than buy a ticket. It warmed the heart of a nation.

Stronger sense of identity

Such an attachment to land and culture can also be expressed as a desire for separation, for independence, for self-direction. The rise of nationalist parties in the General Election acted as a focus for this stronger sense of identity as difference, and may redefine our political and geographical landscape. The strength of this sentiment seemed to catch the main parties by surprise, inspiring new policy promises on Scotland and Europe.

On the European stage, we can observe this drive in the growth of movements that bear little or no relation to one another in any other way. From far-right parties who narrowly define nationality in terms of ethnic origin, to moderate or right-wing parties who seek greater control over immigration, to left-wing parties who seek independence, the ambition for a more closely defined national identity seems strong and to be on the increase.

What does Scripture say?

While as Christians we often have a ready response to the injustice and inequality some of these movements can spawn, we seem less able to respond to what appears to be a legitimate tendency to value home and country. Is there anything that Scripture and its commentators can offer to help?

In his seminal work on political theology, The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan argues that secular political authority lies in judgment. This judgment is ‘a response to wrong as injury to the public good… limited to defence against injurious wrong’ (p59, 61). For O’Donovan such harm is defined in broad terms, so that the provision of education may be a protective government act. Indeed, harm can be understood to cover anything that impairs freedom, where ‘freedom is the self-realisation of the individual within social forms’ (p69) whose nature relates to the nature of society. Thus ‘freedom has to do with a society’s particular historical way of existing’ (p70). In this way, the fulfilment of the desire for nationhood may be appropriate if, by its achievement, individuals are enabled to be as fully human as they may be within the confines of a fallen earthly existence.

Balancing a legitimate desire

Such an analysis suggests that nationalism is, in itself, a legitimate desire. The development and protection of local socio-political norms is an inherently good thing, and only may be interfered with if such norms are clearly harmful to anyone affected by them. Indeed the development of new borders and political structures may be not just desirable but also necessary for such norms to be maintained. However, though time may bring change, on this analysis it is not be the role of governments to cause it or allow it if by such action they bring harm.

However, this interpretation must be balanced against an assertion of the absolute value of human beings – as Oliver O’Donovan puts it: ‘each person is of infinite, and hence equal worth’ (p40). It may be legitimate to develop and protect borders in order to protect the governed from harm, but at what expense to those outside those borders?

The Nepalese earthquake has driven them from the news, but the images of migrant bodies floating in the Mediterranean are hard to forget. In our minds, that warm sea carries no blame for the drowned. It is where many of us have played: sailing, swimming, sunbathing. This was a man-made disaster. And while it is easy and right to blame the traffickers, it is hard not to wonder if those very borders that give us such a valuable sense of identity bear some small part in the tragedy. Would not a truly Christian world be borderless and thus nationless?

Palestinian doctor

Many years ago as a young student backpacker, I travelled through Israel with a friend. My father had given me the address of a Palestinian doctor whom we could look up and so we did. Dressed in our travelling rags, shredded after a month on the road, I rang him at home and we were duly picked up.

It was 5pm. At 6.30pm he had a table booked at Jerusalem’s most exclusive restaurant to celebrate his son’s birthday. We had no time to change, nothing to change into, but in less than an hour we were seated around a table being offered iced water and exquisite food by uniformed waiters. What they thought of the two scruffy urchins, I’ve no idea, but I’m pretty sure I know what he thought. We were guests. And that was it. We were to be welcomed as family.

Foreigners are guests

The biblical understanding of strangers would have been instantly recognisable to my father’s friend. Every foreigner is a guest, so you must ‘love him as yourself’ (Leviticus 19.34). In interpreting Israel’s treatment of outsiders, often scholars distinguish between aliens (nokri), who are protected, but may not take part in the community, and sojourners (ger), who are allowed to take part in celebrations. However this distinction is hard to maintain and it seems more likely that there is a process of integration, betrayed by these linguistic differences. Thus the alien is to be cared for, but the purity of the community of Israel is to be maintained by a process of separation and integration.

As there were no geopolitical borders to be defended in this period, the focus is on community identity. The arrival of kings affects this, but does not seem to undermine its integrity. In Chronicles, the kings are blessed with border control when they continue right worship and cursed with medical and political disaster when they do not. The purity of the nation and its borders are intimately linked.

Such is the broad political picture, but the book of Ruth suggests a more intimate image, where a foreigner finds fulfilment within the community. It is a very different time and context, but offers a familiar approach to difference and integration.

It is intriguing that Jesus’s most remembered teaching outside the church – the command to ‘love your neighbour’ – is a reference to the same text in Leviticus that requires love in the treatment of foreigners. Here, though, it is the foreigner that welcomes the undesirable Jew, thus turning the statement on its head. Purity no longer means to acquire one unique form of culture. Now it can find expression in any number of different local forms, provided the person of Jesus is present as evidence by his people’s acts of love. Such an interpretation certainly makes sense of Paul’s willingness to plant churches and leave, so that local churches acquire their own unique identity. Love is universal, the gospel is for everyone, but localism is fine.

Transcending without rejecting

On this analysis, nationalism is no more nor less than an expression of locality entwined with a hope for human flourishing. It is a valuing of what gives us a sense of place and identity. For Christians, the mission of Jesus transcends such borders without rejecting their value. While adapting to all local culture, it calls us all to draw ever closer to Christ.

Where nationalism becomes a destructive force is when it overrides the value of the individual in Christ. Where the ideal of a nation state becomes worth sacrificing the individual who seeks help at its borders, then we must look for a better way. Where it inspires fear of the outsider, we are called to love as we love ourselves.