The Christian Problem with Nationalism

Jason Micheli —  August 8, 2019 — 1 Comment

When God appears to him in an unconsuming fire, calling and commissioning Moses, who’s on the lam in the desert for murdering a man, Moses rightly asks for God’s name. Moses knows that his hearers in Pharaoh’s court will inquire of him which god has dispatched him to bring them a message of liberation. 

The god of which place? The god of what function? Moses anticipates them asking. 

By answering “I Am Who I Am,” Yawhweh refuses to be confined to a particular place or people. The God who is “I Am Who I Am” is Being itself; this God will not be circumscribed to a specific location nor limited— as the fertility gods— according to utility. 

Likewise, God issues the same refusal earlier in Genesis 12. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram in a burning bush. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram at all. The God who calls Abram just calls. 

The ancient rabbis believed that Abram’s father was idol maker. Whether that’s true or not, Abram did grow up in a culture populated by a pantheon of gods— useful deities who could be fashioned out of wood and stone, gods that could be sought out when you needed them and put back on the shelf when you didn’t. Abram grew up with gods who were visible and confined to particular places and people and called upon only on particular days.

But this God who calls Abram is different, different from the gods he grew up with.

This God who calls Abram just calls.

Unlike the gods he grew up with, this God who calls Abram is invisible. Invisibility, that’s scripture’s way of speaking of God’s omnipresence. Because God is not precisely there, God can always be here, which is to say, everywhere. You can bet Abram’s takeaway from his encounter with the Living God matched Moses’ takeaway: the discovery that the God who hung the stars in the sky is everywhere. 

There is no where Abram can go in his life where this God isn’t already.

And calling Abram, this God immediately sends Abram away his land. 

To belong to the true God is to be summoned out of your place of birth and people of belonging.

This God is not a god who can be taken off the shelf to bless the land where you live.

This God is a God who calls people out of their people to be a pilgrim people.

In order to bless the entire world. 

As Karl Barth notes, the Israelites received the Torah amidst a theophany on Mt. Sinai; therefore, the commandments themselves are not natural, universal principles but are a revelation of God. And because this revelation of God comes amidst their delivery from one master to another Master, the commandments also function as a kind of description of an idolatrous society. In as much as “Thou shall not kill” is a command it’s also an indication that the society which worships God falsely is a society marked by violence. Thus the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods except me,” is a command meant to contrast with the land whence they came. 

Unlike Yahweh, the false gods of the Old Testament represent a settling for a partial local identity. 

The late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, writes that “to worship the local gods of the Old Testament meant seeing oneself as essentially belonging to this tribe, this place, this time.” The false gods with which Moses, Abram, and the Israelites in Egypt were familiar were closely tied to the soil of a particular region, to the fixed rhythms of nature, or to the structures of a particular society. “The call away from this to the worship of the non-god Yahweh,” McCabe insists, “meant a radical dissatisfaction with any such settled belonging.”

Yahweh doesn’t simply give the Israelites the commandments as they’re getting out of Egypt; rather, Yahweh gives the commandments to the Israelites so that the commandments might function as the means by which Yahweh gets Egypt out of the Israelites. The problem with nationalism, then— or, even, patriotism, is that it replicates the very devotion Yahweh would have his pilgrim people renounce. The Ten Commandments essentially confess to our idolatries “I do not believe, and I will not serve you.” 

The danger posed by nationalism is the lure of false worship. 

The false gods made you feel at home in a place, McCabe observes, that was their purpose. The fake gods had to do with the country in which you grew up and loved. The fake gods affirmed where you were and thus affirmed who you were. By doing so, rather than creature to Creator, the fake gods bound your identity as a person to your place of origin. Thus the idol creates a dependent, mutually reinforcing relationship between place and personhood such that to critique the former risks undoing the latter. 

In other words, idolatry requires mythology. 

The fake gods of nation and state demand obeisance to false narratives of exceptionalism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was no stranger to the fake gods, said the danger of nationalism is not love of one’s country but that very often nationalism— even patriotism— does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this “religion” of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church by its baptism into the exodus of Christ’s death and resurrection has been commissioned to confront. 

That is, nationalism is an idol which makes it difficult for Christians, in obedience to the true God, to call bullshit, as Stanley Hauerwas counsels Christians, on the Powers of the places where they find themselves and this fake god makes it impossible for Christians to confess truthfully our own promiscuity with these other lords. 

Jason Micheli

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One response to The Christian Problem with Nationalism

  1. Hi Jason, love your theology (mostly (who agrees with everythang?)). What about just thinking, in a Left Hand way, that Nationalism, as a political ideology, is better than, say, it’s binary opposit, Globalism? One could be a proponent of either based on malinformed, sinful reason and logic, but subsume either to Gods Kingdom in Christ. It seems what I’m trying to say, is that idolatry is in the individual heart and potentially on either side of any political debate.(?)
    Keep on preachin’
    Brian Holle

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