02 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 3: Can anything good come out of nationalism?

What does nationalism mean to you?

Nationalism has not had a good press in the past century or so. Examples include Zionism vs Palestinian nationalism; Ukrainian vs Russian nationalism. What other examples can you think of? What characteristics do these examples suggest? 


Most of the examples that come easily to mind involve ethnic differences. Most of the nationalisms of the past century have been forms of ethnic nationalism and have been at best divisive, at worst xenophobic and militaristic. Can nationalism exist without defining itself against an Other?

Perhaps the most obvious example of a nationalism that is not rooted in ethnic difference is the civic nationalism of the USA. (And it is this form of nationalism that the ‘Yes’ campaign claims to espouse.)

Biblical basis for cultural diversity

Genesis offers an explanation of the origin of cultural diversity in the form of the myth of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). In this myth, God’s imposition of a multitude of languages is presented as a judgement on the arrogance of the tower builders.

However, the New Testament sees cultural diversity in a different light. Look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) and particularly the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–11). Taken together, do these passages suggest that one culture/language is superior to another? Or do they suggest that all cultures are equally good? In light of these passages, how should we view different cultures?

Christianity at the roots of nationalism?

In contrast to many other religions (notably Judaism, Islam and Hinduism), Christianity can be translated from one culture to another. Being a Christian does not require us to adopt a particular culture. On the contrary, every culture can be a vehicle for the gospel.

The collapse of medieval society saw the translation of the Bible into local languages (e.g. Luther’s Bible in Germany). Arguably, this strengthened the sense of national identity in the language groups affected. A similar process has been discerned as one of the factors that drove African nationalisms in the early twentieth century.

In Britain, King James VI/I harnessed this power by commissioning the KJV: a vernacular Bible one of whose purposes was to shape a united British identity for the subjects of his two realms of England and Scotland.

Since the Reformation, churches have played a role in shaping national identity in spite of other aspects of the gospel. Think of the national Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and the Baltic States or the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the British Isles, the persistence of very different church traditions in spite of King James’s efforts to unite them has been a significant factor in maintaining distinct English and Scottish identities.

What should independence be about from a Christian perspective?

  • Material well-being? But this should not be a priority for Christians.
  • Ethnic identity? But being Christian relativizes all other identities. Christianity is opposed to any political ideology based on separation or exclusion. 
  • Self-determination? Recent Christian social teaching has emphasized that decision-making should be as close to the people affected by the decisions as possible.
  • Opportunity to reform Scotland? This is the promise of the ‘Yes’ campaign (with regard to equality, compassion, hospitality, environment, being nuclear free); it sounds at least superficially good from a Christian perspective. But is the UK currently incapable of reform in these ways?

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