One of the more interesting aspects of this election is the political and theological debate around questions of “nationalism” and “globalism.” Both of these words are used almost entirely in their derogatory sense and are put up as bogey men, as concepts of which we should be afraid – and when used in that sense we should. Most of the arguments I have seen are also simplistic and underdeveloped. Here’s my attempt to bring a little nuance (read: boredom) to the discussion.
First we need to “come to terms”. I’m going to use “nationalism” in a broad and non-derogatory sense, as “the desire for national achievement.” It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that I am against a “nationalism” which causes us to place nation above love of God or love of neighbor. I’m also going to use “globalism” in the same sort of broad sense, as “a concern for the entire world”, and not in the sense that global interests should always outweigh national or local interests. I’m going to parse each of these out more below but I wanted to state up front how I’m using the terms so that you don’t just write me off as an idolater.
Second, we need to clarify that we are going to be speaking about the interests and the roles of the nation as distinct from the interests and the roles of the Church (=universal Church, not institutional church). The two group’s interests and roles cannot be completely divorced from each other but they aren’t the same either. Speaking of “nationalism” in terms of the nation means something very different from “nationalism” in terms of the church. Confusing the two, and the roles of the two, will get us into lots of trouble. I will address each separately:
In regards to the nation
A government’s primary responsibility is to its own people and so, in that sense, I want my government to put “America first.” But that “America first” message is not without limits. While it is not required to treat non-citizens as citizens, it must still act justly towards them and treat them as people (and in the Christian sense, those who bear the image of the living God). This means that it still bears some – though more limited – responsibility to individuals of other nations. It seems to me that these obligations would include advocating for basic human rights such as the freedoms of life and religious expression and taking appropriate action when those basic freedoms are threatened, as in the case of genocide.
“Nation first” can be good call as long as it doesn’t mean “nation only” and as long as it is constrained by virtue. What was so frightening about Nazi Germany was that it was a nationalism that was unconstrained by virtue. It made the advancement of the nation the greatest good, at the expense of justice for all.
There are dangers on the side of “globalism” as well. Many fear the consolidation of power in global institutions and this fear is not entirely unfounded. While there is some good which global organizations can bring the tendency will always be for more and more centralization of power. Since power can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good (maybe more easily?) I want the power of these global institutions to be limited, specifically limited by the sovereignty of the individual nation. I don’t want my nation to give up its national sovereignty for the same reason that I don’t want national power to be centralized in Washington but distributed to States, counties, and cities, and that’s because I want a government which will not overstep its bounds.
Another issue that has come up is the economy. Here I find myself in a minority. I agree with the many economists who argue that access to markets is one of the most important ingredients to a strong economy. Therefore, I want my country to embrace a global economy and the trade deals that go along with that economy. I see open markets as a way of fostering peace and building global wealth, things which would be good both for the country (America first) and for the world, particularly the global poor. I am of the perspective that open markets (when constrained by virtue and justice) are one of the greatest tools for loving our neighbors.
Perhaps one of the best ways to understand this is to think about family dynamics. The responsibility of the father and mother is to take care of their family first. In most cases the bulk of their time, energy, and income will go to providing for the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the family. A father or mother who spent an inordinate amount of time away from their family, or gave away income essential for the care of the family would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Also, parents shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to some higher level organization – like a church, or a school, or the government.
But that doesn’t mean that parents should only concern themselves with their own family or their own children. Instead, they should lead their family in service towards others, give out of an abundance of resources and love out of an abundance of love. A family does not exist only for itself, but as an essential part of the broader society. A family with this outward focus actually helps itself, since in serving and caring for others outside of our circle we fulfill one of our reasons for existence.
I think this principle can be applied to governments as well. Governments have a primary responsibility to their own citizens, but they also exist within a global framework and need to engage that broader world responsibly and justly.
In Regards to the Church
The Church, as in those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, is transnational. It is cross-cultural. It is multi-lingual. It is made up of people from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people. This characteristic is central to its very identity. Because of this fact there will always be a tension between the “globalist” inclinations of the church and the “nationalistic” inclinations of the nation. This tension is healthy, and it shouldn’t be resolved either by the church separating itself entirely from – or wedding itself to – the life of the nation.
I am currently reading the Eric Metaxis Bonhoeffer biography and noticed that (one of the) most significant heresies of the German Christians (and opposed by Bonhoeffer and others) was that it embraced the idea of a “national church.” It willingly submitted itself to the authority of the State and to the nationalist interests of the State at a time when it should have been resisting. The problem in Germany wasn’t only that it contained an unconstrained nationalism, but that the German Christians embraced such a close relationship with that government.
That said, the church does not exist independently of other institutions, but is historically and nationally located. Christians have a dual citizenship. We are both heavenly and earthly citizens. As heavenly citizens we have responsibilities towards all within the church, wherever they are located which, on some occasions, would supersede our responsibilities to the State. For instance, Bonhoeffer recognized that he had responsibilities to Jewish Christians who the Reich barred from leadership in the German church. As heavenly citizens we also have the mission of evangelizing the nations, of showing love through both word and deed to those outside the faith wherever they may be found.
As earthly citizens we recognize the context in which God has placed us and that, too, confers responsibilities and duties. We are responsible towards our families. We are responsible towards our local church, our city, our state, our nation, and the rulers and authorities of that nation. In participating in politics we merely ask that the government do its God given task of being the government. In so doing we serve both the nation in which we live and the God who has placed us in that nation. It is appropriate for Christians to have a sense of patriotism so long as that patriotism is understood in terms of gratitude to God and responsibility and so long as patriotism does not lead to idolatry characterized by either misplaced trust or misplaced fear.
So where does this leave us in term of nationalism/globalism? Here are a few concluding thoughts.
First, there will always be some tension between the nationalistic goals of the nation and the more global mission of the church. We need to live within that tension, understanding our dual citizenship.
Second, our task is to love our neighbors, local and global. One way we love our neighbors is by asking the government to perform its role as government, which can rightly pursue the success of the nation so long as it does not inflict injustice on those in other nations.
Third, we can remember that we are part of the global kingdom of Christ and yet participate in very local and concrete settings. We can begin by serving those directly within our sphere of responsibility, while never forgetting that God has called the global church to a global mission.