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What Does It Mean To Be A Patriotic Christian?

A defining political challenge to the global Church today is how its people express patriotism without stoking nationalism

Whatever the answer, most people would want to sign up to it. Pick the question apart and the answer is less clear and may depend on where you live. A Russian, an American, a Chinese and a German Christian, to choose four randomly, may give radically different answers to this question. And the way Christians answer this question globally may not be in the interests of other Christians. Welcome to what is a defining political challenge to the global Church this century: how its people express patriotism without stoking nationalism.

We speak loosely of the nation-state but this is experienced differently. In some countries, allegiance to the state is paramount. This may be a filial support for the key multiple institutions that have evolved over generations which help to define public life. Where a political party lays claim to the State’s entirety: its parliament, public officials etc. and reduces scope for independence among other institutions – commercial and media outlets, perhaps – the patriotism required of Christians may lead them into an ideological trap, where the expectation is they will affirm Caesar as Lord. This trap is not as obvious as we might think and may never be identified by the Christian or recognised only when it is too late to extricate themselves. The state may have been captured by a particular ruling elite based perhaps on ethnicity or business interests where there may be familial or financial pressures to subdue God-given conscience.

Of growing contemporary concern is the effect of nationalism on the Church, where a nation understands itself a particular way that determines the state. The Canadian philosopher Michael Ignatieff has drawn a simple but helpful way of distinguishing between nationalisms: civic and ethnic. He identifies the former by allegiance to the institutions and customs of a community. In the UK this may be adherence to the Monarchy, Parliament, the courts, the NHS and the BBC, among many other structures. Yet even here different people may take issue with some institutions’ validity and make-up; the Church of England, for instance, might once have featured but rarely does in such lists today. For other countries there will be different structures.

The benefit of civic nationalism is that a diverse range of people can coalesce round it. This is unlike ethnic nationalism, which requires genetic membership of a particular group to truly belong. Many states govern nations which comprise predominantly one ethnic group. There is nothing inherently wrong here and many people may feel at ease with this. Where national identity is formed by ethnic belonging, however, minorities are more vulnerable to this being exploited by populists and, in the worst case, extremists.

Assertive nationalism is in the ascendency globally. Civic nationalism can be just as responsible for this as ethnic nationalism, which suggests that Ignatieff’s distinctions, though helpful, are blurred in reality. Strident civic nationalism often contains strong hints of ethnic priorities.

It is difficult to predict political futures, but there are signs that the global institutions the victorious allies put into place after the defeat of Hitler are becoming de-valued. The EU and NATO are chief among these; the IMF and the World Bank, US based trans-national institutions, are being challenged by alternative Chinese arrangements. If we are not careful, emerging structures may be less able to restrain assertive nationalism. This means, for one, that the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU contains wider significance than the welfare of one nation.

How do we understand our patriotism as Christian people? It would be good to reflect on this, but the aversion to talking any form of politics in our churches is strong in the UK. This reluctance emerged in part from a sense that many people were content with the status quo. But life internationally is becoming more polarised again.

A Christian understanding of patriotism might recognise universality, that we are all created in the image of God and share equally in his gifts. This promotes humility; an acceptance that no nation is inherently superior to another, even if some economies and national institutions may be stronger than others. It is confident that it has a distinctive contribution to make to the global common good which goes beyond, but includes, a commitment to its own national welfare. And it sees this as deeper than the pursuit of trading arrangements, which offers purely a material view of human relations lacking the depth to resist the darker urges of our human nature.



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