A few days ago I came across a comment on Twitter that set my teeth on edge. Not altogether surprising. I’m reasonably certain that Twitter’s existence serves to balance out the positivity that exists in the world. A yin and yang sort of thing. Where good is happening, you can always balance it out by checking your Twitter feed. Even so, this particular comment stood out.
A Pastor from Missouri wrote a note warning about the dangers of nationalism to the Christian way of life. In response, someone said this:
“Sorry, but Americanism will be the savior of Christianity.”
It is a breathtaking statement, one that leaves you a bit shocked and unsure what to do. It reminded me of a sermon I heard Ginghamsburg UMC pastor Mike Slaughter give once. He said that a man told him, “You’re an American first and a Christian second.”
It also reminded me of the Book of Exodus. In Exodus 32, the people of Israel are living in the desert after having fled from Egypt. Moses has travelled up Mt. Sinai to receive the word of the Lord. The people have grown impatient waiting for his return.
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said the them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a gold calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this he built an altar before it.” – Exodus 32:1-5
Nationalism is a golden calf wrapped in a flag. It is a form of idolatry, and one that we are seeing more and more of across the globe. There is an increasing mindset that our hope and deliverer will be found in a political platform or national identity. Like all idols, the golden calf of nationalism demands sacrifices, and just as in the Old Testament, they tend to be human sacrifice. We sacrifice our global neighbors, the poor, and refugees. We sacrifice our sense of empathy and interdependence, the sense of responsibility for others that Jesus requires of us.
Taken to its logical end, Nationalism eventually requires literal human sacrifice in the form of war. It demands a willingness to take the lives of others to prove national superiority. The 20th century saw the most devastating wars the world has ever known, each born on the back of nationalism. An estimated 17 million deaths occurred in World War 1, with an additional 21 million wounded. World War II raised the count to approximately 60 million. These wars were not the only example. The rise of Communism in Russia, China, and other countries created an idolatry of the state, each leading to tens of millions of deaths.
In the First Book of Samuel, the prophet warns the people of Israel about the dangers of having a king. His words are just as relevant today when we raise national identity into a form of kingship.
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” – 1 Samuel 8:11-18
This the price of nationalism. This is what it requires, a willingness to sacrifice anything and everything.
As Christians, we do not place our hope in earthly leaders. We do not place our hope in flags. We do not find our identity in nations, but in the Kingdom of God.