“And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginnings of sorrows.” Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 24.6-8).
“And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us a kingdom and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.’” St. John in Revelation 5.9-10.
The dawn of a new era
On January 20, 2017, the world watched with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation as Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. In his inauguration speech, Trump issued “a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power” and proclaimed that “a new vision will govern our land.” That decree and that vision, according to Trump, is “America first.” Trump also declared that “we will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
Washington Post columnist and conservative political pundit, Charles Krauthammer, observed that Trump’s speech “radically redefined the American national interest as understood since World War II.” In Krauthammer’s view, “Trump outlined a world in which foreign relations are collapsed into a zero-sum game. They gain, we lose.” Krauthammer also pointed out that ‘America First’ was the name of the organization led by Charles Lindbergh that bitterly opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to support Great Britain during the early stages of World War II, and sought to maintain American neutrality and isolationism.
For those who had ears to hear, Trump’s speech signalled the dawn of a new era, not just in America, but the whole world. Henceforth it would be ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’. Not that Trump can be held solely responsible (as the Democrats are wont to do) for the seismic shift in the geo-political landscape. Events were taking place simultaneously in Europe, Central Asia, and the Far East with millions of Britons voting to leave the European Union, China flexing its muscle in the South China Sea, India electing the Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, and Vladimir Putin forging ahead with his blueprint for a Greater Russia.
To the select few who are old enough to remember (and the even fewer who care enough to do some research), this all sounds strangely familiar. Rewind some 80 years to the world of the 1930’s: in the aftermath of World War One and the disastrous treaty of Versailles, nationalistic movements sprang up in several nations that felt, rightly or wrongly, that they had gotten the short end of the stick. In Italy, Benito Mussolini urged his people to “Raise up your banners, stretch forth your arms, lift up your hearts and sing to the Empire which appears in being after fifteen centuries on the fateful hills of Rome.” In Germany, Adolf Hitler extolled the virtues of “the eternal German nation”, “eternal values of blood and soil”, and proclaimed the need to “cleanse the German nation, race, and culture from the international Jewish world enemy.”
In Spain, nationalist leader Francisco Franco, summoned to the defence of the nation “all who hear the holy name of Spain, those in the ranks of the Army and Navy who have made a profession of faith in the service of the Motherland, all those who swore to defend her to the death against her enemies.” Moreover, he warned of “savage attacks made upon national monuments and artistic treasures by revolutionary hordes who obey the orders of foreign governments with the complicity and negligence of local authorities.” In Japan, militant ultra-nationalist General Hideki Tojo, promoted the euphemistically named ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, in reality a plan to unite all the Asian nations together under Japanese rule.
Describing the characteristics of the last days, Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Luke 21.10). Unbridled nationalism eventually leads to war — trade war, cyber war, or nuclear war — which is exactly what the world of two generations ago discovered.
Is history repeating itself?
What’s behind the sudden resurgence in nationalistic fervour? To answer that question, one needs to examine the parallel events of the 1920’s and 30’s. The League of Nations was founded in 1920 with the principal aim of preventing further catastrophic wars through collective security and disarmament, and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. As history attests, the League failed spectacularly in its attempt to prevent another war. According to historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, this was due to” the unwillingness of the great powers to apply sanctions except where it suited their individual national interests to do so, and because democracy, on which the original concepts of the League rested for support, had collapsed in over half the world.” In other words, the League was intergovernmental in name, but not in practice.
Faced with the impotence and hypocrisy of the League, some nations took matters into their own hands, adopting nationalism as a defence against the devastating impact of the Great Depression. Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany for example, both used nationalism to override individual self-interest, subjugating the welfare of the general population to achieve social goals. However, the tragic events of World War II convinced the Allied nations to endorse global cooperation. In the light of such carnage, nationalism was seen as dangerous and globalism was heralded as le chemin du Salut (the path of salvation).
Are we seeing history repeating itself? Writing in Geopolitical Futures (May 31, 2016), George Friedman notes that “the nation-state is reasserting itself as the primary vehicle of political life. Multinational institutions like the European Union and multilateral trade treaties are being challenged because they are seen by some as not being in the national interest … What we are seeing is the rise of the nation-state against the will of multinational organizations and agreements … The current rise of nationalism in Europe is the result of European institution’s failure to function effectively … We are seeing a return to nationalism in Europe and the United States because it is not clear to many that internationalism, as followed since World War II, benefits them any longer.”
The Free Dictionary defines nationalism as “A political or social philosophy in which the welfare of the nation-state as an entity is considered paramount. Nationalism is basically a collective state of mind or consciousness in which people believe their primary duty and loyalty is to the nation-state. Often nationalism implies national superiority and glorifies various national virtues. Thus love of nation may be overemphasized; concern with national self-interest to the exclusion of the rights of other nations may lead to international conflict.”
Addressing a Republican rally in Houston, Texas, on October 22, 2018, President Trump called himself a ‘nationalist’, officially embracing the label that has long defined his populist rhetoric and protectionist policies. He went on to declare that “a globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about the country so much.” But is that really true? The Free Dictionary defines globalism as “the development of social, cultural, technological or economic networks that transcend national boundaries.” Dictionary.com says that globalism is “the attitude or policy of placing the interests of the entire world above those of individual nations.”
In reality, a globalist is a person who, whilst caring about his or her country, recognises that the whole is more important than the part, and that the integrity of the whole (world) depends on the viability of each and every part (nation); a person who understands that the world does not begin and end at the borders of the United States, or India, or China, or Russia, as the case may be.
Whether we recognise it or not, we are part of an organic system called ‘the universe’ in which everything and everyone is in some way connected. The apostle Paul dispelled the illusion of separateness, declaring “no one lives unto himself” (Rom 14.7), and cited the example of the human body, highlighting the interconnectedness and interdependence of its many members (1 Cor 12.12-27).
I am reminded of a humorous story about four people in a fishing boat. As they cast out their lines, one member of the party started to drill a hole underneath his seat. Aghast, the others tried to stop him. “What do you think you’re doing?” they cried. “You can’t do that. The boat will capsize.” “It’s okay,” the man said, “I’m just drilling under my seat, not yours!” Of course, the moral of the story is that the actions of one person will directly affect everyone else around them, whether they realize it or not.
Let’s extrapolate that principle to cities and nations, which are, in effect, large groups of people bound together by race, culture, language, or geography. When a government in South America allows the logging of a native rain forest in exchange for short-term economic gain (which usually means filling the coffers of corrupt officials and unscrupulous multinational corporations), it affects the ecological balance of the whole planet, not just the country involved. When a nation has a nuclear accident and radioactive material is released into the atmosphere (think Chernobyl or Fukushima), the fallout can extend for hundreds of miles.
I’m simply saying that you can’t stand at the border of Mexico or Gaza or Eritrea and look over the fence and say, “You can’t breathe our air!” If the truth be told, the particles that constitute your body today may be part of the body of that ‘stranger’ on the other side of the fence tomorrow, or vice versa! Communication is indeed, the essence of life.
On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at the American University in Washington, D. C. It was to prove crucial in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and the tenuous relationship between America and the USSR.
Articulating a vision for world peace, Kennedy declared, “Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
Think globally, act locally
As Jesus was preparing to return to heaven, the disciples asked him a politically loaded question: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1.8). To 1st Century Jews, the ‘kingdom’ meant national unity, political independence, and territorial sovereignty, something that had not been experienced since the reign of David and Solomon 1,000 years earlier. Rather than pandering to their nationalistic ambitions, Jesus sought to turn the disciples’ vision outwards — to a world without borders. He encouraged them to think globally (the ends of the earth), and to act locally (begin at Jerusalem). In other words, “Change the world, but start where you live.”
When a nation begins to think of itself as ‘chosen’ or ‘special’ or ‘superior’, it sets itself up for a fall. This was the plight of the Jews in the 1st Century. They believed that by virtue of their ‘special relationship’ with God, they were as a people, indispensable, and their temple, indestructible. John the Baptist warned the Jewish religious leaders: “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matt 3.9).
Likewise, Jesus predicted that the Jewish house of worship would be left desolate, and would eventually be torn down, stone by stone (Matt 23.38; 24.2). Moreover, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God would be taken from the Jews and given to a nation that proved to be worthy of it (Matt 21.43).
Admittedly, God used the language of ‘chosen’ and ‘special’ when he ratified the covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19.5-6). However, this was not to imbue Israel with a sense of self-importance or superiority to other nations, but rather, to help them understand that they were a means to an end, namely, the blessing of all peoples and the redemption of the whole world (Gen 12.2-3; Isa 49.6).
Recently I heard a pastor tell his church that after travelling to various places, he had come to realize that Australia was ‘the best nation in the world’. The audience responded predictably with loud applause and raucous shouts of approval. I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the naivety of the pastor or the gullibility of his congregation. But sadly, this kind of scene could be replicated just about anywhere in the world. Sometimes what passes under the guise of ‘patriotism’ is nothing more than egotism — comparing ourselves with others and thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Phil 2.3; Rom 12.3).
Saul of Tarsus was proud of his Jewish heritage; years after coming to faith in Jesus the Messiah, he still referred to himself as “an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11.1), and “a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil 3.5). Moreover, he expressed his patriotic zeal in his letter to the Romans, declaring, “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites …” (Rom 9.3-4), and “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Rom 10.1).
However, Saul (Paul) was also aware of the bigger picture — namely, God’s purpose for all the nations, and his role as an apostle or missionary to the Gentiles (Rom 1.5; 15.15-21; Eph 3.6-8). Paul demonstrated his largeness of heart and breadth of vision when addressing the philosophers at Athens: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth …” (Acts 17.24). Notice the universally inclusive terms that Paul uses: world, everything, heaven and earth. “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (Acts 17.26).
The phrase “of one blood” is variously translated “from one father” (thus denoting a common source or origin), and “of one nature” (thus denoting a common stock or substance). The Expositor’s Greek Testament notes that Paul’s words “may well have had in mind the characteristic pride of his hearers, whilst asserting a truth which cut at the root of all national pride engendered by polytheism on the one hand, by a belief in the god of this nation or of that, or of a philosophic pride engendered by a hard Stoicism on the other” (emphasis mine). In other words, Paul was preaching a message of human commonality, and therefore universal equality, by virtue of divine creation.
In The Life and Work of St. Paul (1889), F. W. Farrer opines, “In this one pregnant sentence he [Paul] also showed the falsity of all autochthonous pretensions, and national self-glorifications, at the expense of others, as well as of all ancient notions about the local limitations of special deities. The afflicted Jew at whom they were scoffing belonged to a race as dear to Him as the beautiful Greek; and the barbarian was equally His care, as from His throne He beholds all the dwellers upon earth” (emphasis mine).
Barnes’ Notes on the Acts of the Apostles (1852) states, “The design of the apostle in this affirmation was, probably, to convince the Greeks that he regarded them all as brethren; and that, although he was a Jew, yet he was not enslaved to any narrow notions or prejudices in reference to other men. It follows also from this, that no one nation, and no individual, can claim any pre-eminence over others in virtue of birth or blood. All are in this respect equal; and the whole human family, however they may differ in complexion, customs, and laws, are to be regarded and treated as brethren. It follows, also, that no one part of the race has a right to enslave or oppress any other part, on account of difference of complexion.” (emphasis mine).
A transcendent identity
In the Book of Revelation, John describes a vision of heaven in which he sees people from every tribe and language and ethnic group and nation worshipping Christ the Redeemer, and in so doing, transcending the limitations of their earthly identities and entering a new global, spiritual consciousness. “You have redeemed us to God out of one thing (tribes, languages, nations)” they cry, “and have made us into something new and greater (a kingdom of priests).” Contrary to the expectation of some, there will not be an American colony in heaven; neither will there be an Indian enclave or an area called ‘Chinatown’. The only flag that will be flying will be the one bearing the ensign of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
Paul picked up on this theme in 2 Corinthians 5.17, declaring “If anyone belongs to Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away and all things have become new.” And referring to the new life in Christ, he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28). Obviously that doesn’t mean that when one becomes a Christian, one renounces one’s racial heritage or forfeits one’s natural citizenship; nor does it mean that one loses one’s sexuality and suddenly becomes ‘gender neutral’.
What it does mean is that when one becomes a Christian, one’s new identity in Christ transcends one’s racial, social, and sexual identity. In other words, one is firstly a human being, secondly a Christian, and thirdly an American, or a bank manager, or a female (or whatever the distinction may be). Unfortunately, we tend to get our priorities mixed up in our short-sighted pursuit of personal interests and our determined defence of personal differences. As Ladislaus de Almásy observed in The English Patient, we are deformed by nation-states. Our humanity is diminished by an obsession with personal and national self-interest.
On the other hand, Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The challenge is to bring heaven down to earth; to start living now like we are going to live when we eventually get to the other side; to enter into the consciousness that we are indeed one, just as Jesus and the Father are one, that we are one in him; and to start expressing our new-found identity in Christ by living at a higher level of global awareness.