Back in July, I addressed the subject of Christian nationalism, but now in November, the subject of nationalism demands our attention again — after all, our president has announced proudly, “I am a nationalist.”
Despite rhetoric from the White House, we must not be hoodwinked into thinking that nationalism and patriotism are the same thing. They are not. In light of last week’s terrible events, it is well worth reminding ourselves of the distinction.
Patriotism is about love of one’s nation and its people, while acknowledging flaws they may have; nationalism is about hatred of other nations, while claiming that your nation and people have no flaws. Nationalism, in the Western world, is unavoidably related to white nationalism, which is the love of the white European “race” and the belief that it has no flaws and is, in fact, superior to all other races — a particularly pernicious form of racism known as Aryan supremacy.
It’s no accident that nationalism and racism (and antisemitism) are closely related. The root word of nationalism comes from the Latin word “natio”/“nationis,” meaning birth, people, nation. The West had the word “nation” long before there were modern nation states, because the word refers to a person’s birth and the geographic location of one’s ancestors. As the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (nicknamed the Nazis) called it, “Blut und Boden!” — blood and soil — was the battle cry of the original Nazis and now of the neo-Nazis.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with a column on faith and religion? A great deal. Until the formation of Christianity in the first few centuries of the Common Era, just about everybody and every society on earth thought in “nationalist” ways. Loyalty till death to one’s tribe, clan, city state and local gods trumped (pun intended) everything and resulted in constant warfare just about everywhere — and that’s not an exaggeration. The 18th century French philosopher Rousseau stitched together the myth of the “Noble Savage,” but it was just that: a myth fabricated by European romantic intellectuals, with no basis in historical fact.
In the world of Jesus, anywhere in the Roman Empire if you were not of Greco-Roman birth (“natio”) and a Roman citizen, you were pretty much nothing with no rights. Were the ancient Romans racists? Well, not exactly, but they sure were nationalists. Their “nation,” which they believed descended by bloodline from the heroic age in Greece, was clearly the best that ever existed; their law, religion, culture and army were the best that ever existed. They were the best, the greatest, and for this reason, were destined to rule over their ever-expanding empire with an iron fist — which is exactly what they did for a thousand years.
It was Paul of Tarsus, now known as St. Paul, who made it his mission to expand the new religion of Christianity beyond the confines of Jewish communities. He said in his Letter to the Galatians (3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And in his Letter to the Colossians (3:11) he said, “There is no Gentile nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all of us.” This teaching of Paul was revolutionary. He demanded that the early Christian communities renounce their closed-door, nationalist ways of thinking.
Simply stated, without Paul’s insistence on renouncing nationalism, Christianity would not have become the largest religion on the planet. Period.
Being strongly against nationalism in all its forms is not some optional, take-it-or-leave-it tenet of Christianity. It is absolutely essential — and Christians were the first to insist upon this position. Furthermore, without this historical background and foundation, it is unlikely that there would have come to be the international rights of refugees as established by the Geneva Convention in 1949 and by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951.
We have to shut down nationalist thinking in order to shut down racism and the recurrence of white nationalist supremacy. The two evils go hand in hand. Our current president plays into nationalism every chance he gets — even creating opportunities to spout nationalist rhetoric. That is directly related, as a major causation factor, to the shootings in the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The domestic terrorist shouted “We have to kill all the Jews,” and later told police that “Jews are killing my people.” Yes, he is a wackjob. But this type of wackjob gets his inspiration from somewhere. And that somewhere is exactly this: the scourge of nationalism.
Nationalist rhetoric is a form of hate speech. It’s that simple. How can we not know this when we know what Hitler did in Germany, and how he whipped (another word for whip is “scourge”) the German people into a frenzy of hatred against the Jewish “nation,” while all the time shouting that the German Aryan Nation was the superior race on Earth?
I am appalled as an American to hear our president, and others emboldened by him, espouse nationalism. I am even more appalled as a Christian — as I should be. Anti-nationalism is such a crucial part of Christianity that the Nazi Party literally had to make up a new religion, which they named Positive Christianity, in German, “Positives Christentum.” (Google it, please.) Nazi Positive Christianity, in perfect Orwellian fashion, was the reversal of everything in Christianity, but it allowed Hitler and Nazis to call themselves “Christians,” as referenced in Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform.
I know there are those who are offended by the mention of Nazism in any connection to current events in our own country. Sorry to offend, but offend I must. The slippery slope is here and we are on it.
Our western history provides us with 2,000 years of instruction on the dangers of nationalism, and the last century provided the capstone course on this disease. One of the pitfalls of 20th-century secularism, with its denial of any higher source of morality above and beyond politics and pragmatism, is now staring us in the face again: How do we keep ourselves from reverting back to an earlier state of human society — the state where people define themselves through their rejection of other peoples, those who come from different “blood and soil?”
We have two years till the next national election. These two years will be critical. I’m not sure politics as usual can get us out of this mess. We have to call upon a higher set of values, a higher standard of determining acceptable behavior. Nationalism is unacceptable, unproductive and unchristian.
We are truly one human family. We now know from contemporary genetic science (as opposed as to erroneous genetic theories of the 20th century) that all of the peoples on earth are closely related to each other. We don’t need to be building bigger walls. We need to be building bigger tables.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.