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Unchristian Nationalism

Christian intellectuals are not often known for thinking a great deal about nations, but some have and some do. In his 1970 Nobel prize speech, the Christian Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn presciently declared that “the disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all individuals were made alike, with one personality and one face.” Nations, he claimed, “are humanity’s wealth; its collective personalities. The smallest of them has its own particular colors and embodies a particular facet of God’s design.”

Solzhenitsyn, it must be remembered, spoke in defiance of a Soviet empire that swallowed nations whole and bent them to an ideological vision of proletarian sameness. Though Solzhenitsyn cherished Russian cultural identity, he would doubtless have deplored President Vladimir Putin’s designs for a “greater Russia” in which neighboring peoples acquiesce to the cultural greatness of Russia and assimilate (or submit) to its cultural identity.

But the impulse that prompts one country to breach the borders of another country can also take a very different form, particularly in countries made up of many distinct cultures. Whether these distinct cultures inside a country are called “ethnicities” or “races” or “nations,”[1] how should we think about the relationship between these distinct internal cultures and the culture of the country as a whole? Should priority be given to the parts or the whole? Those who say that priority should only be given to the culture of the whole are rightly called nationalists. Those who give priority only to the parts are also rightly called ethno-nationalists. But both are nationalists, and both drink from the same poisoned well.

It is important that we think clearly and Christianly about nationalism. There is a healthy and very human form of nationalism that speaks of the natural loyalty and attachment we feel to home and homeland, to the people with whom we share history and traditions, its triumphs and tragedies. It’s the feeling that makes me cheer for Olympic athletes from my country and well up with pride when I see hear our national anthem.

Assimilationism and ethnonationalism turn out to be two sides of the same ideological coin. 

But there is a more insidious form of nationalism. A generation ago, the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, saw clearly what many of his fellow theologians did not. A fierce critic of the nationalism that gripped Nazi Germany, Barth defined and condemned the idolatrous idea at the heart of a poisoned nationalism: the conviction that each culturally distinct people must have its own state or, inversely, that every state must have but one culture. Assimilationism and ethnonationalism turn out to be two sides of the same ideological coin. The nationalist impulse toward cultural singularity continues to motivate atrocities and injustices the world over. We see it among white nationalists in the U.S. who think that America should be only for whites and dream of single national culture centered in “whiteness,” as much as we see it in places where ethnic groups want to break away from all others and exist as a culturally singular state on their own.

The nationalist desire for a culturally singular polity plays out in a variety of ways, often, sadly, with the support of Christians. It lies beneath the assimilationist conception of a nation as a “melting pot” in which cultural outsiders are pressed to surrender their own cultural identities in favor of a national culture. In a harder form, states (or militants within states) move to eliminate or suppress forms of peoplehood that they regard as culturally distinct. This can lead to the fragmentation of states (as in the break-up of Yugoslavia or the threat of fracture along ethnic lines in Ethiopia); to the expansion of states (as in Nazi Germany or the Russian incursion into Ukraine); or to the suppression of cultural difference within states (as in the cultural “re-education” of the Uyghur in China); or to the oppression of cultural minorities by a culturally dominant group in virtually all states. Clearly, these impulses can be seen on both the political right as well as the political left and even in the so-called “liberal” center.[2]

Christians whose orthodoxy has grown dilute in the acid of politics have not always grasped that this poisoned form of nationalism is deeply inimical to the arc of Christian Scripture. 

Key to the deceptive heart of many nationalist movements is the rhetoric of unity. The cultural uniformity sought by nationalists of all stripes is often pursued in the name of unity. Nationalism can, in fact, result in a superficial form of unity but not a unity of culturally distinct peoples. The unity offered by nationalists is one in which cultural differences between peoples have been erased or effaced. Often this is articulated as an alternative to the anemic unity proposed by philosophical multiculturalists who argue that the whole is no more than the sum of its cultural parts. Though some multiculturalists, such as the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka, have come to recognize the need for states to nurture a common culture, many multiculturalists continue to hold that a country’s unity is based not so much on a shared culture but a bare willingness to live together within the same geographical and political space. Many, however, have growing fears – or, in the case of some nationalists, firm convictions – that such thin cords cannot endure as ties that bind.

After all, if the Judeo-Christian tradition is known for anything, it is for the strength of its commitment to the dignity and value of individuals. 

Christians whose orthodoxy has grown dilute in the acid of politics have not always grasped that this poisoned form of nationalism is deeply inimical to the arc of Christian Scripture. It is important to understand why. To those unfamiliar with Scripture, including, regrettably, many self-identifying Christians, the extent to which the Christian canon maintains a focus on nations can come as something of a surprise. After all, if the Judeo-Christian tradition is known for anything, it is for the strength of its commitment to the dignity and value of individuals. Historically, the importance of individuals has been especially emphasized by evangelicals who, following the Protestant Reformers, stress the importance of individual faith as the sole effective means of salvation. And yet, though Scripture never loses sight of individuals, from beginning to end, Scripture reflects a sustained concern not just for people but for peoples. As such, it casts a vision for all humanity as one people made of all peoples – a vision that ought properly shape a Christian understanding of cultural multiplicity.

Scripture never loses sight of individuals, from beginning to end, Scripture reflects a sustained concern not just for people but for peoples.

The clarity of Scripture has sometimes been obscured by the tendency of theologians to collapse what Scripture has to say about culturally distinct peoples into discussions about the relationship between the Church as a spiritual entity and secular states, or debates about the relationship between Church and the ancient nation of Israel, or disputes about the relationship between the Church and the modern state of Israel. But the failure to think clearly about the significance of culturally distinct peoples within God’s purposes has left many Christians vulnerable to populists who are only too happy to express their nationalism in the language of a restored Christendom.

In contrast to political projects that eschew either meaningful diversity on the one hand or robust unity on the other, the early chapters of Christian Scripture are clear about God’s intention that humanity pursue both diversity and unity. It is also utterly realistic about human sinful resistance to that purpose. God charges human beings to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) with diverse cultures and peoples, but as soon as difference emerges humanity fills the earth with violence (Genesis 6:11-13). As a human solution to violence, humanity attempts to form a society free of difference, a linguistic and cultural monolith. As the symbol of their self-styled unity, they construct a tower at Babel that reaches to the heavens (Genesis 11:1-9). 

In contrast to political projects that eschew either meaningful diversity on the one hand or robust unity on the other, the early chapters of Christian Scripture are clear about God’s intention that humanity pursue both diversity and unity.

In response to human defiance, God famously imposed the diversity he had sought from the beginning, confusing their language and scattering humanity across the face of the earth. But that act alone does not accomplish all that God intends. His next act unveils a deeper purpose for humanity. He enters into a covenant with Abraham – a promise to form from Abraham a nation to which blessing would be restored and within which blessing would be restored to all peoples. This would be a people of peoples – a community of blessing in which blessing received becomes blessing returned (Genesis 12:1-3).   

The story of Christian Scripture puts the ultimate fulfillment of that promise beyond the bounds of ordinary human history. At the same time, the basis of Christian hope for the formation of a people of peoples is firmly rooted in history. The death and resurrection of Jesus holds out to us the forgiveness of sin, the transformation of individuals, and the power of reconciliation. But that same death and resurrection holds within it not only the power to transform individual lives but ultimately the whole cosmos, securing with it the fulfillment of God’s purpose to form one people made up of all peoples. This hope for the future puts nationalism (in both its assimilationist and ethno-nationalist forms) well outside the range of political options available to faithful Christians in the present.   

In his landmark work, World Upside Down, Duke University scholar C. Kavin Rowe rightly notes that early followers of Christ were first called “Christians” by outsiders as a kind of slur used to name a phenomenon considered novel in the ancient world – the formation of multi-ethnic communities. They did not aspire to overturn the political order and replace it with a Christian version of worldly power. But they did cultivate a common a way of life learned from a crucified Christ – a culture that they practiced within their communities and commended to their neighbors. As Rowe memorably puts it, “new culture, yes; coup, no.” The common culture of these new communities made it possible to nurture cultural multiplicity, because the act that defined its ethos and governed its values – a crucifixion – was not a violent grasp for power but the forfeiture of power. In theological terms, they were seeking to emulate the trinitarian life of the one God by forming communities of loving reciprocity between culturally distinct peoples. They were seeking to be a people of peoples as a way of living their lives in the way that God lives his. For the early Christians, this was a way of living in hope of what God would one day achieve through the formation of one people made up of all peoples. Whatever impact this may have had on the wider culture, this was not – and could not be – a top-down political project.

From a Christian perspective, nationalists are not wrong in seeking to cultivate a common culture or in seeing a nation’s unity as more than a matter of shared space. But multiculturalists are not wrong in seeing cultural multiplicity as a positive good. Christians hope for the reconciliation of all things and the unification of all peoples in Christ. But there is no Christian version of the nationalist or ethno-nationalist quest to quash cultural multiplicity in pursuit of cultural singularity. There can be no Christian nationalism, because nationalism is unchristian.


[1] The word “nation” is often used in confusing ways. Sometimes it is associated with national identity, e.g. “German” or “American” or “Ethiopian” that transcends internal ethnic or racial identities. At other times, it is associated with states, that is, governments that rule over a territory with internationally recognized borders, as in the “United Nations.” At other times, it is used to describe a culturally distinct people inside a country, especially one to which the state has given limited autonomy, as in the Cherokee nation of the U.S. Similar confusion exists around the terms “country” and “state.” So, for example, it is sensible to say both that “the U.K. is a nation with four countries (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales)” and that “the U.S. is a country with fifty states.”  

[2] By “liberal,” I mean the political philosophy of many Western countries that, in principle, puts exclusive focus on the rights, freedoms, and value of the individual, as opposed to the primacy of groups or peoples.

Steve Bryan (PhD)

Steve Bryan (PhD Cambridge University) is Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois in the United States. He previously lived and worked in Ethiopia for more than twenty-three years, teaching at the Evangelical Theological College and serving as the first Dean of Studies at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. His recent book, Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God: A Biblical Theology of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Race, was published by Crossway in 2022.

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የክርስቶስ ወንጌል እና ሳምራውያን

“እርሱ ሰላማችን ነውና፤ ሁለቱን ያዋሓደ፣ በዐዋጅ የተነገሩትንም የትእዛዛትን ሕግ ሽሮ በመካከል ያለውን የጥል ግድግዳን በሥጋው ያፈረሰ፣ ይህም ከሁለታቸው አንድን አዲስ ሰው በራሱ ይፈጥር ዘንድ፣ ሰላምንም ያደርግ ዘንድ፣ ጥልንም በመስቀል ገድሎ በእርሱ ሁለታቸውን በአንድ አካል ከእግዚአብሔር ጋር ያስታርቅ ዘንድ ነው።” (ኤፌ. 2፥14-18)።

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ዓለም በ2007 እንዴት አለፈች?

የተለያዩ ክስተቶችን ከመጽሐፍ ቅዱስ ጋር በማያያዝ፣ “በዚህ ጊዜ ጌታ ሊመጣ ነው፤ የዓለም መጨረሻ ሊሆን ነው” የሚሉ ግምቶች ከመጀመሪያው ክፍለ ዘመን ጀምሮ ለመኖራቸው ታሪክ እማኝ ነው።

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  • I have listened to brother Bryan speak on similar topic no so long ago. This article stands out more direct and clear when it comes to the definition of nationalism as a “melting pot” and its variation of localized ethnic nationalism. I completely agreed with Steve that no form of nationalism could be supported by faithful Christians, without risking undermining the wishes of individuals and people groups. What’s rather not clear to me is Steve’s position on what he said he found in the early chapters of Christian Scripture. I’m not sure that one could see clearly God’s intention in ways Steve stated as “humanity pursue both diversity and unity.” From such references as Acts 17 we know that God has tolerated diversity for a period. The same source points to God’s climax of history or a unity if you like. If Steve’s allusion is to the new humanity constituting both Jews and Gentiles, then it appears to me that the unity we see there is of a wholly new kind – neither Jewish nor Gentile but Christian. While the “diversity and unity” of this article bothered me a bit, I’m glad that I could read a Christian brother clearly writing, “There can be no Christian nationalism, because nationalism is unchristian.” Bless you!

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