2) Biblical evidence: a) The teaching of the Old Testament regarding nations. b) The relevance of New Testament teaching regarding nations.
3) The issue of language and culture.
4) Various forms of nationalism examined in the light of Christian beliefs. a) Monocentric nationalism. b) Polycentric nationalism.
1. Introduction The purpose of this essay is to examine the relationship between, and the compatibility of, Christianity and nationalism. Special emphasis is placed upon the example of Welsh nationalism, with which the writer is most familiar.
Since the term “nationalism” can have many different connotations, it is necessary to provide a basic definition here. For the purposes of this essay, the term “nationalism” is used to refer to “those political ideologies and movements fostering national consciousness and advocating the right of nations to self-determination.”1
2. Biblical evidence To examine the relationship between Christianity and nationalism, it is first necessary to reduce these two ideologies to their essential components: the Bible, as the written foundation of Christianity; and the nation, the essential component of nationalism. Examination of the teaching of the Bible about nations is therefore of paramount importance in determining a Christian position on nationalism.
a. The teaching of the Old Testament regarding nations In the creation narratives we see that man was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and therefore, since all are descended from the one man, Adam, there is only one “human race”. Therefore it can be assumed that if all human beings are descended from a common ancestry, then all people are equal. No one group can claim superiority over another, since they all come from the same stock. However, although all people are equal, this does not mean that all people are, or should be, the same. This sets the scene for the appearance of different people groups or nations, each with its distinguishing features.
The themes of “nations” and “nationality” feature strongly in the Old Testament. The first occurrence of the concept of nations is in the table of nations in Genesis 10, which details the national groups into which all of known humanity was divided after the Flood. The existence of this table shows that “Humanity is reconstituted after the flood into a manifold world of nations not into a homogeneous multitude”2, despite common ancestry in Adam & Noah. The peoples began to separate into distinct groups, each with its own distinct land, language, culture and tribal (ethnic) identity (Genesis 10:5, 20,31 ).3 The embryo nations had been born.
The nations became further divided after the incident recorded in Genesis 11, the building of the Tower of Babel. To confound the people’s plans, God confused their language so that they could no longer understand each other. Therefore we can see that linguistic diversity is ordained by God.4 People naturally gathered together with those who shared the same language, whom they could understand and commune with, and so the nations were further divided.
Why did God want to confound the people’s language and break them up into separate groups? In Genesis 11:4b we can see that the purpose for the building of the Tower of Babel was so that humanity would “not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” This was in direct opposition to God’s command to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28 & 9:1,7). God’s response was to confuse their language and as a result (11:9) they were scattered over the face of the earth, which was God’s original intention. “So what we see at Babel is God’s judgement of an attempt to create a single, though rebellious, culture. Sinful humanity wanted to rule it’s (sic) own life and destiny; it wanted to be in control, and did not want to be diverse and vulnerable. God, on the other hand, wanted diversity, and people’s relationship with each other to be based on faith in him.”5
We can see, therefore, that the emergence of separate nations was ordained by God as part of his plan for humanity to spread out and populate the world, rather than remaining all together in one small corner of it.
b. The relevance of New Testament teaching regarding nations Jesus was a member of the Jewish nation and race by virtue of his birth and upbringing in the Jewish land and in a Jewish family, immersed in Jewish culture. Never did Jesus renounce his nationality. According to his own admission, Jesus came to the nation of Israel first, comparing the people of Israel to children and the Gentiles to dogs (Matthew 15:24-28). Jesus recognised distinct national boundaries between the people of Israel and all other peoples, who were classified together as non-Jews or Gentiles, and whereas his mission was to all the peoples of the earth, he was very clear that his first concern was for his own people, the Jews. So in Jesus we see a vindication of the existence of nations as separate entities. He himself was very much a citizen of his own nation, and was loyal to his people.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) and the accompanying miracle of “speaking in other tongues” could be seen as God finally undoing the “curse of Babel”. However, R.M. Jones has a different perspective: “The linguistic crux at Pentecost is that diversity, in the world of the Spirit, is not reversed. It is indeed, in its own way, repeated. What is reversed is mutual incomprehension. Language therefore remains quite happily a factor in the variety of peoples.”6 The occurrence at Pentecost did not cause all people to speak the same language, which is what the undoing of the confusion of tongues at Babel would have entailed.
Like Jesus, the apostle Paul never renounced his nationality. In fact, he boasted of it (Romans 9:3-5, 11:1). If Paul took such pride in his nationality, how can we reconcile this with Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28, where he writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”? This verse has been used by many to argue that the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been removed and that now both are the same, thereby denying the importance of the nation as a separate entity. However, this verse also refers to male and female, slave and free. Though these are equal in the sense that neither has priority in God’s sight, the physical differences still remain. Men and women are not the same, though they have equal priority in the Kingdom of God. In the same way, Jews and Gentiles are not the same.7 The national difference remains. Therefore this verse should not be used to argue against the validity of separate nations. “Yet the children of God through faith still bear the marks of different cultures, still retain sexual and related personality distinctions, still exist in given communities with particular social structures.”8
The book of Revelation hints that the grouping of humanity into separate nations is not confined to the present order, but will continue for eternity. Revelation 21:24, 26 says of the New Jerusalem: “The nations shall walk by its light… The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” The various nations and cultures which make up the rich diversity of humanity will have a place in God’s kingdom.
It seems, then, that both the Old and New Testaments justify the existence of nations as a God-ordained part of human existence.
3. The issue of language and culture What gives a nation its identity? According to Rowland Croucher: “There is now a clearer understanding that when the Bible speaks of ‘nations’ it is primarily referring to people groups defined not so much by artificial political boundaries, as by ethnic origin, language, group loyalty, custom and religion.”9
Let us examine this model of the nation using the example of Wales and the Welsh people. The Welsh language and culture mark Wales out as a separate entity, despite it being part of a larger political entity, the state of Great Britain. Wales is also separate geographically and (to a much lesser extent, due to much intermingling) ethnically, from the rest of Britain. Separate religion is also a factor, though this is now declining: Wales is largely nonconformist Protestant in religion, which historically sets it apart from England with its state Church. Therefore, according to the Biblical model proposed by Croucher (above), Wales may be regarded as a nation in its own right.
The issue of language is very important for a nation’s identity. To continue using the example of Wales, the Welsh language has been viewed in two main ways. Firstly, there are those who value the language as a defining influence on Welsh culture and distinctiveness; secondly, there are those who see the Welsh language (along with Scots Gaelic) as a barrier to British unity. The former recognises the distinctiveness of Wales as a nation; the latter equates “nation” with “state”, and therefore does not recognise Wales as a separate nation. The latter group has had more influence in British politics than the former. This has resulted in the displacement of the Welsh language by English in many parts of Wales, particularly in the south-east. The results of this on national consciousness can now be seen quite clearly. In the areas where Welsh is still the majority language, the majority of the population think of themselves as Welsh, and are more likely to think of Wales as a nation in its own right. This is reflected by the stronger position of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, in these areas. In those areas where English is the main or only language spoken, people are more likely to think of themselves as British (or indeed, in the most anglicised areas near the border, as English). The destruction of a language is the first and main step in the destruction of a culture and the absorption of one nation into another. Therefore the place of language in defining a nation is very significant.
One might ask, “How can Wales be regarded as a nation, since it is not an independent state?” According to Johnston: “Political independence (national sovereignty) is linked with (national) awareness and normally strengthens it, but is not essential to it.”10 The concept of the nation being defined by the state is relatively recent. As we have seen, in biblical times the nation was defined not so much by its political status as by ethnic, geographical and linguistic factors. It is therefore not unreasonable to think of Wales, Brittany or Kurdistan, for example, as nations, even though they enjoy no political independence.
The modern Western mindset seems to be geared towards multi-national organisations, e.g. the EU, NATO, UN etc. Against this background, loyalty to one’s own people and nation is encouraged to take a back seat. The idealism behind this mindset is that one is just a member of the human race and no more. But no individual can be this.11 Each individual is a product of a particular culture, and is conditioned by that culture. Therefore every human being is firmly bonded to his or her nation, since a nation is defined primarily by its culture. The old saying that “no man is an island” is true. No-one can exist outside the framework of a nation, unless he or she could be raised without contact with other humans. This, of course is impossible. Since the qualities which define a nation also define the individuals who make up that nation, loyalty to one’s nation is only natural. This paves the way for a further extension of this loyalty, i.e. nationalism.
4. Various forms of nationalism examined in the light of Christian beliefs There are many different ideologies which have been described as “nationalism”. As we have examined the foundation of nationalism, i.e. the nation, in the light of biblical teaching, so we must also examine the various nationalistic philosophies in the light of biblical teaching and Christian beliefs.
Dr. R. Tudur Jones has identified two main categories of nationalism: monocentric and polycentric nationalism.12 We shall examine these two categories separately.
a. Monocentric nationalism Arfon Jones describes monocentric nationalism as “imperialistic, oppressive, violent and idolatrous.”13 It is that form of nationalism which has at its core the fundamental belief that one particular nation is in some way better than all others. This leads to the advancement of that one nation at the expense of its neighbours, who are conquered, colonised and oppressed. The “supreme” nation is almost deified. This oppressive, “colonial” nationalism is expressed in varying degrees in many situations throughout history: England’s colonialism and empire building, the oppression of black South Africans by white South Africans, or in its most extreme form, the conquests and genocide attempted by Nazi Germany.
Monocentric nationalism leads to the denial of the validity of other nations and their cultures, seeking to homogenise them into the culture and practices of the “supreme” nation. This is reflected in the Act of Union, 1536 (originally known as the “Act of Annexation”), which annexed Wales to England. The stated aim of this Act was “utterly to extirp all and singular the sinister Usages and customs differing from (his realm of England).”14 To this end, it was decreed that “from henceforth no person or persons that use the Welsh speech or language shall have or enjoy any manner office or fees within this realm of England, Wales or other the Kings Dominion upon pain of forfeiting the same offices or fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English speech or tongue.”15 Though this clause has now been repealed, it advocates destruction of Welsh language, culture and legal system in favour of their English equivalents. R.M. Jones notes that this clause has led to a patronising and superior stance from those outside Welsh culture and language, responded to by an inferiority complex regarding Welsh language and identity from the Welsh.16 As has been noted above, this has contributed to the decline of the Welsh language, and with it much of Welsh culture and distinctiveness. This attempted absorption of one nation by another is a classic example of monocentric nationalism.
How does monocentric nationalism measure up to biblical standards? As we have seen, the Bible emphasises the place and validity of nations. Jesus was committed to his own nation, with its distinctive language, culture and religion, even though it was ruled by the monocentric Romans. While Jesus seems to have accepted that the Romans were in authority over his people (Matthew 22:21), he would not have accepted their attempts to make the Jews conform to Roman culture and religion.
The exaltation of one nation over another denies the equality of all nations. Since all people belong to their own nations, this therefore denies the equality of all human beings. This is surely in opposition to Paul’s affirmation of the equality of all people in God’s sight (Galatians 3:28). According to Johnston: “The destructive distortion of a healthy national identity is seen in the aggressive forms of nationalism, when a nation claims a blanket superiority over all others, oppresses cultural minorities and exploits other groups. Naked self-interest, xenophobia and isolationism can turn national sentiment into a threat to humanity as much as the more obvious self-aggrandisement which invades and conquers the neighbouring nations upon the smallest pretext.”17 This threat to humanity is seen most clearly in the most extreme form of monocentric nationalism, i.e. the genocide attempted by Nazi Germany, where those who did not conform to the Aryan ideal were persecuted, enslaved and even exterminated in their millions. This is an extreme case, and obviously contradicts the biblical prohibition of murder (Exodus 20:13). However, surely even the less extreme forms of monocentric nationalism contradict God’s command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 14:21). These commandments can surely be applied not only to individuals, but also to groups of individuals such as nations.
When people regard their nation as superior to all others, it is only a small step to regard the nation as infallible. In this case, the nation becomes the people’s “god”, the one thing to which they devote all their energy and which they revere. This situation is a form of idolatry, where the nation is put before God. This contradicts the biblical prohibition of idolatry (Exodus 20:3-6).
After a consideration of these factors, the logical conclusion is that monocentric nationalism is by its very nature anti-biblical and un-Christian. True Christianity has no place for those who oppress others.
b. Polycentric nationalism R. Tudur Jones defines polycentric nationalism as the form of nationalism “where nations assume that each nation has something valuable to contribute to the life and culture of the family of nations.”18 Each nation and culture is seen as a valid part of the rich variety of human existence. Polycentric nationalism views nations and cultures in qualitative terms, rather than quantitative. Therefore small nations and large nations are seen to be of equal importance and validity. There is no room in the polycentric model for the oppression of one nation by another, or the exaltation of one nation over another. Those who subscribe to this view would therefore desire to see the liberation of oppressed nations. This is the basis for the form of Welsh nationalism espoused by Plaid Cymru: that Wales should be free to express its cultural and political identity in its own terms, on an equal footing with its neighbours, and that it should be free from the anglicising influence that English government has had upon it.
Polycentric nationalism is far more biblically acceptable than monocentric nationalism. It accepts the equality of all humanity, irrespective of language or ethnic origin, and at the same time it affirms the validity of the division of humanity into separate and distinctive nations according to their distinctive qualities. According to this model, individuals should see themselves very much as members of their own nations, not just as members of universal humanity. This is the model which the Bible appears to affirm.
However, polycentric nationalism also has room for abuse. Many of those in modern Wales who would consider themselves to be polycentric nationalists nevertheless tend towards a form of “national idolatry” no less dangerous than that which proceeds from monocentric nationalism. This has become a very real problem with modern Welsh nationalism, as Wales’ religious heritage is increasingly ignored and certain secularised nationalists make the liberation of the nation and the preservation of the language their ultimate goal, their “god”. This is no less idolatrous than the tendency towards ascribing infallibility to the nation, which can come from monocentric nationalism. As with any cause, the national liberation espoused by polycentricism must be kept in perspective. Working towards this goal must not be allowed to take precedence over serving God.
5. Conclusion The foundation of both main forms of nationalism is the validity of the nation as an expression of human culture and existence. This is affirmed by the Old Testament, which records how God divided the nations and made their languages different, thus separating the peoples so that they would spread out and populate the earth. The validity of the nation is further affirmed in the New Testament, where we see that both Jesus and Paul had a developed sense of belonging and loyalty to their own nation.
The main defining qualities of a nation are its geographic location and its culture, which is to a great extent defined by its language. Destruction of a nation’s language contributes heavily to the destruction of its culture and its very identity. Since each individual is brought up within a particular culture and speaking a particular language, each individual is very much a product of his or her nation, therefore the nation is a very important unit. Loyalty to one’s nation is a natural result of this, and can be extended into nationalism.
Nationalism exists in two main forms: monocentric and polycentric. Polycentric nationalism exalts one nation above all others, and at the expense of others furthers the cause of this one “supreme” nation. The fruits of this model of nationalism are oppression, destruction of culture, violence and idolatry. It can therefore be seen that monocentric nationalism is contrary to the biblical standards which are accepted by orthodox Christianity.
The other main form of nationalism, namely polycentric nationalism, is far more rooted in and compatible with the Christian faith. Its affirmation of the validity of all nations and its commitment to the liberation of oppressed nations and cultures flows from the biblical emphasis on the equality of all people before God. However, as with any ideology, the potential for idolatry exists even within polycentric nationalism if it is seen as an end in itself, rather than a means of glorifying God by upholding his standards.
Therefore it can be seen that although nationalism can be misused by we sinful humans (as can any ideology), in its best form it is not only compatible with, but also rooted in, Christianity.
Endnotes 1. William Storrar, Vertigo or Imago? Nations in the Divine Economy, 5.
2. O.R. Johnston, Nationhood: Towards a Christian Perspective, 16.
3. Johnston, Nationhood, 18.
4. Johnston, Nationhood, 16.
5. Arfon Jones, Christianity and Welsh Nationalism, 3.
6. R.M. Jones, Language in God’s Economy: A Welsh and International Perspective, 6.
7. David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, 554.
8. Johnston, Nationhood, 9.
9. Rowland Croucher, Recent Trends Among Evangelicals, 27, as quoted in Arfon Jones, CAWN, 1-2.
10. Johnston, Nationhood, 11.
11. Johnston, Nationhood, 6.
12. R. Tudur Jones, “Christian Nationalism”, in Paul H. Ballard & D. Huw Jones (Eds.),This Land and People, 74, as cited in Arfon Jones, CAWN, 2.
13. Arfon Jones, CAWN, 2.
14. Gwynfor Evans, Land of my Fathers, 298.
15. Evans, LOMF, 298.
16. R.M. Jones, LIGE, 9.
17. Johnston, Nationhood, 14.
18. R. Tudur Jones, “Christian Nationalism”, 75, as quoted in Arfon Jones, CAWN, 2.
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Flight, J.W. “Nationality”, in George Arthur Buttrick (Ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 3, K-Q, New York: Abingdon Press, 1962, 512-515.
Johnston, O.R. Nationhood: Towards a Christian Perspective, Oxford: Latimer House, 1980.
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