Nationalism and the tribal god it creates

More than any time in our recent history, America is struggling to discern the difference between patriotism and nationalism. This summer I attended the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Nassau, Bahamas, interacting with believers from approximately 50 nations. As always, it was a beautiful experience of cultural immersion – all sorts of languages, all shades of skin color and all kinds of beautiful Caribbean costumes. Back in my room late one evening, I made a journal entry about a Christ who is bigger than our Western culture and sectarian politics.

But instead of worshipping a Cosmic Christ, many have settled for a tribal deity who suits our tribal behavior. The result? A nationalism which places country above God and uses religion to justify any means. Observe carefully: Most genocides are religion-based. These pogroms christen violence in the name of their god. Conveniently, a tribal god hates what we hate and loves what we love.

In contrast, the true Lord God of Hebrew and Christian scripture is larger than our nationalism. Isaiah, Jonah, John the Baptist and Jesus all bear witness to a God who strides above the nations and will not be domesticated for our parochial purposes.

History offers many warnings. By the mid-1930s Germany’s body politic had been infected with Hitler’s toxic fascism. In protest, Karl Barth and others crafted the Barmen Declaration, a bold witness offered by those who loved their country enough to tell it the truth (an essential ingredient in true patriotism). For our purposes, two points from the Barmen Declaration are particularly relevant. Number three: “The message and order of the church should not be influenced by the current political convictions.” And number six calls for the rejection of “the subordination of the Church to the state…” In other words, the Church is not the errand boy for any politician or party.

“Conveniently, a tribal god hates what we hate and loves what we love.”

Nationalism loves to delete unpleasant portions of its history, bending and weaponizing its myths to align with its purposes. Patriotism, on the other hand, is willing to face harsh truth in order to be liberated from the past. Barth often marveled at the human capacity for self-deception. It never occurs to us that God might be opposed to us. We always see God as the guarantor of our values, our way of life and our tribe. What if we’re wrong? What if God isn’t pleased?

Here’s a challenge. Read in detail the tragic massacres of Native Americans at Sandy Creek and Wounded Knee. Also consider a lesser-known national sin, the Rock Springs massacre. After the sweat and toil of thousands of immigrant Chinese had made possible the completion of the transcontinental railroad, white Americans decided they had no more use for foreigners who were taking up space and being hired for jobs that whites needed. Tensions rose and a riot broke out in present-day Rock Springs, Wyoming. Enraged miners killed at least 28 Chinese and injured 15. Seventy-eight Chinese homes were burned.

One local newspaper defended the killings. A grand jury refused to bring any indictments. No one was ever convicted for the slaughter.

Fellow BNG columnist Wendell Griffen wrote recently of the 100th anniversary of the abominable Elaine Race Massacre in Arkansas during “the Red Summer of 1919.” Hundreds of black men, women and children were massacred near the small, rural community of Elaine by a white mob and federal troops during the first week of October 1919. No white person was arrested for or charged with committing any of the murders.

As Griffen poignantly notes, the Red Summer of 1919 – like so many other ugly incidents of racial violence in our history – has been largely ignored in America’s textbooks and classrooms.

“Nationalism loves to delete unpleasant portions of its history, bending and weaponizing its myths to align with its purposes.”

Our church recently hosted a community worship service commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in America. The service was a painful time of truth-telling, as blacks and whites together reflected on our country’s nightmare and dreams for our country’s future. We cannot undo the past, but we can tell ourselves the truth in order to make tomorrow better.

Without fail, history bears witness to an ironic truth: Nationalism always leaves us more enslaved, not more free. This is true because tribalism always shrinks us into a smaller world, more selfish goals, deeper fears and more distrust of the other. And a small-hearted tribe always needs a very small, angry god.

Recent brain science research has revealed that we become like the God we worship. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is filled with aggression and fear. In A New Kind of Christianity, author Brian McLaren notes, “The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether [that God] exists or not.”

Every day, Americans get to decide: Do we choose a god who is a mascot for our shameless nationalism? Or do we choose the One who is above all rulers and authority and who calls us to healthy, thoughtful patriotism?


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