Against religious nationalism


In some countries, a form of religious-cultural nationalism is back in vogue.

Religion is exploited both to obtain popular support and to launch a political message that is identified with people’s loyalty and devotion to a nation.

It is taken for granted that people have in religion a common identity, origin and history, and that these support an ideological, cultural and religious homogeneity that is strengthened by geopolitical boundaries.

In reality, in today’s globalized world, there is no geographical entity that can be defined as a “nation” that has within it a single homogeneous identity from a linguistic or religious point of view, or indeed from any other point of view.

Therefore, radical nationalism is only possible if it eliminates diversity.

It follows that a liberating deconstruction of nationalism is more necessary than ever.

Let us be clear: nationalism should never be confused with patriotism.

In fact, while the “patriot is proud of his country for what it does, the nationalist boasts of his country, whatever it does; the former contributes to creating a sense of responsibility, while the latter gives rise to the blind arrogance that leads to war.”

The relevance of theological response to nationalism

What are the contours of nationalism that gains mythical status?

Effective nationalistic narratives usually mythicize history and historicize mythologies with great success.

Let us take the following passage by Johann Dräseke, written in Bremen in 1813, as an example: “All temples, all schools, all town halls, all workplaces, all houses and all families must become arsenals in defence of our people against all that is foreign and evil.”

“Heaven and earth must unite in Germany. The Church must become a State to increase its power, and the State must become a Church until it is the Kingdom of God. Only when we have become devout in this sense, and we all unite in this devotion, and become strong in this unity, will we never again have to endure a yoke.”[3]

Even a national sentiment as secular in some ways as that of the United States has cloaked itself in “religious” guise, with a kind of divinization of the founding fathers and a narrative centred on the special role and favour given by God to that people.

The parable of the Good Samaritan debunks the myth of nationalism that aims to build a nation on the rubble of some of its citizens and neighbours.

The commitment to become anyone’s neighbour, as extolled in the parable, demands concrete steps.

In the period following the Second World War, the exaltation of the American way of life led to the apotheosis of national life, the equivalence of national values and religion, the divinization of national heroes and the transformation of national history into Heilsgeschichte (“History of Salvation”).

As reported in La Civiltà Cattolica, some fundamentalist religious communities “consider the United States a nation blessed by God, and do not hesitate to base the economic growth of the country on a literal adherence to the Bible.”

“Within this narrative, whatever pushes toward conflict is not off-limits.”

On the contrary, “often war itself is assimilated to the heroic conquests of the ‘Lord of Hosts’ of Gideon and David. In this Manichaean vision, belligerence can acquire a theological justification and there are pastors who seek a biblical foundation for it, using scriptural texts out of context.”

An appropriate response to nationalism is an authentically religious response, that is, a response that, through theology, grasps the essence of religious discourse itself, deconstructing narratives and practices that threaten to be destructive rather than constructive, precisely like those of nationalism.

Theology is not only important but essential in deconstructing so many dangerous narratives and practices that dehumanize individuals and communities, such as the rhetoric and practice of religious-cultural nationalism.

Pope Francis has spoken about the role of religions in the face of today’s dangers: “Religions, therefore, have an educational task: to help bring out the best in each person.”

This is the opposite of “the rigid and fundamentalist reactions on the part of those who, through violent words and deeds, seek to impose extreme and radical attitudes which are furthest from the living God.”

The universal saving will of God

The Old Testament texts are quite ambiguous with regard to nationalism.

On the one hand, they support Israel’s religious-cultural exclusivism and its related feeling of being favoured by God; on the other, they depict the vision of God’s universal love for all peoples.

That is, on the one hand, we have the so-called “trajectory of royal consolidation,” aimed at fostering, defending and justifying the role of the Jewish ruling class and its theology.

On the other hand, we have the so-called “trajectory of prophetic liberation,” characterized by authentic criticism of the idolatrous lifestyle of the rulers, with the prediction of judgment, punishment and subsequent reconstruction of Judah as the sign of a universal providence of God.

In fact, the prophets relativize Israel’s exclusive proximity to God: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7), thus deploring a purely exclusive vision, with the repeated evocation of the “mixture of races” that characterizes Jewish history,[7] of the pagan king Cyrus who is “the chosen one of the Lord” (Isa 45:1), of King Nebuchadnezzar who is “the servant of the Lord” (Jer 27:6), and of God, who is not God of his people “only from nearby, […] but also from afar” (Jer 23:23).

Reading these texts within an overall picture of justice and God’s love as they are revealed by the Christ event leads to the unequivocal denunciation of all oppression and exploitation of any human being in any circumstance.

Any vision that is not set at this height certainly goes against God’s universal salvific will.

The ‘neighbour’ instead of nationalism

It is enlightening to consider the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37).

Its impact comes from the prominence given to a Samaritan instead of to a (good) Jew.

While criticizing the priest and the Levite for their narrow-minded religiosity, the parable could have exalted any poor Jew. Why does it exalt a Samaritan instead?

The new category, that of the “neighbour,” is an antidote to nationalist self-justification. The neighbour does not coincide with the co-religionist and the compatriot.

The parable of the Good Samaritan debunks the myth of nationalism that aims to build a nation on the rubble of some of its citizens and neighbours.

The commitment to become anyone’s neighbour, as extolled in the parable, demands concrete steps. Continue reading

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