When is Nationalism Healthy?

By Aaron Taylor 2-15-2011

1100215-invictusI watched the film Invictus for the second time last weekend. The movie depicts the newly-elected South African president Nelson Mandela and his struggle to rally the nation around the mostly white national Rugby team, which, at the time, was a symbol of apartheid for many black South Africans. Very few of Mandela's friends and allies agreed with his decision to lend his moral support to the national Rugby team, but like all good leaders, Mandela stood firm. Because of Mandela's moral courage, a divided nation became united. In one of the greatest snapshots of grace this side of heaven, the film depicts blacks and white standing side by side to sing South Africa's national anthem at the World Cup.

If you've read my book Alone with a Jihadist, you'll know that I'm a pretty fierce critic of nationalism, especially when nationalism mixes with religion. When we wrap Jesus in an American flag and ask him to bless our bombs, we may be acting like good Americans, but we're not acting like very good Christians. For my Anabaptist, Sojourners-loving, progressive evangelical friends, I'm guessing that's pretty much old news. No nation embodies kingdom values because the kingdom of God is entirely other-wordly, as Jesus, our enemy-loving, foot-washing Savior teaches us. Now that we've established that, perhaps we should be asking new questions now, like can nationalism ever be a good thing?

One of the reasons why democracy hasn't worked out so well in many sub-Saharan African nations is because many people prefer tribalism over nationalism. An African president gets elected and he looks out mostly for the interests of his tribe, not the interests of the nation as a whole, at least that's the way the other tribes almost always see it. The same is true for religion. As Eliza Griswold points out in her book The Tenth Parallel, many nations on the 10th degree of what missiologists call the 10/40 Window are evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. When these nations elect their political leaders, the leader is almost always, rightly or wrongly, viewed as looking out for the interests of his or her religious group. The unfortunate consequence is that democracy is viewed as a way to enrich a select few from a dominant tribe or religion, while leaving the rest of the people to squabble over the remaining crumbs. Perhaps a healthy dose of nationalism could be the cure?

Take what's happening in Egypt, as an example. As Reza Aslan has pointed out in a recent post, many Egyptian youth are countering the Muslim Brotherhood chant "Islam is the solution" with "Christians and Muslims, we are all Egyptians." When love of nation surpasses religious tribalism, that, to me, is a healthy nationalism.

Which brings me to my next question: If nationalism can sometimes be a good thing (especially when it overrides woes like tribalism and racism), what are some ways that followers of Jesus can direct nationalism towards positive ends? Could a healthy nationalism be what it takes to convince U.S. businesses sitting on $2 trillion of cash to hire American workers rather than shipping those same jobs overseas? Or what if the movement to abolish nuclear weapons received a groundswell of support based on the idea that "We're Americans. We should be the moral leaders of the world." My mind is spinning here: torture, comprehensive immigration reform, racial inequities. Could nationalism done right affect the moral outcomes of these debates? If so. How?

I'm looking forward to your thoughts.

portrait-aaron-taylorAaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with A Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. To learn more about Aaron's ministry, go to www.aarondtaylor.com. To follow Aaron on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/aarondtaylor. Aaron can be contacted at fromdeathtolife@gmail.com.

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