Christians cannot be nationalists

This entry is part 39 of 44 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy. This column concludes the a five-part series dealing with Christian perspectives on nations and nationalism.

If the Christian “nation” is comprised of every nation, how can it be right for Christians to be nationalists in the common sense of the term? Regrettably, modern cultural dynamics have led many Christians to embrace the sin of nationalism. The dictionary defines nationalism as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations”.(1) Absent a theocracy, the New Testament clearly stands out against nationalism. Christians are “strangers and pilgrims” in this world and are comprised of brethren from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Hebrews 11:13; Revelation 5:9b).

The Christian’s King is Jesus and his “country” is a heavenly one where ethnicity is not important and all speak the same, delightful language of “Beulah” (Hebrews 11:16b; Isaiah 62:4b). That fact implies, in short, that nationalism is a prideful sin that is deleterious to Christian thinking, to missionary endeavors, and to personal sanctification. Indeed, the tightest loyalty a Christian should have in this world is to other believers—no matter what political realm they belong to. The moment a believer is more American, British, Argentine, Peruvian, Chilean, Czech, etc. than he is Christian, he is guilty of nationalism. At any time a Christian favors the people of “his country” (e.g., fellow Americans) more than Christians in other countries he is guilty of the sin of nationalism. Are we loyal to Jesus and His church first and to our fellow citizens only secondarily? Or have we succumbed to nationalism?

Is it right for Christians to oppose immigration of foreigners through public policies? Legal immigration is probably not a concern for Christians, but what about illegal immigration? By now it should be clear that the only true outsiders to a Christian are the unbelieving “dogs” of this age—especially those political and wealthy figures who revel in ungodliness (Matthew 7:6; Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15). Christians around the world are superficially separated by language and political boundaries but are unified by the Holy Spirit—even though many Christians apparently ignore this fact. Sadly, at times they enthusiastically advocate the bombing of other countries, adversely impacting other Christians. How many Christians were killed or injured by the American bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Baghdad? Does the perceived necessity of bombing a country override our obligation to protect innocent human life— especially the lives of our brethren, the poor, and the oppressed? A Christian foreign policy should be distinct from that of unbelievers because it is influenced by biblical principles.

Christians are pilgrims in this world who seek a heavenly country (Hebrews 11:6). They are told by Christ to “flee” persecution (Matthew 10:23; 24:16; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:21), as Joseph and Mary did (Matthew 2:13)—along with countless other believers throughout history. Such obedient fleeing might entail a Christian having to enter another country, perhaps violating the country’s immigration policies. But so what? Christians are remiss if they make the well-being of their country the primary focal point for deciding the veracity of immigration policy rather than the well-being of God’s beloved people.

On the one hand, a Christian’s nationality is irrelevant and Christians should welcome believing immigrants with open arms—whether they are legal or illegal in the state’s eyes. For Christians, borders and the legality of migration are trivial or extraneous when it comes to obeying Christ’s command to flee persecution or to love and prefer one another in Christ (Philippians 2:2). How can Christians who financially and prayerfully support national pastors and church members living under tyrannical regimes hinder those same people from fleeing to America (or freer countries) by any means? The sanctimonious divine right notion that Christians may only flee when it is legal to do so—and then only immigrate to America after they have clearance from state bureaucrats—is fallacious, hypocritical, and unbiblical.

On the other hand, a Christian may support the limited government where he lives, procuring better self-defense of life and liberty. A Christian is called to steward his private property too (Proverbs 27:23-24).(2) To those ends, Christians may justly back reactive public policy to safeguard national borders, oppose any migration that undermines the common defense of life, liberty, and property, and even (by default rule) oppose the illegal immigration of ordinary unbelievers. Such reactive immigration policy will be most efficiently and effectively carried out through market-based solutions rather than clumsy and venal attempts by government enforcement.

But an American Christian must always be a Christian first and an American second. He must think and consider each issue on its own merits before supporting or rejecting any particular migration policy. He must avoid jumping on an absolutist bandwagon that opposes any and all illegal immigration out-of-hand that would cause him to shirk his biblical responsibilities or trammel his brethren.(3) He must prefer Christians of any nationality over unbelieving Americans. And he should “do good” to poor or oppressed unbelievers when possible too (as Galatians 6:10 mandates) by facilitating their migration. Thus, in the final analysis, a Christian should oppose any proactive immigration or foreign policy that curtails his biblical obligations, and only support proper reactive immigration and foreign policies.

(1) That is, “nations” in the modern sense of the word. I have covered issues regarding the sin of nationalism more extensively in Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective (Alertness Books, 2003), pages 41-48.

(2) “Be diligent to know the state of your flocks, and attend to your herds; for riches are not forever, nor does a crown endure to all generations” (Proverbs 27:23-24), along with many other verses promoting good stewardship.

(3) A biblical understanding of nations leads us to embrace a theology of public policy that differs widely from that advocated by many Christians—especially in America. Christians should not absolutely oppose illegal immigration. Christians should not obey men rather than God.

Originally published in The Times Examiner on September 28, 2005.

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