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Love All Thy Neighbors, Not Just Those Like Us

What is the relationship between Christian identity on the one hand and national identity or affiliation on the other?

Does God care which side of a border someone is born on?

To what extent might identification with a particular people group or country be a barrier, an aid or an irrelevance to us as aspiring followers of Jesus Christ?

Growing up in southern England, these questions rarely impinged upon me in my early years, other than in cases of obvious extremity.

The type of aggressive, ethnically based nationalism that helped give rise to everything from Nazi ideology to balkanization seems obviously wrong to many Christians, and equally so to me.

Except, of course, that people bearing the Christian label have not infrequently been involved, tainted or implicated in such movements.

The horrors colluded in by the Reich Church and the painful history of everything from falangism to intensely Constantinian or Erastian forms of Christianity cannot be dismissed as irrelevant in considering issues of nation and national identity theologically.

As I grew in my Christian understanding, formed within Anglicanism but shaped heavily by non-conformism and Anabaptism, I developed an instinctive aversion to flag-waving patriotism.

It became clear to me that my primary identity is formed not by nation, race, gender, culture or any other temporal filter, but by baptism into the body of Christ.

It is here that we learn what it means that God loves us beyond the differences and divisions that life naturally imposes.

We form a new solidarity transcending even blood ties, discovering in the crucified and risen Christ that the transforming presence of God applies equally to strangers and friends, allies and enemies.

Whereas the very identity of the nation as a protected boundary is based on exclusion and violence (defining who is allowed in, and policing that with armed force), the body of Christ is a zone of grace that fundamentally challenges the barriers and threats we are otherwise tempted to use in establishing our own supposed righteousness over others.

Similarly, to be made in the image of God is to be freed from the potentially imprisoning images in which we might otherwise be trapped – including those of wealth, power, might, ethnicity and, yes, nationality.

I still believe passionately that this is how Christians should orient themselves in the world today.

Not as a new tribe competing with others (that corrupts being chosen to serve into being specially privileged), but as people seeking to embody and commend the practices of justice, peace, sharing, repentance, forgiveness and equal worth within and without the sociality of the church.

In some cases, this understanding of being part of “a holy nation” – a community of anti-exclusion that shares but does not own the love of God – suggests a stance within the national and international order that will inherently challenge the predominance of tribe and nation in popular thinking.

The refugee and asylum-seeker crisis provides one clear example.

The idea that our sympathy and hospitality should extend only to those of our own nation, race, belief system or “kind” flies in the face of the biblical call to love our neighbors; the conviction that all bear God’s likeness; the orientation toward “the other” in the parable of the Good Samaritan and much else in the gospels.

Rather, it is through acts of justice, kindness and common humanity that we truly discover ourselves, others and God.

We Christians in the West cannot look away or turn aside from those who are the victims of the very economic inequity, poverty, war, human rights abuses and climate change that our own countries have played a part in creating.

And yet, and yet … this refusal to allow humanly constructed identities and boundaries to define who and how we are in relation to those different to us does not render the problems involved in seeking justice and peace for all instantly solvable. Far from it.

What it does is require us to become part of the solution, to “be the change we wish to see in the world” (Gandhi), rather than to push the difficulty and challenge on to someone or something else in an often brutal, divided and wounded world.

But what of the more mundane issues of citizenship, organization and governance?

How does someone who is defined first and foremost as belonging to Christ, the marginal Jew executed outside the city gate, behave and belong in the country or region of their birth or settlement?

If Romans 13 appears to commend pragmatic compliance with the powers that be and Revelation 13 seems to advocate rebellion when those powers become evil, where does that leave most of us most of the time – as “citizens of heaven” with tents pitched on the earth, as sojourners with no abiding city, and as those who are enjoined to be unconditionally in the world and yet not conformed to it?

The answer that I find most helpful is to be found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conviction that Christian ethics consists in living joyfully and purposefully in “the penultimate,” while acting in the light of “the ultimate.”

In that way, we seek to be truly loyal to those we are bound or affiliated to, even as our final loyalty cannot be claimed by anyone or anything short of God in Christ (in whom we see a loyalty toward life and the good which constantly invites us to go beyond what seems possible amid mess, wrongdoing and compromise).

That approach is not so much a formula or recipe for living as a set of ingredients and practices, learned communally and historically through the development of character and the application of shared wisdom. It may involve different responses in different situations.

I found that myself when I moved from England to Scotland six years ago, thrown into a debate about whether Scotland should become an independent country.

The issues involved are complex. Self-government involves limits as well as opportunities in a globalized world where corporate economic power (something Christians should be far more critical of) sets the underlying agenda.

To my surprise, I found myself shifting toward passionate involvement in the “yes” campaign for Scottish independence.

I was motivated not by nationalism (though I have learned that inclusive and progressive civic nationalism is wholly different to the other-despising, ethnic-centered variety), but rather social justice, the benefits of confederalism and the principle of subsidiarity.

That is, the belief that power should be made accountable at the most immediate level practically possible.

This stems from Catholic social teaching, itself a process of reflection on biblical and ecclesial identity in relation to social solidarity.

In and of themselves, nation and national identity matter far less than many people instinctively feel.

It is as repositories for hopeful action and the quest for faithfulness toward people and planet that they acquire a fresh significance and valuation in the light of Christ.

Simon Barrow is director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia. A version of this article first appeared in the Issue 3, 2016, edition of Mission Catalyst, a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @SimonBarrow.