Article
Comment
Identity
Sport
6 min read

The Euros and the problem of nationality

In a world of populist nationalism, should you support your national team?

Sam Tomlin is a Salvation Army officer, leading a local church in Liverpool where he lives with his wife and children.

Two England fans stand in stadium seeting holding up their flag.
England fans at Euro 2024.
@FBAwayDays.

Tony Cascarino was a footballer in the 80’s and 90’s, playing for various clubs including Aston Villa, Celtic and Chelsea. He also won 88 caps for the Republic of Ireland scoring 19 goals. A good but fairly unremarkable career was turned on its head in 2000 when it came to light that he was never actually eligible to play for Ireland. After being rejected for an Irish passport in 1985 and learning on his Irish grandfather’s deathbed that he was not the natural father of his mother, Cascarino did not tell anyone and just kept playing international football. He only went public after he retired and published an autobiography. Quite simply he represented the Republic of Ireland without being Irish. 

Sport is a key marker for national identity in most nations’ cultural imaginations. Whichever nation wins this year’s Euro football tournament will have millions watching and tens or hundreds of thousands lining the streets for a victory parade, with national flags, politicians and celebrities in tow. The case of Tony Cascarino, however, exposes the shaky foundations of national identity. 

The general rule of international sport is that if you are born in a country, have a parent or grandparent born there, or have lived in it for a certain number of years, you can represent that country. Over the years this has led to some odd scenarios like 23 of 39 players in a recent Scotland rugby squad being born elsewhere or England’s 2005 Ashes hero Kevin Pietersen speaking in a broad South African accent. My children could technically represent Zimbabwe at international sport through a grandparent born there, even if they never set foot in the country. Declan Rice will be at the heart of England’s midfield in this tournament, but even he represented the Republic of Ireland three times at senior level, being able to switch teams because those matches were only friendlies. Gareth Southgate once commented: ‘first we had to convince him it would be a good decision [to switch to England].’ Far from being core to our identity, it seems as if nationality can often be chosen after weighing up the pros and cons. 

The best Christian teaching on identity undercuts both sides of the culture wars in a way that also avoids a centrist fudge.

Identity is a key aspect in dominant cultural discourse at the moment. The phrase ‘identity politics’ is often thrown at those who are perceived to locate the most important aspects of identity in one’s sexuality, gender or skin colour. Those on the other side are just as keen to define identity, but will stress the importance of national heritage along with accompanying national values. 

What does Christianity contribute to debates about identity? It is not hard to find activist Christians on both sides of these debates, especially on social media. Yet Christian belief has something more distinctive to say than the usual tropes in wider society. The best Christian teaching on identity undercuts both sides of the culture wars in a way that also avoids a centrist fudge. 

Jesus speaks about being ‘dying to yourself’ and being ‘born again’ when someone starts to follow him. While some associate these loaded phrases almost solely with a question of  eternal destiny after death (heaven or hell?), surely their meaning goes beyond this to the central question of identity. In essence, Jesus tells people that the things that used to be central to their identity actually become less important once you enter the kingdom built around him – you literally die to them and are born again. The centrality of national identity is relativised in parables like the good Samaritan where it is the enemy nation rather than the compatriot who offers help. The role of women is often flipped on its head as they provide the model of discipleship where the male disciples fall short. Wealth is stripped of its cultural power as Jesus’ followers are commanded to share and hold things in common. The allure of social status and significance is shorn of its potency as we see ourselves in the light of a God who made and cares for all of us without exceptions, and indeed holds special favour for the lowly and ‘unimportant’ in the eyes of everyone else. A Christian is not supposed to allow things like nationality, wealth, status or gender be too important in comparison to her identity in Jesus Christ and the community she enters when she begins to follow him. 

No other ideology or -ism in history has centred this self-giving relationship (not just ‘relationality’) at its heart. 

Both sides of the culture wars – what have become known as ‘woke globalism’ and ‘populist nationalism’ – have their own promises of community. Yet neither ultimately escape the rampant individualism of our culture, the unmistakable product of Enlightenment thinking. On the ‘liberal left’, personal preferences and choices are advanced as the central parts of identity. Yet on the other side, the logic of nationalism and even patriotism, however, is still built around the self – drawing a picture of the world which looks and sounds like me as much as possible. A Christian vision of identity is founded outside of the self - on God. Christian thinking has always been wary of any self-oriented ideology because it will be unsustainable in the long run. 

Other ideologies can offer a vision of identity beyond the self – communism, fascism, capitalism, for instance; all promise a fulfilling life if you submit yourself to them just as Christianity does. At their heart, however, these ideologies are simply that – ideologies without a face. Christians have always maintained that the living Jesus can never be separated from his teaching as if it is an ideology. At the heart of this faith and promise of identity is not first and foremost a way of life but a person with whom you can have a relationship. The mode of relationship is also in line with the teaching and life he lived – laying his life down for others. This, in turn, is the model for Christians – in humility considering others better than ourselves. No other ideology or -ism in history has centred this self-giving relationship (not just ‘relationality’) at its heart, and has therefore ever been able to offer as deep and fulfilling vision of identity and fellowship. 

Will I be supporting England, the country of my and my parents’ birth, then? Of course I will. The call to die to yourself and the things that used to define you does not mean I can exist as a Christian without any other cultural framework that makes up my existence in the world. I am not a citizen of ‘nowhere.’ I was born in England, and have lived my life here. I understand certain cultural references, humour, enjoy certain foods. These are not bad things, and indeed create community and shared understanding. From this perspective, I will join with other English men and women to cheer Southgate and his team over the coming weeks. 

But what I will resist is some deeper meaning and identity in my nation where my life and all that is important to me are seen through its lens. My Englishness is there, it has some influence in my life, but ultimately it must be subservient to my identity in Jesus Christ. It is one thing among many that in New Testament language must be ‘put under his feet’. When there is a choice between serving my nation and serving Jesus Christ, I will always choose the later and assume there will be times when this choice is a real one. I will watch this summer’s Euros with members of my church who come from various nations of the world. We will join together without denying our respective nationalities and cultures – as we do every week – but in a manner where these cultures do not get in the way of genuine fellowship as we seek to embody what the Bible speaks of as a ‘new humanity.’ 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.