Essay
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11 min read

Strangers and identity in a global age of nationalism

Exploring inclusive and exclusive nationalism, Miroslav Volf challenges all of us to dialogue with those who may see things differently.

Miroslav Volf is Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and is the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

A person holds the vertical tall steel bars of a border fence.
Max Böhme on Unsplash.

Born in the former country of Yugoslavia and raised in both Serbia and Croatia, before they fought for their respective independence, Miroslav Volf has experienced nationalism and identity politics firsthand. The theologian, now based in the United States, examines nationalism and the Christian responses to its challenges. 

 

Nationalisms are surging today across the globe. A marginal phenomenon barely two decades or so ago, nationalist and populist movements have now gained political traction in many countries in response to a growing awareness of the failures and injustices of market-driven globalization. 

Christians are called to care for the well-being of their communities, and in principle, nationalism can be a way of attending to the specific needs of the neighbors who happen to be fellow citizens. Just as we care for our families, our communities, and our cities, so also we might care for our nation. We might call this form of national loyalty grounded in universal commitments to humanity “inclusive nationalism.” However, sometimes nationalist movements take a hostile turn towards outsiders. They become rooted in a sense of exceptionalism or even superiority; they become “exclusive” in the ways they think about moral commitments. 

How can we hold together our particular commitments to those around us, while also acknowledging that the command to love our neighbor is not limited to our co-citizens? 

Idols are easier to come by than we might realize. In the famous image of John Calvin, our hearts are idol factories. 

God and idols 

In giving a Christian answer to these questions concerning our fundamental loyalties, there is no better place to start than the first line of that great description of the Christian faith - the Nicene Creed:  

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  

Only God is God; all other would-be gods are false gods making empty promises. The law God gave to Moses demands that we have no other gods before God, and that we not make for ourselves any idols. Modern people in our cultures are not often tempted to make “graven images” for themselves, or to bow down and worship things, so this may seem like a quaint prohibition.  

However, something can be an idol without this kind of ritualized service. An idol instead can be anything that we are devoted to rather than to God. Following St. Augustine, we might think of an idol as something we love more than God, that we spend more of our energy trying to attain or to please than God. Following Martin Luther, we might also think of an idol as something we trust more than God, that we rely on for security or success when things get tough. In other words, idols are easier to come by than we might realize. In the famous image of John Calvin, our hearts are idol factories. We love to commit to people, things, and ideas first, and to God second. 

Friends, families, cultures, nations are not just things that we love, but people from whom we receive important aspects of our very selves 

Turning to the question of political allegiance, then, the prohibition of idols means that for Christians, loyalty to God must come before loyalties to families, cultures, or nations. In fact, Jesus even tells his disciples that they must hate their fathers and mothers if they are to follow him —otherwise, they are in danger of idolatry! Now, the main way we can follow Jesus in our relationships with others is by following the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus even heightens this command still further: we are to love our enemies and pray for any who persecute us.  

Idolatry and identity 

The things that we love, the things we pledge our loyalty to, in some sense become part of who we are. They shape our identity. This might be true of a hobby or a career in a general sense. The sentences “I am a gamer” or “I am a scientist” describe not just what we do, but who we are. This is more clearly the case with the personal loyalties described above. Friends, families, cultures, nations are not just things that we love, but people from whom we receive important aspects of our very selves. In his famous book City of God, Augustine defined “a people” as a collection of persons united and oriented by a common love. Their identity as a people simply is this shared love.  

Christians therefore must let Jesus’ commands to love others shape their sense of self. To love our neighbors is to define ourselves in part by our care for those near us. To love our enemies is to define ourselves by benevolence even for those who are far from us or who would hurt us. Since Christians are called to follow Christ first, to have no other gods before God, these new self-definitions must shape even the most fundamental loyalties in our lives. Before Christians are citizens of their respective nations, they are those who love even the enemies of their nations. 

As finite creatures, we cannot serve the whole world in one lifetime; we need to make choices about where we will choose to act in love. 

Loves, idols, and nationalism 

Exclusive nationalism, however, is just one of many ways modern politics asks us to prefer members of one group to those of another. Loyalty to our own people becomes more important than love for others beyond our nation or group. In the context of our discussion so far, then, this amounts to a form of idolatry.  

To be clear, our specific relationships are given to us by God and are good things that we ought to treasure. Nevertheless, it is often the good things of the world that are the easiest to turn into idols, by devoting ourselves more to them than to God. Sometimes, in fact, religious leaders or politicians will use Christian principles to emphasize the value of these good relationships and loyalties—but subtly it turns into a scenario where faith in Christ serves the particular loyalty, rather that loyalty expressing faith in Christ. One of the most insidious results of this kind of political theology is that it can turn Christianity into a ‘prosperity religion' or a ‘political religion'— we end up trying to use God to serve our own ends.  

Instead, the command to love not just our neighbor but especially our enemy must itself shape our commitments to the communities we find ourselves within. As finite creatures, we cannot serve the whole world in one lifetime; we need to make choices about where we will choose to act in love, and these choices are governed in part by these particular identities. These identities and loyalties, then, are instances of broader commitments. One can love one’s own family or nation in some sense first, but never at the expense of those outside. If the love of nation starts to compete with love for humanity, it ultimately betrays its own foundation.  

Our national identities must not be conceived of as firmly bounded circles serving to connect us to some only by separating us from others. 

Fair enough, some will say, but don’t some nationalisms simply ask us to take care of America first or Britain first, rather than asking us to entirely dismiss the concerns of all other peoples? Here we must think more about what it might mean for concern for America or Britain to be actively shaped by love for our neighbors and our enemies. In particular, I want to argue that this shaping must take the form of opening these identities and communities outward—of reconfiguring them in ways that make them proactively ready for and open to, and even in some sense perhaps dependent on and learning from, those that are far away or strangers who come in need of our hospitality.  

It's easy to think we love humanity in general while feeling no responsibility to the concrete strangers in front of us. But a love for humanity that does not help us to feel this responsibility is worthless. It is just the love for an idea. The question, therefore, is not “how do my specific loyalties to my community remain consistent with my commitments to humanity as an ideal,” but rather, “how do my specific loyalties to my community encourage my commitments to the specific strangers in front of me, enmeshed as they are in specific loyalties of their own?” After all, we love our family members and our fellow citizens because we must love all human beings and we must start with those closest to us. Precisely the same logic underlies our responsibility to the stranger, the non-citizen or immigrant, in front of us. 

In light of the prohibition of idolatry, our national identities must not be conceived of as firmly bounded circles serving to connect us to some only by separating us from others. True, identities always operate on some logic of boundary, or at least of proximity and distance, or else they would be evacuated of all content. However, these distinctions must always be understood as depending on concrete relationships wherein love is demanded, and therefore also as always being open to, even being constituted by, constant renegotiation. The boundaries of our identities must be kept porous and flexible, ready to readjust to welcome the stranger. 

An example may help here. To live in the UK or in the US, for example, is, in some sense, just to have certain specific relationships to a person’s own culture, family, geographic neighbors, and so on. Family loyalty, cultural pride, and patriotism, insofar as they are virtues, are derivative virtues from following the demands of love towards those neighbors who are closest to us.  

The work of modern historians shows us how our cultural identities are products of long trajectories of exchange, conflict, and hybridity. 

However, in this day and age, to live in the UK or in the US is no less to have certain specific relationships to various groups of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, even if the machinations of globalization, gentrification, and so on try to hide this fact from us. Indeed, the histories of colonial power and imperial conquest that these nations are caught up in only serve to expand the scope and deepen the responsibility of the question: “And who is my neighbor?” The same duties of love apply to our non-citizen neighbors, in the same channels of concrete proximity; therefore, these relationships constitute an identity as a citizen of the UK or the US no less than the familiar relationships of culture and blood.  

Our very identities, thus, must be chastened by the warning against idolatry and the reciprocal command to love. The work of modern historians shows us how our cultural identities are products of long trajectories of exchange, conflict, and hybridity. Similarly, the Christian call to love our neighbor, and even our enemy, suggests that we must not be overly concerned with maintaining identitarian “purity.” Instead, we must always be willing to make space, not just “somewhere else” but in our very homes, even in our very identities, for real relationship with the stranger. This is what the open arms of welcoming embrace signify—an offer to renegotiate the space that we ourselves occupy in order to make room in love for the proximity of the other.  

Double vision 

This relativization of identities will also mean a relativization of our own claims to stable and secure knowledge. Nations and cultures typically have preferred ways of looking at the world, preferred values, and preferred ways of evaluating or proving claims to true belief. We can all think of various ‘British values' or 'American values’, for example. Importantly, we don’t usually experience these things (freedom, say) as only valuable for us, but as valuable in general, for everyone. Nationalism is then in danger of becoming cultural imperialism: our values are better than yours, and we will share them with you.   

The prohibition of idolatry again chastens us. Idolatry is not just the worship of a graven image of God instead of the real God, but also worshiping our own preferred ideas of God instead of God as God really is. God’s transcendence means that our ideas of God can never fully contain God, and therefore there will always be more to God than we can understand. This, in turn, means always being willing to let our visions of the world be challenged, even—and especially—by those we might consider outsiders to truth.  

This is not to say we must always try to get above or behind” our national idiosyncrasies. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere; neither would it be desirable, even if it were possible. Just as to be human is to be in relationship with a particular set of proximate neighbors, so it is also to have our perspectives on God’s truth shaped by our cultural surroundings. The solution is not to try to strip off these identities, to try to be “neutral” by standing further back from the loves that tie us to particular relationships. Rather, it is to always push ourselves into productive dialogue with those who may see things differently from us.   

For example, during the Cold War, Soviet propaganda highlighted the problem of race relationships in the US as the failure of capitalism. This critique was certainly not made in good faith—but it was still the case that a foreign and hostile power was able to see certain aspects of justice more clearly than some of us in the West were able to do at the time. Similarly, a refusal of idolatry means being willing to learn more about God’s goodness from other nations and cultures. This is an especially important attitude to maintain as regards those nations and cultures that might seem opposed to those good things we love about our own.  

Conclusion 

Questions of identity and the stranger will only continue to grow in importance in our increasingly global age. It is important to remember that populist nationalism is responding — and responding wrongly — to real problems with market-driven globalization. However, the concern to acknowledge human finitude and to serve God concretely where God has placed us must not lead us to idolize these particular commitments. Followers of Jesus must be those who love both their enemies and citizens of their own nations.  

The sketches offered here are invitations to act prudentially, in concrete ethical commitments, in prayerful reliance on God who gives wisdom generously to those who ask. They cut across political stances and party affiliation, representing a genuine and distinct way Christians can contribute out of their faith and to the common good. They are countercultural suggestions in an age marked by nationalistic and identitarian fervor. Most importantly, however, they are ways we can follow the God who is unconstrained by human limitations and who has made space in the divine life for sinners like us.  

Essay
Belief
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1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.