Nationalism is defined as a political system that put’s one’s nation above all others. While some connect nationalism, with patriotism, the two are separated in that nationalism is often driven more by racial and ethnic superiority than a love of country. Over the years, Americans have become more nationalistic in their politics and this has led to more violence. The rise in American nationalism has created a persistent threat not only to our nation, but also to our faith.
In the book “Nationalism and Violence,” author John Hutchinson writes that there appears to be an intrinsic linkage between nationalism, the striving for nation-statehood, and warfare in the modern period. While Christianity is a religion of peace, Christianity has managed to produce much violence throughout the centuries. The truth is, justifying violence and war using the principles of Christianity has been a common practice since the time of the Crusades.
The Crusades aren’t the only example only example of violence in Christian history. Yet, more than any other era, they were characterized by mass, organized violence that was explicitly justified with specifically Christian arguments. Unfortunately, it’s common to excuse religious violence by insisting that it is really about politics, land and resources. We see the same thing happening in this modern era. There are many Christians who sincerely believe that war and violence are logical outcomes of their faith.
The film J.E.S.U.S.A. explores the relationship between Christianity and American nationalism and the violence that often emerges from it. The film shows how specific readings of the Bible have led many Christians to confuse their devotion to Jesus to their dedication to the state. The film is especially important because it speaks to where we are as a country right now. It allows us to take a close look at the face of nationalism in America. One of the reasons nationalism is so problematic is that it justifies violence and distorts the Christian faith. Ultimately, it is counter to who we are as a Christians.
First, let’s consider Jesus Christ and His ministry. He taught nonviolence, loving our neighbor, doing good to those who hurt us. He even modeled self-sacrificial love in the face of state violence. While Jesus modeled nonviolence, love and peace, pacifism is still the minority voice within Christianity but should it be?
Christian pacifism is the theological and ethical position that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Christianity makes a lot of statements on behalf of peace and love. In fact, the Bible, particularly the New Testament, has a lot more to say about peace and love than about war and violence. Little that is attributed to Jesus really advocates violence.
Mahatma Gandhi considered Jesus the most active person of nonviolence in the history of the world. He was dismayed, however, that so few Christians understood or embraced Jesus’ nonviolence. Martin Luther King, Jr., a notable Christian pacifist, considered the Hindu Gandhi the best modern display of the nonviolent Jesus, because Gandhi adhered to his teachings on the subject, applying them on national and international levels. The two considered that everything Jesus did was nonviolent and His teachings comprised the ultimate blueprint for being more Christlike. If we want to truly walk as Jesus did, we also must be nonviolent. Nonviolence and peace should be the Christian standard because it is what Jesus called us to do.
Jesus called His followers to love their enemies, to be abundantly merciful, to repent and forgive and to offer non-violent resistance to do those who do evil. Jesus taught nonviolence and peace in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also…” (Matthew 5:38-39). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
These words have been considered some of the hardest to apply of all of Jesus Christ’s teachings. The Gospel accounts show us that Jesus not only taught this standard, but also practiced it.
Two thousand years ago, the biblical command to “love thy neighbor” was spelled out in response to the questioner, asking which is the greatest commandment. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus’ answer: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Many have found that actually trying to love one’s neighbor – is not the easiest thing to do, especially when that person doesn’t look like you, is in a different socioeconomic class than you, practices a different religion or doesn’t share the same politics. However, keeping the two commandments ensures a heart filled with love.
As Christians, we should have a clear and deliberate commitment to preaching, teaching and boldly proclaiming the teachings of Jesus, including those of nonviolence even if it’s counter to what we’ve been taught about what it means to truly be American. When we are facing the forces of evil, we must return it with good. We have to turn away from violence and revenge and counter those forces with love. In order to do this, we must trust the God of love rather than the power of violence. If we come together as Christians in this way, we can truly live out the principles Jesus called us to practice.