Around the globe, nationalism is resurgent to a level not seen since World War II. There are many examples: Brexit in Britain, Narendra Modi in India, Xi Jinping in China, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Donald Trump in the U.S., Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, the last election in Indonesia.
Nationalism’s roots are as complex as the countries in which it’s birthed. The end of the Cold War was a factor. When that conflict no longer took center stage, we needed something new to fight about.
As a result, the tribal spirit surged into view. It began at the grassroots and finally nested in the leadership of some of the richest and most powerful nations. But there was more to it than that.
Globalization also spurred its rise. As nations became more closely linked in culture, material development, travel and information, many of us reacted. Local and national traditions were threatened. Unity compromised autonomy. Everywhere a new generation of leaders rose to contest the loss of national identity — sometimes with politically incorrect rhetoric and sometimes with populist passion. Occasionally the two merged.
Religion played a role. In Turkey, a suppressed Muslim majority found a new voice in President Erdogan. In China, the government began to embrace previously marginalized Confucianism. In India, a Hindu majority flexed its muscle, and in Indonesia a Muslim majority did the same. In the U.S., Christians reacted to a political scene they no longer dominated.
What does this mean for global Christianity? For sure, it means Christians will have more to forgive. In some places, the nationalistic spirit may lead to “God-and-country” forms of coercive Christianity, but this hardly provides much respite for serious disciples. Jesus taught us love of enemy, so even “Christian” forms of nationalism often turn to bite those who put him before nation.
Furthermore, the majority of the world’s Christians no longer live under governments that offer some form of God-and-country Christianity. Trump notwithstanding, even in the U.S. Protestantism and Catholicism no longer dominate as they once did, though they still make a strong showing. In Africa and Asia, Christians face a bewildering set of political options, and outright persecution is not uncommon.
But there’s a new bottom line. More than any time in history since the earliest Christians in the Roman and Persian empires spread rapidly even while facing loss and death, the global church is reliving that story. The shining faces of Pakistani, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Tanzanian, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Indonesian and Latin Christians are bearing witness.
Last month I met a group of Egyptian brothers and sisters who were visiting a Syrian refugee camp in a country not their own. They virtually glowed.
I also watched the news clips from a pastor, an Egyptian news anchor and the wife of one who died when his church was attacked by extremists. The Coptic Christians forgave with joy. The news anchor marveled. “These people are not like others,” he said. “They must be made of steel. Who can forgive like that?”
Only God’s “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.