Volume 21 - Issue 3

‘Vertigo’ or ‘Imago’? Nations in the Divine Economy

By William Storrar

Nations in human history and Christian hope

I wish to argue, biblically, that nations are authentic, if ambiguous, human cultural creations. Nations are also part of God’s creation in the sense that they have developed historically out of a common humanity made in God’s image and they exist under his sovereignty. Whether they are the tribes and peoples of the ancient world or modern nation-states, nations are historical communities and not part of the original created order. They are therefore provisional and contingent communities that can lay no claim to any ultimate human loyalty. And yet they exist within the bounds of God’s creation, providence and redemption and under his sovereignty. And so the apostle Paul can say: ‘From one ancestor he [the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times for their existence and the boundaries of the places where they should live, so that they would search for God …’ (Acts 17:26–27). The emphasis here is on the fact that all nations are made out of one humanity and that, in their contingent existence in time and space as nations, they are utterly dependent on God and called to seek him, ‘though indeed he is not far from each one of us’.

Few nations do seek God. Nations and nationalism throughout history bear the marks of human rebellion against God. But in this they are no different from all forms of human community, thought or action. All aspects of created reality and human history, from the communities of family and church to the modern ideologies of capitalism and liberal internationalism, are distorted and marred by human sin.

And yet nations are also set within the historical drama of God’s redemption of that fallen creation in Jesus Christ. Humanity was not created within certain given nations or races, as religious nationalities like the Afrikaner Calvinist founders of apartheid or the German Christian movement under the Nazis have argued.1 This sets nations apart from the identities of man and woman, and the community of the family, created and instituted by God as constitutive of our one humanity in the divine image. Nations are the contingent cultural products of human history. They rise out of the muddy course of rebel humanity’s historical existence and they exist as dust in the balance of God’s judgment.

The term ‘nation’ has been used to describe a multitude of different kinds of human community, from the ethnic tribes and peoples of ancient times to the modern member states and aspiring member nations of the United Nations. They all exist under divine judgment. And yet they also draw on significant themes in the original creation and the continuing mercy of God towards humanity created in God’s image. This is their true glory. It can be argued that nations, and their cultures, have been one of the richest expressions in a fallen world of the original and continuing ‘cultural mandate’ given in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15–25, and reaffirmed after the fall to Noah in Genesis 9:1–17; calling on the one human race to name and develop the rich diversity of God’s one creation, in cultivation and the sciences, and to celebrate the riches of human companionship, in culture and the arts, in glad and peaceful obedience to God’s authority.

Therefore, nations are not without significance in the purposes and economy of God.2 The nations of the Bible, the goyim and ethnē of the OT and NT, are constantly judged and contrasted with elect Israel and the true church for their idolatry (typically, Ps. 106, esp. v. 35). The ‘holy nation’ of God’s people is not to be like the surrounding pagan, Gentile nations (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). And yet the election of Israel and the church is for the blessing and salvation of the nations (Gn. 18:18; Gal. 3:8). In Isaiah and Acts there is a recognition that pagan nations may be both the instrument of God’s purposes and the object of God’s mercy (see Acts 17:26–27). The pagan King Cyrus is appointed to accomplish God’s purposes (Is. 44:28–45). We also find a universal vision of the nations streaming to Israel with their wealth as an offering to worship the true and living God (Is. 60). In the Gospels, Jesus warms to those earnest Gentiles who put their faith in him and humbly accept that salvation comes from the Jews (Mt. 8:5–13; Mk. 7:24–30; Lk. 7:1–10; Jn. 4:1–41). In Matthew, the disciples are called to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). In Acts the coming of the Spirit on the church at Pentecost affirms cultural and linguistic diversity as people of many nations understand the message in their own tongue (Acts 2:6, 11). And the Bible concludes in Revelation with a vision of the cultural riches and identities of all nations entering the new Jerusalem and the nations finding healing there (Rev. 21:22–22:3).

The one new humanity in Christ is a community of unity in diversity, a holy nation made up of people of all nations who, in embracing their new identity in Christ, retain their social and cultural identities as Gentiles and lose only the oppression and distorting effect of sin and their separation from God’s covenant people (Eph. 2, 3). The Bible affirms both equality and difference. In the OT and NT, God’s people are called to welcome the stranger and to show love to all neighbours, near and distant, in Barth’s phrase. There is also a fundamental equality of all God’s people in Christ (Gal. 3:26–29), but that does not efface our identities as Jew or Greek. As the late South African missiologist David Bosch argued, God’s mission to the Gentile nations, and the need to contextualize that mission among the nations, lies at the heart of the NT and the Christian faith.3

And yet the nations themselves always walk the tightrope of the imago Dei over the abyss of idolatry, and frequently fall into sin. This induces a kind of vertigo, or the indiscriminate and sometimes irrational fear of nations and national identity, on the part of many Christians, especially evangelical critics of nationhood and nationalism. It should rather induce that discriminating fear of the Lord in whose image we who may belong to nations are created, sustained and redeemed. Examining nations in the light of God’s image in Christ, rather than under the shadow of certain kinds of idolatrous nationalist experience, is the beginning of any wisdom we may find about nations in the divine economy. We must focus on the imago and not the vertigo if we are to keep a balanced judgment in understanding nations on the high wire of God’s purposes in history. That is not to deny that any tightrope walker requires a healthy fear of the abyss below and the dangers en route.

But what are nations? What kind of human creations are they? And in what ways do they exist within the divine economy? Before answering these questions, we must set nations within their contemporary context and the related phenomenon of nationalism.

Nations and nationalism

Nationalism refers to those political ideologies and movements fostering national consciousness and advocating the right of nations to self-determination. Many different nationalist ideologies and movements are found in all parts of the world today, some arguing for statehood as the natural right of nations while others offer utilitarian reasons for self-government. Again, some nationalist movements are more concerned with the survival and strengthening of aspects of national identity, such as the language and culture of a nation, than with political self-government as an end in itself. For example, Kenneth Morgan has contrasted two movements as close as Welsh and Scottish nationalism in this way:

Welsh national feeling was also very different from that of Scotland, despite the spurious similarity implied in nationalist successes in by-elections in the two countries from 1966 onwards. Welsh nationalism was more concerned with cultural and linguistic aspects, rather than building on to recognised institutions new ways of asserting distinctiveness from England. Wales, indeed, seemed less aggressive in its nationalism than Scotland, more willing to be placated and to let its call for home rule be killed by kindness.4

Nationalism and nationhood in all their diversity remain a major political force and social reality for the foreseeable future, requiring informed analysis and discriminating assessment. Quoting a leading scholar on nationalism, the sociologist David McCrone notes: ‘As Anthony Smith pointed out, national identity is probably the most powerful force in the modern age “to provide a strong ‘community of history and destiny’ to save people from personal oblivion and restore collective faith” (Smith, National Identity, 1991: p. 161)’.5Given the religious language which Smith uses to describe the function of national identity in the contemporary world, we must consider how the Christian understanding of history, destiny, salvation and faith must preclude any possible idolatrous nationalist alternative. But we must also consider in what ways Christians may embrace and show critical solidarity with a national identity which helps sustain and enrich the frail fabric of community.

No one definition or historical account of nations and nationalism has been agreed by scholars. A nation is any group of people that considers itself to be such, based on such shared characteristics as religion, language, history, territory, common institutions, culture, statehood or aspiration to statehood. Scholarly consensus has established, however, that nations are historical and not natural phenomena.6 This view is contrary to some forms of nationalist ideology which argue that humanity is intrinsically, inevitably and thus ‘naturally’ constituted only within nations with an inherent right to statehood. Large sections of humankind now identify with and value a sense of nationhood, and virtually all human beings now live within nation-states in some form. This is a contingent historical development and not the unfolding of some eternal or natural law.

The historian Benedict Anderson has helpfully called nations ‘imagined communities’.7 This should resonate powerfully and suggestively for Christian theology. The Bible, too, sees the Gentile nations as imagined communities, shaped around created images of kingship, religion and culture. Unlike the surrounding pagan nations, the holy nation of Israel and the church are constituted by the uncreated Word, mediated through sanctioned images and supremely in the image of the incarnate Saviour.8

Anderson argues that nations are ‘imagined communities’ in the sense that they share a common style of imagining their own identity and interests. Nations are constituted by shared images of identity (e.g.linguistic, cultural, religious, geographical, political or social) among people who may never meet or know one another face to face. There have been other ways of imagining social identity within human history, such as the tribe, empire or ‘universal’ community of Christendom. A nation is seen as transcending internal horizontal social divisions such as class through sharing certain vertical, variable images of a community with a common but limited membership and some measure of sovereignty over its own affairs.

It is this use of ‘image’, with its biblical resonances, that opens up the moral and theological ambiguity of nationhood and nationalism.9 The Christian must ask if nations are one valid cultural expression of humanity created in God’s image, and, therefore, if nationalism may be on occasion a legitimate defence of that identity. But the Christian must also ask if nations and nationalism may on occasion reflect the false worship of ‘images’ or idols, the idolatry of an absolute loyalty to the nation. Three factors must be considered in any Christian approach to nationhood and nationalism in the divine economy.

Nations in the divine economy

  1. Biblically, the Scriptures offer theological insights into nationhood. While recognizing that there is no continuity between biblical and contemporary nations, some theorists of nationalism, like Anthony Smith, recognize that the latter are often constructed out of earlier ethnic identities reaching back in recorded history to the peoples of that same ancient world and the period of the biblical ‘nations’.10 In other words, it can legitimately be argued that ‘modern’ nations such as Wales are often constructed out of far older ethnic identities which stretch back into that ancient and biblical era. The biblical perspective that ‘nations’ are an ambivalent historical phenomenon and not the original condition of the one human race is, therefore, not without significance for the world of nations today. Genesis affirms the common humanity of all men and women, created in the image of God. It is only in the course of rebellious human history, and not in the creation, that the different tribes, peoples and nations of the earth emerge, with a dual theological meaning.

After Babel (Gn. 11:1–9), they are the bearers of divine judgment on sinful humanity in their divisions and mutual incomprehension. But the diversity of nations within history is also seen as restraining human evil or hubris on a global scale, and offering one historical context for humanity’s rich cultural and linguistic diversity. Indeed, distinctive and diverse cultural, geographical and linguistic ‘nations’ are described as existing before Babel (Gn. 10:31–32). In Genesis the danger arises not from the diverse nations of the earth but from the hubris of sinful humanity’s imperialist tendency and design to build a world empire, speaking only one language, in rebellion against God.

A Christian ethical and theological approach must hold in tension these two biblical insights, that the nations are both historical bearers of the merciful divine judgment on human sin and also one historical medium of the continuing cultural mandate given by God to the one human race. In practice today, this may mean arguing in one context that a xenophobic or imperialist nationalism, where one nation seeks to exclude or dominate other nations and reject God’s ways, the sin of Babel, stands under God’s judgment, while arguing in another context that a democratic nationalism may legitimately pursue its cause within a universal framework of international law and human rights, a recognition of the similar rights of other nations, and a biblical concern for culture, justice, solidarity and global stewardship. This is the fundamental moral and theological distinction between the ‘ethnic cleansing’ policies found in Bosnia and the non-ethnic, civic democratic aspirations of the Scottish National Party (to give an example from my own country).

  1. Historically, we must distinguish between distinct eras in the development of nations and nationalism and their different attitudes to Christ. This historical character of nationhood is explicit and affirmed in the Bible, where nations are seen to rise and fall within the flow of human history and under the operation of the divine economy and judgment. While many scholars link nationalism with the rise of modernity and the sovereign nation-state in the eighteenth century,11 pre-modern nationalism, articulating a developing sense of Christian nation-hood, existed in Europe since at least as early as the ninth century.12 Pre-modern nationalism had an inseparable relationship with Christianity and religious conflicts in medieval and post-Reformation Europe. It gave rise to the concept of the ‘Christian nation’ which has survived in the West into the twentieth century.13

It was the secular nationalism of the modern era, born out of the Enlightenment, German Romanticism and the French Revolution, that declared the nation and the nation-state to be absolute and sovereign, sometimes against the claims of God in Christ.14 The end of this twentieth century is seeing the emergence of a ‘post-modern nationalism’ where autonomous regions and nations, defined by cultural pluralism, a common civil society and citizenship rather than ethnicity, seek autonomy within larger political communities like the European Union, on the principle of subsidiarity rather than sovereignty.15 The political, cultural and economic dilemma of the late twentieth century is that the nation-state is too large to satisfy people’s sense of local, regional or national identity while being too small to tackle many economic, environmental or international issues.16 This has led to the rise of new forms of nationalism.

As David McCrone has suggested, some forms of contemporary nationalism have shifted from emphasizing ties of ethnicity, sharing a common descent, language, culture or even religion, to defining a nation in terms of territoriality, living and working together in a common area:

This is a plea for new forms of self-determination, of limited autonomy, and self-managing communities, based on the rights of people to govern themselves. Such plans are based on limited sovereignty in an interdependent world. The assault by nationalists on traditional nation-states is a symptom of the decay of these political formations, as well as the search for new forms as yet unimagined … The irony is that nationalism is probably the gravedigger of the conventional nation-state with its commitment to ‘a world of sovereign, self-reliant nation-states claiming the right to assert themselves and pursue their essential national interests by taking recourse to force’. In its classical form, nationalism is pursuing precisely those political structures which are rapidly falling into disuse. As such, nationalism is probably destined to consume its own offspring. In this sense, these are post-nationalist times.17

Seeing it in this light, McCrone concludes that we must rethink the nature of contemporary post-nationalism:

Those qualities of nationalism identified by Hobsbawm—instability and impermanence—point to the search for alternative principles of political restructuring in the twenty-first century. The rediscovery of ‘popular sovereignty’ and of democratic accountability, most noticeably in Eastern Europe, have a wider remit. If … we see [nationalism] as a social movement, as a fragile and heterogeneous construction, we might treat nationalist and autonomist movements as, in Melucci’s words, ‘nomads of the present’, vehicles for collective action with an indeterminate end. The broad and diffuse, the ‘non-political’, appeal of nationalism seems to make it a movement of the twenty-first rather than the nineteenth century. Its commitment to the post-materialist values of autonomy, authenticity and accountability place ‘post-nationalism’ firmly in the future not the past.18

This emerging ‘post-nationalism’, with its concern for responsible citizenship in an interdependent world, and autonomous communities pervaded by democratic accountability, may be compatible in some measure with Christian social doctrines of solidarity, justice and stewardship at local, regional and global levels in ways that a nineteenth-century glorification of the sovereign nation-state or a late-twentieth-century re-emerging xenophobic ethnic nationalism manifestly are not. Take an example from within the United Kingdom, such as Wales. To understand Wales within the divine economy would therefore require us to ask what kind of historical nation and nationalism we are addressing. We must ask: can the central role of the Welsh language and culture in Welsh nationhood be held together with a ‘post-nationalist’ understanding of nationhood as an autonomous democratic civil society pursuing post-materialist values?

  1. Theologically, we must set the nations within both the imago Dei and the missio Dei, God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. I understand God’s image in humanity not primarily in terms of discrete qualities, like rationality or speech, conscience or will, but in terms of personal relationships. To be human is to be in a right and dependent relationship as a creature with the Creator, the God who is a triune community of holy love, and to be in right relationships in love with one’s fellow-creatures. We are fundamentally ‘persons-in-community’. It is within this set of right relationships that we find our individual personhood and enjoy true humanity. Sin is the breaking and distorting of these relationships. In Jesus Christ, the one true image of the invisible God, our broken relationships are restored and our new humanity experienced as a gift of our gracious Father in heaven.19 But in God’s mercy (‘common grace’ in Reformed theology), our humanity is sustained even in our sin and brokenness. It is within the parameters of this set of relationships, created, sustained, judged and restored in Christ, that we use language, develop cultures, maintain patterns of government, and form those frail historical shelters of community and identity we call nations. Any nation must be judged by its faithfulness to the pattern of such relationships which constitute our humanity in God’s image.

The eschatological vision of the coming reign of God (Is. 60, Rev. 21, 22) affirms both the place of the nations in final judgment (Mt. 25:31–46) and the prospect that their cultural legacy for good may enter the new Jerusalem, as the Reformed theologian Richard Mouw has argued.20 No nationalism will survive its ambivalent historical role within this passing age, but the unity of the new humanity in Christ would not seem to efface the frail national and ethnic identities within which humanity has at times sheltered in its history. The Spirit spoke to the church and the new humanity each in his own language (Acts 2). Paul’s mission was to the Gentile nations and the early church wrestled with what it meant to contextualize the gospel outside the Jewish world. The gospel is for the healing, not the elimination, of the nations (Rev. 22:2). With that eschatological hope, we must continue to wrestle with the theological meaning of contemporary nations in our time. The several models of nations within the divine economy offered below are attempts to understand nations within the framework of the imago Dei and missio Dei.

It is through a critical assessment of these three dimensions, biblical, historical and theological, within the divine economy, that nations and nationalism must be judged in each particular instance. Too often, Christian responses have offered a qualified support for patriotism while dismissing nationalism out of hand. In a world of genocidal ethnic conflicts this is understandable but indiscriminate. (It may also confuse nationalism with racism.)

In context, patriotism may cloak national aggression while nationalism may express a just defence of universal civic and democratic rights for particular communities within one world. Both are morally two-edged concepts. Imagined communities must serve and not deny the divine image in humanity. Before considering what models of nationhood may be compatible with the divine image, we must ask: in what sense are nations the objects of divine love and worthy of our Christian patriotism?

Nations and patriotism

Patriotism is the love shown in loyalty to a native or adopted country. As such, it must be scrutinized in the light of that greater, agapic, love that characterizes Christian social ethics. No country can legitimately make an absolute moral claim on the loyalty of the Christian or of any of its members. Christians and the nations are called to a greater love and an ultimate loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. Countries and nations are not part of God’s original creation but have developed in the course of fallen human history as provisional and changing communities bearing all the marks of moral ambiguity in their culture and institutions. It is identity in Christ and the gospel of the kingdom which offer hope and reconciliation in a divided world, not national identity and patriotism. And yet Christians and the one human race live in the context of a range of social, cultural and political communities. That is an integral part of a God-given humanity as created social creatures. The gospel both judges and affirms the social context and cultural identity of human life within history, including the context of country and nationhood. Patriotism may be a worthy disposition for Christians in their earthly citizenship within the wider loyalty and horizon of the heavenly city. It may also be a cloak for national or party self-interest, ‘the last refuge of scoundrels’ in Johnson’s memorable judgment. Once more, Christians are called to discriminating judgment, not irrational vertigo, the fear of the Lord rather than the fear of nations tout court.

The love that Christians may show for their country must be discerning and discriminating. At its core, patriotism must be an affirmation of what is best in a country’s history and life, including the humane and creative achievements of its culture, its struggles for greater justice in human affairs at home and in the wider world, and the expression of certain moral values in its public life and institutions. And yet, as Simone Weil argued in relation to France, at its core a true Christian patriotism must also expose fully all that is evil and compromised in the history and identity of a nation.21 A false patriotism, blind to a nation’s faults and moral failures, dare not expose itself to such realities. But such honesty in no way diminishes a Christian agapic love grounded in the cross, which accepts the frailty and sinfulness of mortal nations within history while embracing them within the divine love in Jesus Christ. The scale for assessing the worth of one’s country does not lie in some innate national spirit or genius, as in the spurious claims of romantic nationalism, but in that human creativity and partial grasp of truth which remains open to all humanity even after its fall into sin and rebellious history.

Each culture and country may express that creativity and grasp of truth in its own distinctive ways, but no mere country is endowed with a monopoly of wisdom or possesses some unique destiny. Nor do nations escape the judgment and corruption of human sin. It is the church of Jesus Christ which is the herald of the coming kingdom of God, a community which draws its membership from every country and culture. Only from within the loyalty and perspective of the kingdom can we exercise a true patriotism for communities and cultures deserving of a penultimate loyalty and provisional commitment.

Nor must patriotism be confused with an ethnocentric or chauvinistic view of the world. The qualities and achievements that evoke a love for one’s own country, however distinctive, should lead a true patriot to a respect and appreciation for other countries and cultures. No true love of country is blind to the failures, injustices and shameful episodes that mark the history and contemporary life of every country. A true patriotism will expose all that is evil or morally compromised in its own country, in the light of the gospel, and still love that country. Christian patriots like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil show the cost, honesty and courage required for true love of God and country in Christ.

Four Christian models

In conclusion, I wish to offer briefly four theological models of the nations in the divine economy which may be helpful in developing a Christian approach to the national question in a variety of contexts. They are different in their emphases but complementary. As with all models, no one model is adequate to reflect the richness of the biblical and theological tradition or the complexity of many situations. I will term these models of the nations within the divine economy the Christian identity model, the Christian liberation model, the Christian Democratic model and the kingdom ecology model. Each one draws on certain aspects of the above analysis and addresses particular issues of nationhood.

  1. The Christian identity model

Richard Niebuhr gave us a classic account of the relationship between Christ and culture, in which he proposed five typical answers in church history to the question of the proper relationship between the two: Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ transforming culture.22 Broadly, Christians have resisted, accommodated to or sought to convert culture. The evangelical scholar Robert Webber has proposed a modification of Niebuhr’s fivefold model, in what he terms an ‘incarnational’ model of Christ and culture.23 Christ himself in his incarnate life had a dynamic, threefold relationship to the surrounding Jewish and Gentile cultures which Christians should adopt. Depending on the context, Christ identified with his own culture, at times separated himself from it and above all transformed it, all in faithfulness to his gospel of the kingdom.

In my own work on nationhood, I have suggested that this Niebuhr/Webber model may be adapted to offer us one way of understanding the relationship between this particular historical form of Christ and culture, Christ and nation.24 In faithfulness to Christ and his gospel, and the model of the incarnation, Christians will have a threefold, dynamic relationship with nationhood in its varied historical forms, reflecting the threefold biblical drama of creation, redemption and restoration:

There can be a proper Christian identification with the nation to the extent that its life reflects within a particular community and identity that which constitutes our common humanity—the image and calling of God, given to us in creation and restored to us in Jesus Christ … In as much as the nations and nationalism express the idolatry and oppression of human sin, and reject God’s image and purpose, then the Christian is called to a twofold separation from national identity … from the nation’s idolatry and for God’s purpose [to find salvation in Jesus Christ, as members of a holy nation] … Christ calls his Church to share the Gospel of his Kingdom with the nations and the Revelation of John sees the wealth and healing of the nations as part of the life of the new humanity. As the Gospel makes its impact on the life of the nations, for time and eternity, it transforms those nations and every aspect of their nationhood and identity. It is the call to share the Gospel of the Kingdom of God with the nations and the prayer for that Kingdom to come which motivate Christians to work for the transforming of their national life according to Kingdom norms of justice and peace.25

This incarnational model of Christ and nation fundamentally affirms the nations as objects of God’s mercy and love, and opens up the possibility of a critical, discriminating and wise engagement with nationhood. It is an appropriate model for those contexts where Christians believe it legitimate to identify with their nation within their greater loyalty to Christ.

  1. The Christian liberation model

The American theologian Robert Schreiter has distinguished between two different types of contextual theology: theologies of identity and theologies of liberation.26 Theologies of identity seek to affirm and sustain the identity of particular cultures. Our Christian identification model above would fall into this category. Contextual theologies of liberation, however, focus on the faultlines of conflict and injustice within a particular culture and seek to interpret them in the light of the liberating gospel. In certain contexts this may offer a more relevant Christian model of nations within the divine economy. From the biblical period, when both Israel and the nations were judged by the prophets for their idolatry and oppression of the poor and the weak, God has been understood as a liberator from injustice among and within the nations.27

In situations today where one nation exploits another nation, or some within the life of a nation oppress others, then the gospel is a liberating defender of oppressed nations or communities within nations. This model may be helpful in a context where some find either the cultural and political hegemony of a state, or the linguistic hegemony of a ‘national’ unit within the state, threatening and oppressive. There is a legitimate non-violent nationalism inspired by the gospel which asserts the rights of small nations to their own autonomy and culture. There is a legitimate inter-nationalist politics inspired by the gospel which affirms the legitimacy of cultural diversity within a common civic life that reconciles the interests of different communities within a nation.

The gospel liberates people and communities into life in all its fullness. It also recognizes the reality of conflict and structural sin within the life of all human communities, not least those we call nations. A Christian liberation model of nations in the divine economy recognizes the reality of that conflict and oppression among the nations and calls for non-violent solutions offering justice with reconciliation.28 At the centre of a liberation model lies the cross and atonement. Out of faith in the crucified God comes a politics of solidarity with the oppressed, including the oppressed nations of the world.29 Our third model, taken from contemporary European politics, gives us a concrete example of what this can mean in practice.

  1. The Christian Democratic model

Christian Democracy is a continental political movement with no equivalent in the United Kingdom, reflecting the different experiences of secularization in Britain and mainland Europe. Christian Democrats seek to chart a middle way between right-wing conservatism or liberalism and left-wing socialism and collectivism, inspired by the values of the gospel and the church’s social teaching. While most European Christian Democratic parties are lay Catholic in origin, in The Netherlands the Christian Democratic party is a fusion of an earlier Catholic party with two Dutch Calvinist Reformed lay political parties, in the evangelical tradition, and inspired by the great Dutch Calvinist leader Abraham Kuyper. The Dutch Christian Democratic party (the CDA) ‘accepts the Biblical evidence of God’s promises, acts and commandments as of decisive significance for mankind, society and government. The CDA is guided by that evidence and intends to seek constantly the meaning of the Gospel with regard to political actions’.30 The gospel has inspired the CDA to base its policies on the normative principles of public justice, differentiated responsibility (subsidiarity), social solidarity and stewardship.

On that basis the CDA seeks support from all Dutch people and addresses the complex problems of contemporary Europe. One such pressing problem is the national question. In a recent study document, The National Question in Europe: A Christian Democratic Approach, Dutch Christian Democrats have offered a model for understanding nations based on their gospel-based principles of justice, subsidiarity and solidarity. This Christian Democratic model defines a nation as ‘a group of human beings with a common history, a shared value-system, usually a distinct language and a conscious awareness of this community’.31 Nations are to be distinguished from the state, which is entrusted with ensuring for all people under its jurisdiction the equal rule of law according to the norm of public justice.

On this basis Christian Democrats reject that form of political nationalism which demands a state that rules in the interests of one nation at the expense of other nationalities and communities within its jurisdiction. On the other hand, Christian Democrats, in their commitment to human rights, recognize the group rights of particular cultures and nationalities. This includes the right to self-determination and a ‘menu’ of cultural, economic and political rights which would allow for a range of political solutions to the ‘national question’ in Europe; from language, media and education rights for minority nationalities in a multi-national state, to local, regional or national autonomy within a more federalist multi-national state, to complete political independence in certain circumstances.

The Christian Democratic model offers a practical political model for implementing the principles found in a Christian understanding of nations in the divine economy. It seems to me that it is a creative and realistic model to which Christians need to give serious consideration in some situations. It may be a model which would help Christians in a nation like Wales, for example, to understand their own range of positions on national questions of language, autonomy and identity within a common commitment to the just rule of law in the state. Finally, the Christian Democratic model raises the critical issue of the distinct but related concepts of nation and state in political analysis and the divine economy.

  1. The Kingdom ecology model

My final model draws on a concept developed by the American sociologist Robert Bellah, and taken up by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, in his Reith Lectures, The Persistence of Faith.32 In his joint study of contemporary American society, Habits of the Heart, Bellah suggests that society may be seen as a ‘social and moral ecology’, a delicate fabric of moral and social values, habits of the heart, which sustain the common life of a nation. In America, the Judaeo-Christian biblical tradition is one important value-system in sustaining the social ecology of American life, along with the civic republican tradition of public virtue and duty. Today the moral ecology of America is threatened by the competing value-system of expressive individualism which privatizes society and minimizes social responsibility. Apart from political and institutional change, the social and moral ecology of a nation is vital to its well-being.

I have argued that we may think of a biblical ecology of nationhood, which offers us a social and moral ecology for nations.33 Within this ecology, the holy nation of God’s people, the church, co-exists with the historical nations of the earth within the overall environment of the kingdom of God. The well-being of both church and nation depends on sustaining the moral and social values of the gospel of the kingdom within both types of community. Both church and nation must reflect the habits of the heart shaped by the gospel and its kingdom values. Without such values, the moral and social ecology of the nation faces an ‘environmental crisis’. Even within more secular and pluralist societies, it is the callings of the Christian community to generate and sustain such values within the life of a nation. The gospel parables teach us that only a tiny seed can bear much fruit in a nation’s life, culture and politics. That is the ecology of the kingdom.

Wales in the divine economy

I have mentioned the example of Wales occasionally. It is pre-sumptuous of me to comment on where the models outlined above may place Wales within the divine economy. However, it would seem to me that there is clearly a proper and discriminating Christian affirmation of the linguistic, cultural and political dimensions of Welsh nationhood and nationalism that should not and may be lost amid a proper and discriminating judgment on any xenophobic expressions of Welsh identity. Christians, above all people, should be open to finding ways of affirming and reconciling the cultural and linguistic diversity within a land like this amid the wider loyalties of human existence in Britain, Europe and the larger world. Christians should explore ways of creating institutions and cultural patterns that will sustain and invigorate Wales, for example, as an autonomous nation enjoying multiple identities within the post-modern political realities of a world that is at once too small and too big for the constraining concept of the nation-state. The rich concept of the imago Deiallows for such an exciting historical development, as Christians seek to discover fresh ways of expressing nationhood in the twenty-first century. Let not the fear of vertigo prevent the praise of God from ringing out in all the languages and identities of the nations, as long as the gospel is not transgressed.


In addition to the works by Anderson, Clements, Kellas, Mouw, Storrar and Weil, mentioned in the notes, see:

F. Catherwood, A Better Way: the case for a Christian social order (London: IVP, 1975).

B. Goudzwaard, Idols of our Time (Downers Grove: IVP, 1984).

O.R. Johnston, Nationhood: Towards a Christian Perspective (Oxford: Latimer House, 1980).

B. Thorogood, The Flag and the Cross: National Limits and the Church Universal (London: SCM, 1988).

C. Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-Building and Human Rights (Cambridge: CUP, 1992).

1 See W. de Klerk, The Puritans in Africa: A Story of Afrikanerdom (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975); and J. de Gruchy, Cl. Villa-Vicencio (eds), Apartheid is a Heresy (Guildford: Lutterworth Press, 1983); also Keith W. Clements, A Patriotism for Today: Love of Country in Dialogue with the Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer(London: Collins, 1986), pp. 29f., 47f., 117.

2 For a detailed and classic study of the biblical material on nations, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Part 4, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961): ‘Near and Distant Neighbours’, pp. 285–323.

3 David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shift in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991). See also the several essays on a biblical understanding of nationhood and nationalism in Paul L. Ballard and D. Huw Jones (eds), This Land and People: A Symposium on Christian and Welsh National Identity (Cardiff: Collegiate Centre of Theology, 1979), esp. R. Tudur Jones, ‘Christian nationalism’.

4 Kenneth O. Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880–1980 (Oxford: OUP/University of Wales Press, pb edn, 1982), p. 415.

5 David McCrone, Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 219.

6 See Anthony Smith, Theories of Nationalism (London: Duckworth, 2nd edn, 1983); and Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (London: Methuen, 1977).

7 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, revised 2nd edn, 1991).

8 See William Storrar, Scottish Identity: A Christian Vision (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1990), ch. 6, pp. 110–136.

9 For an exploration of different theological views on the meaning of the imago Dei, see Ray Anderson, On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982); Douglas John Hall, Imaging God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986); G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962); David Cairns, The Image of God in Man (Glasgow: Collins, 1973).

10 See Anthony Smith, The Ethnic Revival in the Modern World (Cambridge: CUP, 1981); and The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).

11 For this view, see Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (London: Hutchinson, 3rd edn, 1966).

12 In support of the existence of pre-modern nationalism, see James G. Kellas, The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991); and William F. Storrar, From Identity to Liberation: Towards a New Practical Theology of Scottish Nationhood (Edinburgh University, unpublished PhD thesis, 1992).

13 See Keith W. Clements, A Patriotism for Today: Love of Country in Dialogue with the Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (London: Collins, 1986), pp. 78, 79; Storrar, From Identity to Liberation, ch. 1.

14 See Kedourie, Nationalism.

15 McCrone, Understanding Scotland, pp. 197–221.

16 Ibid., pp. 6–10.

17 Ibid., p. 219.

18 Ibid., p. 221.

19 See Ray Anderson, On Being Human.

20 Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).

21 Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978).

22 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

23 Robert Webber, The Secular Saint (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979).

24 Storrar, Scottish Identity, ch. 8, pp. 152–179.

25 Ibid., pp. 166–170.

26 Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (London: SCM Press, 1985).

27 See Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (London: SCM Press, revised edn, 1988); N. Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); Andrew Kirk’s writings on liberation theology from an evangelical perspective.

28 See Storrar, From Identity to Liberation, ch. 5.

29 See Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London: SCM Press, 1974); idem, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press, 1981); idem, Theology of Hope (London: SCM Press, 1967).

30 Christen Democratisch Appel, Programme of Basic Principles (Gravenhage: CDA, nd, c. 1980), p. 2.

31 CDA Institute, Gravenhage, The National Question: A Christian Democratic Approach (1993).

32 See Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985); Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991).

33 See Storrar, Scottish Identity; idem, From Identity to Liberation.

William Storrar