In this year of elections, research associate Peter King invites us to consider an alternative to Christian Nationalism…

In the aftermath of the elections to the European Parliament and with elections coming up in France, the UK and USA this year we are likely to hear a lot about nationalism in the next few months. Indeed, even as I write this news comes through of the upcoming God Bless The USA Bible bringing together in one volume Christian Scripture and the U.S. Constitution.

There will be much talk of so-called Christian Nationalism but much less said about whether Christianity and Nationalism are actually compatible with one another. With this in mind, I would like to suggest that there is an alternative to nationalism with which people of faith could be engaging and which is far more compatible with core Christian beliefs about the world.

The claim that all are created and loved by God is central to Christian faith:  

In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God’s image,
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.

Brief Statement of Faith, Presbyterian Church USA (1983)

I can still remember the Falklands War in the early 1980s. I was at University in Scotland, studying theology, and engaging with ideas of pacifism and nonviolence. What sticks in my mind some forty years on, is the argument for the sinking of the Argentinian warship General Belgrano with the loss of 323 lives, which was that it was to save the lives of ‘our side’. Yet then, as now, I continue to believe that every life is unique and valuable, whatever nationality, and that if this is what the church believes too then this should in some way be apparent in its preaching and teaching and living. Something of this idea was, no doubt, behind the controversial decision of the then Archbishop of Canterbury (Robert Runcie) to express compassion for those of both sides of the conflict in the subsequent Commemoration Service.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash   

But one does not have to be a person of faith, or indeed a pacifist, to recognise that all human beings are of immeasurable worth.  Cosmopolitanism is a philosophical position which holds that all alike have a moral claim on us, irrespective of national boundaries or any other form of separation:

In its most basic form, cosmopolitanism maintains that there are moral obligations owed to all human beings based solely on our humanity alone, without reference to race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, political affiliation, state citizenship or other communal particularities.

Garratt Wallace Brown & David Held, ’Editors’ Introduction’, in Brown & Held, The Cosmopolitan Reader (Polity 2010), p. 1

The original cosmopolitan citizen was the Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who when asked where he came from answered “I am a citizen of the world”. For a Greek male this was quite a revolutionary statement, as their identity was rooted in their membership of the city state.

Indeed, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes, cosmopolitanism will not necessarily be a popular position:

The Stoics are aware that the life of the cosmopolitan, and the cosmopolitan’s concern with goals of world cooperation and respect for personhood, may be difficult to sell to citizens who are hooked on local group loyalties, with their colorful slogans and the psychological security they can inspire. The life of the world citizen is, in effect, as Diogenes the Cynic said, a kind of exile – from the comfort of local truths, from the warm nestling feeling of local loyalties, from the absorbing drama of pride in oneself and one’s own. 

Martha Nussbaum, ‘Kant & Cosmopolitanism’ in Brown & Held, p. 32

British Prime Minister Teresa May demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the term when she declared in the aftermath of the UK’s EU referendum, that

If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.
You don’t understand what citizenship means.

To be a cosmopolitan is not to reject the inner circle of relationships in our lives – family, friends and community – but to refuse to let one’s life be confined to it. As Jesus challenges his hearers to recognise their neighbour beyond the religious and ethnic boundaries of  their community in the parable of the Good Samaritan, so too for the cosmopolitan

Allegiance is owed, first and foremost, to the moral realm of all humanity, not to the contingent groupings of nation, ethnicity, and class. … Such a position does not require that individuals give up local concerns and affiliations to family, friends, and fellow countrymen; it implies, instead, that they must acknowledge these as morally contingent and that their most important duties are to humanity as a whole …

David Held, ‘Principles of Cosmopolitan Order’ in Brown & Held, p. 229

For the cosmopolitan, the call to love our neighbour takes on global dimensions, as many people of faith will already affirm. This does not mean that we can ignore those within our immediate circle but our commitment to, and concern for,  others does not stop at the boundaries of home, community or nation. The story of the Good Samaritan recurs in cosmopolitan literature precisely because it challenges its readers to reframe their concept of neighbour, expanding it far beyond the boundaries of their immediate community.

Making use of another concept familiar to people of faith, in her discussion of cosmopolitanism Martha Nussbaum cites the image of the body:

A favored exercise, in this process of world thinking, is to conceive of the entire world of human beings as a single body, its many people as so many limbs … as a reminder of the interdependence of all human beings and communities.

Martha C Nussbaum, ‘Patriotism & Cosmopolitanism’ (1994)

As Nussbaum goes on to suggest, this image has ‘fundamental significance’, and perhaps for those of us in the Christian tradition, Paul’s image of the church as a body, as well as the metaphor – used by both ancient and modern theologians – of the world as “God’s body” might come together to further  encourage and challenge us to take seriously our call to be citizens of the world.

Hastings. Photo: Peter King

Offering further resonances with Christian faith, another writer speaks of cosmopolitanism as addressing the ‘common human tendency towards division’:

Whatever separates humans, segregates them into distinct competing and conflicting groups, and bars the formation of a supranational community based on universal humanity, is seen as the source of much human suffering. The various forms of group bias tend to lead to ideological delusion, myopic self-aggrandizement, isolation, racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, jingoism, and violence …

Jason Dockstader, ‘Cynic Cosmopolitanism’, European Journal of Political Theory (2018)

Seeking to bring unity and oneness out of disunity and division brings to mind Paul’s claim that:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

Although Paul is addressing the Christian community, his words have significance for every one of us, because the church is itself called to be an example of the oneness of all humanity, indeed of the entire created order.    

Elsewhere, calling for what he refers to as “new cities of refuge” in response to the increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, Philosopher Jacques Derrida draws on cosmopolitanism, and makes connections with the thought of the Apostle Paul. Derrida speaks of a ‘secularised version of … Pauline cosmopolitanism’ and cites his own version of Ephesians 2: 19 – 20:

And so you are no longer foreigners abroad …, you are fellow-citizens of the saints, you belong to the House of God.’

Jacques Derrida, ‘On Cosmopolitanism’ in Brown & Held, p. 420

In light of everything I have said so far, it seems clear to me that cosmopolitanism offers a vastly better fit with Christian faith than does nationalism. Yet we hear much more about so-called Christian Nationalism than about Christian Cosmopolitanism.

Mindful that we worship a God who knows no borders or boundaries, perhaps it is time for our churches to reflect on what it means to be world citizens. As an integral part of the school curriculum, “citizenship education” seeks to produce active and informed citizens at a national level. Maybe churches could consider their own version of citizenship education, encouraging members to see themselves as world citizens and to think and act accordingly. 

In face of increasing populism and chauvinistic nationalism, therefore, I would suggest that cosmopolitanism offers a way of looking at the world which might begin the process of breaking down the borders and boundaries we so fearfully build up around ourselves. 

Some years ago I was at a Pax Christi event in London where the Roman Catholic, latterly Orthodox, peace activist Jim Forest was speaking. Talking with him afterwards he shared with me his idea that we should wear badges with that wonderful 1968 photograph of the earth from space on them as signs of our commitment to peacemaking. Perhaps that might also be a sign of our commitment to be citizens of the world.

When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we live together like decent people?

Frank Boorman, Apollo 8, December 1968

Research Associate Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.

Who is my neighbour?

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