The tragic death of Jo Cox MP has had a cauterising effect on political debate over the last couple of days. Politicians seem embarrassed for the way they have been treating each other in the referendum debate. Perhaps now, cooled tempers can allow us to think respectfully and with humility about the great judgement we each have to make this week. So far the debate has focused mainly on three issues: the future trajectory of the economy, democracy, and immigration. You can read the tea leaves how you please on the first, have a reasoned argument about accountability on the second, but it is immigration that really raises the blood pressure. So let me here make my contribution to the debate as a Christian who believes passionately in biblical nationhood, but who is appalled by racism and nationalism.
Is it true that the opposite of internationalism must be racial hatred? Is the only way to avoid racial hatred to have open borders and not to care about our own culture, language and history? Is it time to lose our British identity and throw in our lot fully with the EU, joining the Euro and signing up to a European army and a fully federal government? If not, is the only alternative to the EU an inward looking, idolatrous nationalism fuelled by racial hatred? I am polarising here, of course, but that is because the debate is being polarised by both sides in extreme terms. In my next post I will try and address the Pro-European end of this polarity. Here I want to focus on idolatrous nationalism and race hatred.
There is a line to be drawn between nationhood and nationalism. A healthy understanding of nationhood will mean that a nation is at ease with its place in the world, happy to celebrate its own culture and hold a national conversation in its own language, while taking a positive interest in the lives of its neighbouring nations and celebrating cultural diversity where it occurs, such as in major cities, without feeling threatened by this. Nationhood has transgressed into nationalism when it starts to despise other nations and to use cultural difference as a basis for prejudice. The fear of the “Other” becomes a driving force for strengthening the nation against outside threats, and nationalism’s own brand of paranoia takes hold, which can soon escalate into international aggression and ethnic cleansing. The belief that a nation has a right to exist at all costs and to the detriment of other surrounding nations is what distinguishes nationalism from a healthy understanding of nationhood. The power of the nation begins to usurp the place of God and to become a new idolatry, such as was seen in the cultic ceremonies of twentieth century fascism and communism. In the Book of Revelation the beast and the woman demand the total allegiance of their subjects to achieve their evil and oppressive ends, a vision only too clearly experienced in human history. No Christian should ever go along with such nationalist idolatry.
The concept of race hatred is more complex, more recent, and deeply troubling. It has its roots in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when the early anthropologists categorised the human race into different racial groups. This was used in America to justify slavery, and it is striking that the language of race holds sway in America today in a way that it does not in Europe. It was also the basis on which South Africa developed its Apartheid system. The theological justification for Apartheid’s racial segregation published by the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) was odd, to say the least. They argued that when God judged the nations at Babel, he not only scattered them by language difference, but somehow also by bringing in racial difference. The suggestion is that at Babel facial characteristics and physical changes such as skin colour and stature suddenly began to change. ‘Diversity and pluriformity was intensified, with the result that various peoples and races came into existence to an extraordinary degree.’ They then argued that this was the basis of racial separation, and it was used to justify the oppression of the Apartheid regime. Today, much has changed in South Africa, for which I rejoice. Yet we still seem to be stuck with the concept of race, especially in America.
Let me make a bold assertion: race is a thoroughly unbiblical idea, and it is high time we scrapped it.
The human race is one race, that can trace its roots back to the family of Noah through the Table of Nations. As nations spread and multiplied across the world, so external genetic differences have developed, and life in each nation has developed differently, so that each has its own history, culture and language. But we are still the same human race, made in the image of God, and we must renounce the idea that the human race breaks down into different racial groupings. I want to argue instead that as you travel the world, you can see how physical characteristics have developed across continents. The human race is one whole, and where there are physical differences, they happen by degrees across continents. It is not possible to say ‘He is Asian, she is European’ or ‘I am African, you are Arab’ because there is a blurring of physical characteristics between these groups. The human race is one, with all its beautiful variety to be celebrated as a gift from God.
The biblical concept of nations rejects both the idolatry of nationalism and the secular racial theories of Enlightenment anthropology. Indeed, as you look at the way nations interact in Scripture, their boundaries are porous, without each nation losing its identity. The classic Old Testament example of this is Ruth, who marries into the people of Israel, and in coming back to Bethlehem declares ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ (Ruth 1:16). In the following chapter, the foreman of Boaz cannot bring himself to use Ruth’s name, calling her simply ‘the Moabite’, so there is an air of nationalistic tension, that is broken by the grace of God in Boaz. The boundaries of Israel prove porous enough to assimilate a Moabite widow. This has become a common-place in the New Testament, where the gospel writers are still deeply interested in nations and national identity, but where there are plenty of people on the move. Simon comes from Cyrene, Barnabas from Cyprus, Timothy from Galatia and Paul from Tarsus, but they all learn how to assimilate into other cultures and serve the nations where they live. So the New Testament has a healthy interest in nations and how they receive and express the gospel, but it is noticeably lacking in nationalism. It is also completely devoid of any concept of race.
Let’s bring this back to our own situation at the end of a painful, grief-stricken week in our history. Anyone who says ‘Britain First’ in the sense that there is some racial British identity that has existed back into the mists of time, needs to ask ‘which Britain?’ Britain is like every nation: a defined land, with a common language and culture, a shared history and a sense of national solidarity, but this is always in a state of change. We are a nation made up of Celts who sailed up our western seaboard, Anglo-Saxons who sailed across the channel, and Vikings who crossed the North Sea. (Some Viking names remain in Suffolk.) Much changed when the Normans invaded, and again when we started to travel the world and trade. We changed when the Huguenots fled persecution and added their culture to our national life, which is why my Kent relations have names like Oliver (from Olivier) and Buss (from Debussy). Since Tudor times people have come to find a home in Britain because they value our freedom of speech and the rule of law. I am listening to the Radio 4 Today programme as I write this, and John Humphries is suggesting that immigration started after World War Two – a gross simplification. We have always been a nation that has woven together many different backgrounds to make a new identity. Yes, that process has rapidly accelerated over the last fifty years, but it is not a new phenomenon; it has been happening since the Vikings, even since the Romans came here.
In the current immigration debate, you can have a pragmatic debate about the level of immigration, which is fair enough. Every country that is popular has to limit levels of immigration to enable it to assimilate people into society, house them and provide healthcare and education. The system has to be fair, and there are a great many unfairnesses in our present system. I have had conversations with people who say ‘far too many people are coming in’, but the moment you discuss the case of anyone who falls foul of UK Immigration, manifest injustices appear: husbands unable to return home from mission with the wife they married while serving abroad; young couples getting married in America, then having to spend the first two months of married life apart because of British bureaucracy. Not to mention the long and creaking process of asylum applications. If we care so much about immigration, why can’t it be properly staffed and funded? Why can’t we learn from injustice and improve the system?
But never let it be said, as I have heard so many say in ‘Vox Pop’ interviews on the news this week, that we should just ‘Stop immigration for a while’. That is the Trump approach, and it stinks of racism and national superiority. Immigration enriches our country. If a young immigrant girl from Moab can go to Bethlehem, marry Boaz and become the grandmother of King David, then we need to celebrate all those who come to add to the rich tapestry of our British life.
Last Saturday, several thousand people gathered in the market square in Abingdon, where we live, to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. We did this in the nuttiest of ways, with a bun-throwing! The town Councillors went up onto the roof of the county hall to throw 4500 buns into the waiting crowd. This bizarre tradition goes back 400 years and may have had something to do with feeding the poor (who knows?), but today it is a wonderfully English occasion. Yet in the crowd of thousands were faces of every colour, and people from all manner of nations, standing together shoulder to shoulder, happy to be one, to sing the national anthem and try and catch a bun. Occasions like that are wonderful expressions of national harmony. It is desperately sad that the profound tragedy and outrage of Jo Cox’s murder may have eclipsed that in our minds.
 Human Relations in South Africa: report of the Committee on Current Affairs adopted by the General Synod of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, October 1966.