‘More than any of the other great and familiar principalities of this world – more than the university or the corporation or the profession, or even race – the nation is a symbol of salvation for men, an image of the Kingdom; it is a facsimile of that order, tranquility, dominion, and fulfillment of life in society which seems lost in the present era and yet after which men yearn persistently despite all disillusionments and defeats’ (p. 47). So begins Stringfellow’s assessment of the idol of patriotism. He proceeds to argue that the ‘sheer arrogance of the idolatrous claims of nations, perhaps especially those possessed of enormous economic and military strength, is so startling’ that our fascination with such idolatry can be ‘explained in no other conceivable manner than as moral insanity’ (p. 48). Throughout the book, Stringfellow assesses that the idols are always in competition with each other, but this competition is nowhere more ferocious, he insists, than where the idols are nations: ‘The necessary corollary of the claim that a nation is God’s surrogate in the world is the invincibility inherent in the ultimacy of a nation’s cause, and this notion is sufficient to rationalize any aggression, subversion, or subjection between nations. This is what every war attests. Or, to put the same thing a bit differently, as with all idols, the actual moral power on which the nation as an idol relies and to which it appeals in its practical conduct is the power of death’ (pp. 48–9).
And as with the other idols that Stringfellow names throughout this book, his concern here is a positive one, positive, that is, as defined by the interruption to the demonic rule of the principalities that takes place in the resurrection of Jesus, an event which reconstitutes and inaugurates humanity into life and freedom amidst the death and bondage regimes of the principalities and their idols. His concern throughout is to assist us to ‘identify our own idols as a first step towards freeing ourselves from enslavement to them’ (p. 51)
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Does Stringfellow make any distinction between patriotism and nationalism? I certainly agree that nations often become idols, and that this idolatry often leads to war. I’m wondering whether he leaves any room for any kind of patriotism.