Stringfellow on patriotism and nationalism

A question arising from the previous post is whether Stringfellow makes any distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. I am yet to read all of Stringfellow’s writings, but my sense thus far is that any distinction made between the two typically is equally concerned to hold the two together. So he understands patriotism as one of the clearest expressions of the idolatry of nationhood. Patriotism, according to Stringfellow, is just one of the ‘legion’ of principalities, alongside which he names the Pentagon, the Ford Motor Company, Harvard University, the Diners Club, the Olympics, the Methodist Church (I’m yet to discover what he has against the Methodist Church), capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, and the family. (See An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 78).

He also avers, in Imposters of God, that ‘… no nation enjoys exemption from idolatry; no subjects of any nation can escape the claims of idolatrous patriotism, whatever aesthetic or temperamental distinctions may lodge in this or that particular scene’ (pp. 100–1). And so, in another place, he cautions the ‘biblical person’ to always be ‘wary of claims which the State makes for allegiance, obedience, and service under the rubric called patriotism’ (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 113)

Nationalism, therefore, is nothing short of blasphemous, making promises that only God can deliver on, and proclaiming a bastard Gospel which announces a pagan form of (political, economic and, in some cases religious) salvation. Nationalism is, to borrow from Luther, God’s ape (!), never having an original idea in its life but only setting itself in God’s place. Nationalism is simply idol worship sanctioned and demanded by the local god, the state claiming worship that belongs to Christ alone, and a level of commitment that belongs to the body of Christ alone. Rowan Williams’ essay, ‘Being a People: Reflections on the Concept of the “Laity”’ (Religion, State & Society 27/1, 1999), is very helpful here. Reflecting on Stringfellow’s statement that ‘the church is the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations’, Williams writes:

‘In the face of the demonic presence in national social and political life of the trend towards idolatry, towards absolutising the local and tangible, and of the incapacity of worldly nations effectively to repent and be converted, the Church – a visible, institutional ground of identity, a historically tangible `people’ – represents the calling of all human beings to belong together in justice. In this sense, the Church is also, for Stringfellow, ‘the priest of nations’: while it is visibly a polity and structure among others, it has the task not only of showing to others what the true ground of human belonging is, but also of undertaking what he calls ‘advocacy’ on behalf of every victim in such a way that it becomes worship. This is a complex idea, expressed (as usual with Stringfellow) in painfully compressed form. What it seems to mean is this. The Church’s willingness to stand with the victims of the nations of this world arises out of its own experience of God’s victory over death, its own experience of the possibility of resisting the power of idolatry and so discovering what cannot be destroyed. So when it stands with the powerless and the victims, it does so in conscious and articulate gratitude for God’s ability to take us beyond death. Advocacy becomes praise; and praise itself, properly understood, is a political matter because it witnesses to a God who brings us where no power or principality of this earth can intimidate or confine us’. (p. 12)

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