I could have written an article with this title a year ago, but it would not have been quite as jarring as this one is. In the past year, I have expanded my knowledge considerably of my black friends’ worldview, and have altered mine in the process. This has been a very rewarding and very disturbing adventure for me. Let me give you some advance warning regarding this article, especially if you are white. I am about to not just disturb a sacred cow, I’m going to kick it in the gut. Buckle your seat belt and hold on tight ─ but please keep reading!
Nationalism and Patriotism
You may well be thinking, what does Nationalism have to do with racism? More than you think. Nationalism is defined thusly by Merriam Webster: “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations.” The same dictionary defines a related word, patriotism, as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” You can have a love for your nation without the pride of viewing it as superior to all other nations. You can be patriotic without being a nationalist.
I have traveled to many different nations and asked citizens of those nations what they thought of the United States. The answers are often not complimentary. Of course, our citizens are quick to say, “They are just jealous.” Although there is some truth to that in many cases, it is not the whole story.
I remember asking a young, successful businessman in Holland what he thought of the US. He said a bit hesitantly, “Do you really want to know?” to which I replied, “Of course.” He answered something to this effect: “I don’t think your country actually has a culture, but the closest thing to it is money.” To his amazement, I agreed with him. As a nation, we are materialistic to the core. We worship money and the materialism which it buys, irrespective of how much of it we actually have.
A common answer to my question is that our country is seen as a war mongering country. What about that one? Look at our history and tell me that there is no truth to this! We have our ways of justifying it, because after all, we’re the good guys, right? My impression from the answers I receive from those in other nations is that they are mainly turned off by our nationalistic pride, our sense of superiority as a nation. If God resists the proud (1 Peter 5:5), you can bet that humans will also. Pride is the disease that makes everyone sick except the one who has it!
I recall one of the first times I traveled to another country. Because of airline scheduling problems, I had to spend a short night in Thailand en route to Singapore. A hotel van picked up a number of us at the airport, and it quickly became evident why many in other countries call us “Ugly Americans.” Although the van occupants were from many countries, it didn’t take long to figure out that the obnoxious loudmouth was American. He showed a sense of entitlement and arrogance that embarrassed me. I’m surprised that I didn’t say anything to him (which could have led to something bad ─ like me getting punched in the mouth!).
Yes, I know that most of us travelers from the US are not like him, but enough are to give us a poor reputation. The sin of nationalism shows up in many ways, in and out of the US. Our political system reeks of it. Perhaps you are asking what this has to do with racism. At this point of my article, it’s a fair question, but keep reading. I want to explain both secular nationalism and religious nationalism, which I hope will help you understand the direct tie-in to racism.
This type is not tied to religion at all, or if it is by some, it is so very loosely. Those Americans in this camp just believe that we are a nation superior to all other nations, past and present. We are the special ones. We have democracy and capitalism in combination, and our richness financially shows that this combination is the best combination possible.
Those guilty of this sin (with its pride and self-righteousness) look at our founding documents as being nearly divinely inspired. For example, the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence are music to many ears. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Oh yes, we have gloried in that lofty statement ─ if we are white! When Thomas Jefferson wrote this document, he was a slave owner ─ and you ask what nationalism has to do with racism?
Liberty and Justice for All?
A close friend of mine, a black disciple in his late 50s, told me that when he was in high school (and an exceptionally good student academically), he refused to stand, put his hand over his heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in his first class. Although this was before he became a disciple, can you understand why he would refuse, especially back in the days of his youth? The last words of the pledge state: “with liberty and justice for all.” He wasn’t seeing much justice toward his race and his liberty was far more limited than for whites.
Like most black men, as an adult he has been pulled over by the police for no other reason than DWB (driving while black). Some white folks ask, “Are you saying that such racial profiling still takes place?” If you are asking that question, you thereby just admitted that you are not taking my advice and talking to black people about racial issues. Yes, it still takes place!
Just to be clear, I am grateful to be an American citizen. I enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that have come my way as a white man. I am blessed with what is in my case a unique country in many ways. But isn’t it obvious that the percentage of whites that feel this way is much larger than the percentage of blacks sharing that sentiment? And, I must admit that even when I use the term “American citizen,” I wonder what those living north and south of our borders are thinking, since they live in North and South America, respectively. The fact that we residents of the United States claim the term American exclusively for ourselves shows us something about the presence of our undergirding of nationalism. To insert a bit of humor, it is understandable to me why the Canadians refer to us as “The Crazy States of America.”
This type of nationalism is characterized by those often referred to as the “religious right.” This became a politically focused group a number of years ago, although it is dying out as the Old Guard that brought it into being is dying out. Its early beginnings can be traced back to the 1940s, although it became much more popular in the 1970s, when it began exercising a fair amount of political clout.
The group is united through its focus on conservative views of morality, especially in the sexual realm, plus a desire for more open acceptance of Christian values. On those points, I cannot disagree, but morality is broader than the sexual arena and some things that morality should encompass are glossed over by the religious right (the sins of materialism and racism often being two of those). Strongly focused on “American exceptionalism,” these folk often add to that a belief that America is God’s “chosen nation” in our day. This leads to, in the minds of some, a divinely endorsed nationalism.
Nationalism and False Doctrine
My concern is how this brand of nationalism is accepted in biblically doctrinal areas. For starters, the old-timers in this group describe our country as a “Christian nation.” Since our nation’s founding documents reflect more Judeo-Christian values than those of most nations, it is assumed that we are a Christian nation. Don’t get me wrong, for I am appreciative that biblical values were thus reflected, but that didn’t make us a Christian nation. Accepting the teachings of Christ as individuals (and obeying them) makes us Christians, so the question is whether the majority of our nation was ever Christian. Based on my understanding of the Bible, I would have to say no. But even if that were to happen, God’s only “nation” would still be that “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” Peter describes when he speaks of those who have been born anew and called out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). And this holy nation is made of men and women from all nations, races, tribes and tongues.
However, since most of our early inhabitants viewed themselves as Christian, they saw God as being supportive of the paths they took in the development of the nation. The term Manifest Destiny is an important one in looking at our early expansion. Manifest Destiny was a phrase based on the concept of divine sanction for the territorial expansion of the United States. It first appeared in print in 1845, proclaiming “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our multiplying millions.”
It was first used to justify the annexation of Texas and then other territories won through the Mexican-American War. The idea was also used to justify the slaughter of Native Americans and the placement of those who survived into reservations, often in areas that were isolated and considered of little value to the general population. (If you have not seen it, the cable TV show and Netflix hit, Longmire, will help you better understand how many Native Americans feel toward white people and why.)
Money, and Might Makes Right
I could go much further with some of the ungodly concepts upon which our nation was founded and expanded, but you get the idea. Like the Jews, who in the Old Testament were promised financial blessings for righteous living, citizens of the US have likewise often mistaken all financial gain as proof of righteousness, regardless of how it has been obtained. Hopefully you can see how the idea of being a Christian nation permeated the thinking of most of the populace to the extent that it pretty much reached the point for many of “might makes right.” If you accept the premise that most of what you are able to do is because God thus enabled you to do it, you don’t need much imagination to understand how slavery was justified. Scary stuff indeed!
Back to the present. With the understanding of how religious people have viewed God as being supportive of so much of what we have done as a “Christian” nation, including our wars, it should not come as a surprise that the military is viewed almost as an extension or arm of the church. I have an evangelical friend who prays often, but even in prayers for meals, prays for the military in hallowed tones.
He and most of those in Christian oriented nationalism circles never stop to think about what Jesus said about loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44). After all, aren’t we a Christian nation, led and supported by God, even in our wars? I know this is a complex issue and that disciples have different views on it, but my point is that those who are guilty of religious nationalism haven’t even stopped to consider it, much less study it out for themselves. The movie “Hacksaw Ridge” shows that we can be patriotic while refusing to violate our conscience spiritually. Again, I understand that this is an extremely sensitive topic, since systemic nationalism and systemic racism are kissing cousins.
Of course, millions of black people went overseas to fight those wars, only to return to a nation that denied them the very rights that their comrades died for in those wars. Yes, yes, I know it is much better now and black folks are being given more opportunities, but “freedom and justice for all” remains more of an elusive goal than most whites imagine. We are very uncomfortable even considering these issues, which is why a number of articles on “White Fragility” are written, many by those who are white themselves. I will add an article on this myself at some point, because it is hindering what I am trying to help us with.
I am not guilty of making anyone a slave. But as a white person, should I feel any responsibility in any way for what my white ancestors did? Jesus took responsibility for our sins, and died for them. Surely there is something in his example that should be found in my life.
Maybe a family example will help us understand better. My dad was a bar room brawler when he was young. Suppose I met someone whose dad was severely and permanently damaged by my dad in a fight. Would I not express some sorrow over what my father did, even though I didn’t do it and am in no way guilty for it? What if my great-great grandfather, John Ferguson, a constable in Union Parish of Louisiana, had mistakenly prosecuted someone for a crime of which he was innocent, and I met a relative of that unjustly charged man? Would I not feel compelled to apologize and express my sorrow for what happened, even though it was in the latter part of the 1800s? (By the way, John was himself ambushed and murdered on December 16, 1887. That part is fact.) Wouldn’t it be appropriate to apologize for something a relative of mine did – precisely because he was a relative and we were in that way connected? I have some connection to my race in this country, for we who are of European descent are white Americans.
A Bible Example
Nehemiah was a Jew living in Persia and cupbearer to the king. Although he was living the good life, he had concern for the exiles still living in his homeland. When he found out about how they were faring (“in great trouble and disgrace” ─ Nehemiah 1:3), he was heart-broken. Read the following segment of his prayer carefully: “let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6-7).
This man had nothing to do directly with the sins of the Israelites that led to their deportation. He was evidently raised in Persia by parents who taught him about his people and their religion. But he included himself as a part of the Israelites who had sinned and brought on the deportation. They were his people, and he wanted to bear the burdens of their plight and even feel a share of their guilt.
Tears Are Good
I posted a video on Facebook a while back that my black friend Walter Parrish sent me, a video that made me cry. (See it at https://www.facebook.com/victoryatl/videos/10154573990894370/). I cried because of realizing all over again how much Jesus did for me and for us all, regardless of our race or culture. I also cried because of what my friend has endured through the years because of the color of his skin.
Here is what I wrote to Walter with tears in my eyes (the tears just returned): “Thank you, Walter. It did me good to start this early Saturday morning off by crying. This was better than good stuff ─ it was WONDERFUL stuff and absolutely spot on accurate. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry for all that you and others like you have had to endure just because the color of your skin. I’m ashamed of my race in this country and the carnage we have introduced to a number of minority groups, and then dare to call ourselves as a nation, great. We have committed as a race and as a nationality damnable sins ─ and most of us are absolutely blind to it. I’m sorry. Thank you for providing me something to pass on to help others like me who need to learn and need to understand. It will be put to good use, trust me.”
I have never treated Walter badly. He was a valued original member of my BBB (Big Black Brothers) Club in Boston (read the article on my website about this club ─ gordonferguson.org). But he has shared with me the stories about how he has been treated as a black man in a pretty racist city, and I hurt for him. I want to bear some of the responsibility for what members of my race have done to him and apologize. I want to be a representative of the white race in the US and say, “I’m sorry.” Can you understand that? If not, just know I am praying for you to someday, somehow start understanding.
Blind No Longer
Nationalism has played a significant part in the racism that we have allowed in our nation. Our pride caused us to be blind to it, and we cannot remain blind any longer. As I will keep repeating, the sins in the world are not going to disappear, for hatred and prejudice are always going to be a part of it. But we in the church, who claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, must be different. We must feel for one another and with one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), for “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29). “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
I have had a couple of the readers of my blog articles write to accuse me of being on a guilt trip and writing what I write as a result. No, I am not on a guilt trip, but I am on a love trip. I’m trying to walk in the shoes of my brothers and sisters of color as much as I can in order to understand, feel and help carry their pain. I’ve read articles about “White Fragility” regarding our reluctance to discuss race with those of a different race. If we are Christians, we cannot be fragile.
Jesus’ Pain Was More Than a Cross
God emptied himself into the form of a man named Jesus, not just to die for our sins, but to face and feel what we face and feel. You can’t say it better than the writer of Hebrews did in Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Not only did he learn to feel as we feel, even though he was God in the flesh, he had to learn through suffering how to do that very thing. “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:8-10).
Will We Imitate Jesus’ Heart?
If Jesus was willing to suffer to the point of death to fully understand us, in order to keep helping us through all of our days on this earth, I must be willing to suffer by getting out of my white person’s cocoon enough to understand as much as I can in order to help my brothers and sisters. Does Jesus not make it plain that his charge to “deny self, take up our cross and follow him” cannot make us exempt from the same kinds of pain that he endured for all people, those of every tribe, tongue and nation? Honestly, we are talking about Christianity 101 here, folks, not some advanced graduate course. Stop with the excuses, hesitation and postponement. Get with our people of color, black and brown, talk and listen with open ears and an open heart.
Nationalism has helped pave the way into the mess we are in; Jesus will help pave the way out of it. Get on the right path and let’s be family, all on equal ground at the foot of the cross as forgiven sinners.
Image used Courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.