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Christianity, Humanity and the New Nationalism

Christianity, Humanity and the New Nationalism

This essay is taken from the new volume ‘Is God a Populist?’ a partnership between Theos and the Norwegian think tank Skaperkraft. 07/01/2020

Nationalists’ promises to place their people’s interests first, rest on at least one false premise. Their citizens are part of the humankind that shares a common earth. Christians should confront populism with optimism and universal solidarity.

Nationalistic populist movements are gaining ground across Europe.  As we are carried into the future on the shoulders of the past, it is perhaps unsurprising that this new nationalism is not completely new. Indeed, it began with the German national reunification in 1990 and the end of the East–West conflict in 1993. At this time, the Soviet Union dissolved itself and the Eastern bloc vanished with it. Gorbachev wanted to keep socialist internationalism alive, but Yeltsin won and a new Russia with a new brand of Russian nationalism emerged. Russia had become an overburdened guardian for the soviet world and its cause. When Yeltsin won, the dream of a united communist humankind died.  Today President Putin represents this new nationalism.

Whereas the Eastern bloc disintegrated all of a sudden, the so called “Free World” in the West has dissolved much more slowly. But now a new nationalism is both gradually eroding and replacing the old “democratic community” of the West. As with Russia of the 1980ies, the US of the 2010s is feeling overburdened by its role as the guardian of the West and leader of the “Free World”. It was this fatigue that made President Trumps “America first” campaign successful. One pillar of his argument is that the US is being taken advantage of by a free–riding Europe, and it explains several of Trump’s arguments. It explains why Trump feels that America is dealt with “unfairly” in trade, and he has argued that other countries have the upper hand with, for example, “German cars pour into the country as water” or why he wants European states to pay for the US’ military presence on their soil.

The new American nationalism is increasingly driving the US into isolation. It could have been more fitting for Trump to have campaign for “America alone”. It would be to turn back the clock to American policy prior to the second world war. In 2019 a new competition is beginning between the nations, which is starting to break–down the international mechanisms of cooperation. At the end of the second decade economic wars and cyberattacks happen in peacetime, and political narratives are shifting back towards a survival of the fittest, which, for the time being, remains the US. No one would have imagined this state of affairs and the beginning of the century.

A result of this new nationalism is that the transnational organisations of humankind that were built to guarantee peace, such as the United Nations or the European Union, are to be destroyed. Trump, for example, has made it known that he is not a fan of the UN. As Trump complained in April 2017, “The United States, just one of 193 countries in the U.N., pays for 22 percent of the budget and almost 30 percent of the United Nations peacekeeping, which is unfair.”[i] Under Trump, the US has left the UN’s 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change, left UNESCO and left the UN’s Human Rights Council. These organisations exert normative pressure on countries, whose leaders have decided to put their own interests before the common good. Economically, bilateral “deals” have supplanted the WTO’s multilateral agreements. Whilst it may look as if the hard–work towards a democratic dream of a peaceful humankind is coming apart, I would argue that it is a temporary hiccup – not a requiem for a dream. 

Even Americans and Russians are part of humankind

The problems that humans face today simply cannot be solved at the national level by national governments. The danger of “atomic suicide” (Sacharov) still calls for transnational structures and some form of world order. The progressive destruction of nature calls for an ecological reconstruction of our industrial societies that should occur across all nations. However, certain signs of a universal counter–shift in favour of action and transnational agreement are visible. In Europe, school strikes spearheaded by climate warriors such Greta Thunberg, progress in reducing climate emissions by such countries as Denmark or the UK, changes in the recycling industries, and the success of the Green parties in the 2019 European elections show that change is coming.

In addition to the challenges mentioned above humankind must tackle overpopulation, migration and poverty, all of which call for a new way to organise humanity. The ideal State of Humankind on this earth, which Immanuel Kant referred to as the “Menschheitsstaat” is no longer a humanistic dream, but a bare necessity, if humankind is to survive. Whilst these ideas have been around for a long time, they have not led to the desired political actions of their supporters.

However, it is important to look at how far changes in this direction have already come. Nations have been used to organise humanity since before the world wars, when economy used to mean the national economy, and nations responded to common challenges and dangers by means of international treaties. Yet after 1954, the United Nations (UN) with its “Security Council” was formed to be a common agent on the side of all of humanity, regardless of the political situation or national interests of the country in which they live. Thus, it was deliberately created as a transnational organisation that would facilitate a greater human flourishing of each and all.

Moving forward, I see two further steps to be taken. A first step would be to transform national foreign policy into a “global domestic policy” in order to control nuclear weapons as the physicist Carl–Friedrich von Weizsäcker called for 50 years ago. Within the European Union this has been somewhat accomplished, as national foreign policy has already become European domestic policy. A second step would be a joint earth policy for humankind. In order to achieve this, there is a need for transnational, humanity–oriented organisations. The nations’ struggle for power and recognition has its final limits in the “nuclear suicide program” and the “destruction of the living space” that is the earth and those who inhabit it. Every relapse into this struggle for power is not only anti–human and a lethal crime against humanity, but it is also a crime against the earth on which we live. It is also in conflict with the modern populists. 

The church and humanity

In building these international structures world leader have indeed something to learn from Christians.  Starting with the church, it is essentially all–embracing, and can never be limited to a national religion. It is ecumenically oriented towards the whole of humanity and understands itself as an anticipation of the universal kingdom of God. The church is also present in most nations, caring for humanity and representing human rights and human dignity, by living out the human virtues of compassion, solidarity, mercy, respect, honesty, truth and faithfulness.  These virtues know no borders so that through its universal presence, the church is well positioned to promote peaceful international relations through the brotherhood Christians share with sister–churches in other nations.

The church of Christ is, in its ideal state, on the side of humanity and incompatible with nationalism. When God became human, he became just that, and did not become American or German. Similarly, Adam and Eve were the first humans, as opposed to the first Israelites or Japanese people. We can also conclude from Genesis that every human being, regardless of nationality, is to be respected as an image of God. Similarly, the friend–foe conflict between the nations is broken by Jesus’ commandment to love the enemy. Instead of viewing ourselves as rivals, “we” and “the other” become love the enemy, because “he is like you” – he or she is human.

The Christian church is democratic and not anti–democratic. In the church, anyone can attend and all are equal before God. Democracy is grounded in human rights, and not in nation’s rights, people’s rights, or in German or American rights. As such, democracy is an anticipation of the hoped for “State of Humankind”. In democracy, human beings are to be “free and equal”, which as an aspiration is the least of the high demands of democracy.

At the beginning of our modern times, Christian brotherhood was extended to human brotherhood. This idea of “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (all people become brothers) is central to how Christians today are encouraged to view those around them, regardless of their religion, race, nationality or other identity markers used to divide humankind. Interestingly, this spirit is encapsulated in the European Union’s anthem, which is Schiller’s poem in Beethoven`s 9th symphony “Ode to Joy”. In this symphony, “all people become brothers where your gentle wing rests”. 

Looking at how this conceptual shift occurred, astonishingly, in the midst of the misery of the thirty years’ war (1618–1648), reformed theology in Germany rediscovered the gospel of the kingdom of God. Around this time, in Amsterdam, theologians such as Johann Amos Comenius,  Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (as seen in his 1650 book “Spes Israelis”), or Philipp Jakob Spener (with his “assertion of coming better times”) were all convinced of a turn from the limited church of Christ to the universal kingdom of Christ. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this Christian future–hope was transformed into the secularised ideal of humanity and a state of humankind, guaranteeing “eternal peace”. In Gottfreid Ephraim Lessing’s famous 1779 drama “Nathan the Wise” he asks: “Are Jews and Christians other than human beings? Oh, if amongst you I could still find another, for whom it is enough to be called a human being!”

Immanuel Kant followed Lessing’s example in his 1793 book, “Religion in the limits of reason alone”. The “church belief” can only unite human beings “provisionally”. Faith based on pure reason, however, serves “that God may all in all” bring “eternal peace” on earth. As such, the “State of Humankind” is not only the final goal of human history, but also the end purpose of all of creation. 

The question of existence: To be or not to be human?

Reason will, according to Kant, lead humans to create the “State of Humankind”, and the end of war. But there is an additional question that complicates the matter: Should humans exist or not? The question is  foundational to the views that underpin our faith and our politics. This is an existential question that deserves close examination. Indeed, to answer it in a way that suggests that there is no meaning to human life, in my view, underpins all of the political and cultural problems faced by humankind today.

If humans can say “yes” to the question of whether or not humankind should exist, they attribute meaning to their lives and their actions have purpose. This enables humans to enjoy life and to flourish, willing to fight against the most–deadly dangers facing humanity. However, where doubts creep in, as humans, we may resign ourselves to simply letting things happen around us. The risks of this scenario are well–known, but nonetheless human fatalism with regards to “nuclear numbing” and ecological blindness continues to foster inaction that only increases these problems and offers no solutions. In my opinion, this is the main spiritual danger of our times.

As Christians, we need to affirm that life has meaning. More than seven billion human beings live on the earth and this number is growing rapidly. An alternative future is that the earth could be uninhabited. The earth existed without human beings for millions of years. Many  species can  survive if the human race disappears. Dinosaurs came and went, for example, so that it is important to ask such questions about our purpose on earth.

In trying to address the question of whether human beings are needed on earth or whether we are here by chance, it appears logical to look at the universe and nature to see if these provide an answer. If nature shows a “strong anthropic principle”, that the universe must be compatible with those living in and observing it, then humans can feel “at home in the universe”, as Stuart Kauffman’s book by that title suggests. If such a stark anthropic principle cannot be proven, then the universe does not answer this existential question. Looking at the universe, we encounter this sad conjecture from a Nobel laureate in physics, Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. The silence of the world’s expanses and the coldness of the universe can lead humans to despondency, as Blaise Pascal had already observed centuries earlier. Neither the stars nor our genes can adequately answer whether or not humankind should exist.

Reverting to the question of whether there is any naturalistic reason to love life and affirm the human being, if humans find no answer, then each culture of life lacks foundations and is built on shaky ground. If humanity were an accident of nature, superfluous and without relevance for the universe –  perhaps only a mistake of evolution – it would be difficult for humans to find a logical foundation for any rationale to cherish life and flourishing so that life could seem pointless. The philosopher Hans Jonas sought to fill this void with a “duty to be”. 

What should we conclude?

I would argue, in conclusion, that perhaps existential questions of humanity are not answered by rational arguments, but rather they are answered by the prerational instinctive assurance of lack of assurance. Simply put, humans have a basic instinct to survive and to live meaningful lives before they begin to overthink the matter.

Is the Christian faith in the creator God in the position to say a clear “yes” to the question of whether we should live on earth and in peace? I end this foreword here by answering with a resounding “yes”. In the eternal life of God, we affirm our fragile humanity in spite of universal death. In the eternal love of God, we love life and resist its devastations. In the ungraspable nearness of God, we trust in what is saving even when universal dangers are growing around us. In the face of a new nationalism that seeks to divide us by appealing to our selfish ego, it is from this position of confidence in God, and in God’s will, that we can, and should, act. We should act not only to enable our own flourishing, but the flourishing of each member of humankind in universal solidarity.  

Copies of ‘Is God a Populist?’ are available to purchase here.

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Ayesha Rascoe, “Factbox: What Trump has said about the United Nations”, in Reuters, September 17, 2017,


Jürgen Moltmann

Jürgen Moltmann

Jürgen Moltmann is a German reformed theologian, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen. He has received honorary doctorates from a number of institutions including Duke University (1973), the University of Louvain (1995), the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University (1996) and the Chung Yuan Christian University (2002), the Nicuraguan Evangelical University (2002) and the University of Pretoria (2017). His most famous works are Theology of Hope and The Crucified God.

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Posted 7 January 2020

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