How easily we take the notion of ‘nationhood’ for granted. “We are a nation,” we say, and it seems so obvious that it is hardly worthwhile discussing. Yet, it may come as a surprise to learn that the ‘idea’ of ‘the Nation’ has come under a veritable avalanche of scholarly debate in the last forty years. Issues like ‘what constitutes a nation?’ and, ‘is the very idea of nationhood a relatively new one?’ (Afterall, we all learned about Empires and Kingdoms in our school years but when did nations – as a new form of political understating – actually come into being?)
The online Oxford Bibliography spells out the current debate thus:
Originally nations were assumed to be self-evident. Nations were a people sharing a common immutable ethnicity, which dated to the mists of time and could be seen by their shared language, history, bloodline, culture, character, habits, and manners. It was not necessary that these national peoples had an independent existence as a state, but there was a growing assumption that the nation was the people, the people were ultimately sovereign, and therefore nations should have their own state—a vision which had a certain efflorescence in the late 18th century in the Americas and Europe, a perspective that dominated the transformations of Europe after World War I, and an agenda that gave succor to numerous anti-imperial movements throughout the world in the 20th century.
Hans Kung, in his monumental work Christianity, maintains a very similar argument – but from a philosophical/theological perspective. He too maintains that the concept, the very ‘idea’ of ‘Nation,’ came to birth in the very optimistic thinking of the eighteenth century. Revolution was in the air (America, France) and the age of kings and colonial powers was being rejected. Kung goes on to express concern that over-investment in ‘the nation’ soon leads to nationalism, and, given the ghastly history of warfare and nationalism, we can be forgiven for being hypervigilant about ever repeating these terrible pitfalls of history. The natural reaction to nationalism is globalism but for many the jury is still out as to whether or not the effect of the latter will restrain and curb the excesses of the former.
There is therefore much to be cynical about, if you wish, when contemplating the actual idea of nationhood itself. Yet, for all the shifting sands of polity St Paul reminds us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Rom 13:1. We should not think for a moment that Paul was writing this when the political winds were favourable. Nero was emperor of Rome and although he was yet to turn into the anti-Christian evil emperor of history, the early signs of what was to come were certainly evident. Besides, isn’t Paul just echoing our Lords’ injunction to “…render unto Caesar”? As one commentator sums up:
Submit [arguably, a better translation than the NRSV ‘be subject to’] is used throughout New Testament writings for social relationships, asking every Christian ( everyone is emphatic) to accept the authorities of society (governor-citizen, husband-wife, slave-master); in other words, all should take their places willingly in the social strata of the day. Romans, InterVarsity Press, 2010. Brackets mine.
So, in less than politically favourable situations Christians are called to submit to (obey) the authorities, even if those authorities are less than sympathetic to our particular beliefs and behaviours (St Paul was writing Romans almost three centuries before Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire and Christians would be safe from persecution once and for all.)
There are two caveats to this submission. Firstly, in Eph 5:21 Paul urges us to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So, the act of submitting does not automatically denote inferiority. Secondly, we note the injunction to obey/submit/be subject to, is not absolute in the New Testament (in Acts 4: 20, for instance, we see Peter and John, under interrogation from the Temple authorities, asking whether or not God or the authorities should be obeyed.) So, while submission to the authorities should never be robotic nor blindly unquestioning (especially in matters of ‘rendering unto Caesar’) there still remains at the heart of the New Testament the basic requirement for all the faithful to be good citizens.
In the broad sweep of history, we now find ourselves as Australians in a nation that holds to the principles of democracy. As I stated in the opening lines above, it is all to easy to take such things for granted. Nations and democracies are not perfect (no human institutions are) and it is one of the great privileges of democracies that we are free to moan and groan about things we don’t like. For those of us who stand proudly as citizens of another kingdom – an eternal polity if you like – let us also stand proudly as citizens of this earthly one.