Nationalism in the Name of Jesus? – Part II

Nationalism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. This might seem a rather bold statement. Some might even say that this is plain false and disregards centuries of (religious) history in what is called the “West.” And particularly in the United States, with its founding mythology of being the “City upon a Hill” in the “Promised Land” of the “New World,” Christian rhetoric has often served deeply nationalist causes and has been used to exercise abusive power over people and the earth alike. In fact, the Christian religion (as other religions) has always been instrumentalized to serve the needs of the powerful and to uphold their hegemonic position. As I outlined in the last part of this series, the message of the Gospel, however, is a message that subverts oppressive regimes of power and brings hope to the destitute, enslaved, and exploited.

Having described Jesus as a Galilean borderland reject, I argued that Christians, first and foremost, belong to the Kingdom of God and are not primarily citizens of some random nation-state. But please don’t get me wrong. I am aware that, for many Christians (both in the US and elsewhere), this belonging to God’s household has served to legitimate an attitude of otherworldly indifference concerning the socio-political issues of contemporary societies; a loveless attitude of supposed moral superiority over what is regarded as a fallen and sinful world. This is not what I mean though. Far from it. And it is also not what I perceive in the life of Jesus.

One of the aspects of Christianity that I always found most appealing was that God, the Almighty according to Christian orthodoxy, has made himself part of this world in Christ Jesus; has made himself part of this world not as its ruler, but as its most humble servant. Jesus did not belong to the powerful establishment of Jerusalem; was maybe not even considered a rightful citizen. If Christ is to serve as the example of how Christians should strive to live, then this must be taken very seriously. To Christ, not belonging to worldly structures didn’t mean not caring about the world. Quite the contrary is the case, as John 3:16 aptly expresses: God so loved the world… Many Christians happily quote this verse in any random context—often without taking in its depth though, as it would seem. I read in this verse an encouragement to act. So, love the world then! Do something for the world. Give everything for the world. That’s what Christ did and means after all. Retreating from this world is not an option. Judging this world is not an option. Caring for this world is the only viable option.

This is what I understand by being a part of the Kingdom of God on earth—a kingdom whose functioning principles differ radically from any power-structure of this world, but which still always remains visible and understandable even within such structures (if its members are willing to act on behalf of that kingdom, that is). There is no place in the Gospel for the Manichean binary of light and dark; and no place for a clear Augustinian dichotomy between civitas dei and civitas terrena. In Christ, separation and division ceases. In Christ, true power manifests itself—indeed, incarnates itself—in becoming a servant of those in need as one of those in need, and not as someone removed from the precariousness of life. In Christ, true power cares, nurtures, and lets grow by actively partaking in the issues of this world. Established political structures, sadly, often don’t really care for this world. Paradoxically, neither do many Christians. Appropriating the power of the Almighty (and/or misunderstanding divine power), (Christian) leaders have oppressed their fellow human beings and the things of the world since time immemorial. But messianic deconstruction undoes such violent systemic power. So be different. We all have the right to care for this world. We should take advantage of it.


Is Nonviolence Still an Option?

Anger is rising. Current political events—in the US and in Europe—incite people’s tempers. In the face of injustice, intense indignation often seems to veer in the direction of sheer hatred. Of course, the fury is understandable. Walls, bans, cuts—all supposedly for the good of “the people.” Those excluded from this notion of “the people” clamor for justice. Action is necessary. But what is the most effective way of going about things? What are the options? Peaceful demonstration or violent uprising?

I strongly believe in the effectiveness of nonviolence. When I talked to some friends from the US about this, some disagreed vehemently. I was rather shocked. I didn’t expect this sort of sentiment. For these friends, “nonviolent” seemed to equal “noneffective.” The “West” resorts to violence, even monopolizes violence, to subjugate others. This monopoly needs to be broken. Nonviolent philosophy has been tested and hasn’t brought the desired changes, they say. Something else needs to be tried out. Violence has its place. I disagree.

These conversations reminded me very much of the struggles for liberation in the 1950s and 1960s. The attitudes seem to be divided into (simplified) oppositional approaches—peaceful integration vs. violent separation. I think contemporary discourse is similar again. And maybe it’s always been that way. While I usually avoid picking sides, I still want to make a case for the continued relevance of nonviolence as a method of bringing about political change. Let’s revisit, and perhaps revise, what one major proponent of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr.—inspired by Mohandas K Gandhi—, had to say about this.

Societal change was the major goal of King’s nonviolent efforts. He writes that “the nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system.” I think this is, again, something one can agree on. But what if this system is characterized by violence? Fight fire with fire? This will only produce a much greater conflagration that consumes everything and everyone. Honestly, sometimes I think the USA is on the brink of a civil war again. If the hegemonic system is built on violence, resorting to violence will only reproduce the logic of said system: the system’s own systematicity remains the same. Inversion leaves the established power structures intact. Hate begets hate. Somebody needs to muster the courage to break this vicious circle.

At the center of King’s civil rights movement lay the conviction that “the only way to ultimately change humanity and make for the society that we all long for is to keep love at the center of our lives.” He uses the—for many Christians influenced by C.S. Lewis well-known—Greek term agape to describe this. What he means is not some sort of sentimentally idealistic or misguidedly romanticized notion of love, but rather a radical and active love geared entirely toward the other: “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” Nothing new, for sure. And I know, for many—even myself—the term agape has been so widely mis/used that it has become almost meaningless. Maybe it is time to stop talking about it and live it at last.

It is that simple. And that hard. Easy for me to say, you might say. But I’m very aware that living this radical love takes extreme courage. As a random white Christian guy, I’m not faced with an immigration ban (for some I even belong to the group that bans…). I know my voice, for some, doesn’t weigh much. But I hope that also people currently facing injustice will resist nonviolently and make a genuine change. A change toward a society that embraces the other and rejoices in the face of the other. A change that “does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his [sic] friendship and understanding.” Of course, it is a much bigger statement when someone like Martin Luther King steps up and proclaims these things. We might need someone like that again. In a system filled with hate and anger, the power of radical love is the sole remedy to bring about “reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.” At least, when the goal is conviviality and not mere dissociation. We need to be aware that separation—drawing new boundaries, creating new mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion—is a different form of building walls. The system will only change when we learn to live/love in difference and continue to do so.

As for those who believe that nonviolence is a mere paraphrase for non-effectiveness—this is something MLK and Gandhi already had to deal with. Note that King, despite his insistence on peaceful resistance, tends to use rather militant verbs to underscore his point. The nonviolent activist still attacks, fights, and battles. The “method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually,” he writes. Although I find this choice of words problematic, I can understand why King would use them. It has to be absolutely clear that nonviolence does not mean passivity. The force of nonviolence is of a completely different order; it does not mimic the power of violence. With the notion of nonviolence, the notion of power itself begins to transform. Power then no longer lies in subjugation, domination, and exploitation. Power then unfolds as gracefully loving defiance of hatred, anger, and injustice. Power then unfolds in the realization of the intricate and irreducible precarious entanglement of all life. Power unfolds as being toward the other(s).

Angst vor dem Anderen – Teil 1

In westlichen Ländern mehrt sich Angst. Angst vor dem Unbekannten, dem Fremden. Es sind vermeintlich die Flüchtlings- und Migrantenströme aus dem sogenannten Nahen Osten, die einigen den Anlass bieten, sich zu ängstigen. Bei näherem Hinsehen jedoch offenbart sich ein komplexeres Bild: Angst besteht offenbar auch vor Veränderungen im „Inneren“ selbst. Einwanderer aus fremden Ländern bilden also nur einen Aspekt dieser Angst vor dem Anderen. Sie bezieht sich auch auf diverse Minderheiten—wie zum Beispiel Angehörige bestimmter Religionen oder auch LGBTQI+-Menschen—innerhalb der eigenen Gesellschaft. Veränderungen „innen“ und „von außen“ gehören zusammen: beide bedrohen die etablierte Ordnung, meint man. Aber ist das wirklich Grund zur Sorge?

Was all diese Annahmen gemeinsam haben ist eine gewisse Vorstellung vom Eigenen; Vorstellungen von einem Selbst, das sich gegenüber dem Anderen positioniert. Dieses Eigene gilt als (voraus)gesetzt (und zwar zumeist absolut). Oft wird dabei jedoch vergessen, dass dieser Positionierungsprozess erst das Eigene erschafft. Jedes Selbst macht überhaupt nur Sinn, wenn es eine/n Andere/n gibt, gegenüber welchem man dieses Selbst versteht. Und ich glaube, es ist gerade diese Tatsache, welche—implizit mitschwingend—die Angst vor dem Anderen hervorruft.

Wie meine ich das? Im Alltag positionieren wir uns doch (gegen)ständig als Individuen gegenüber anderen. Das ist auch meist unproblematisch. Nämlich solange die Weltsicht weitestgehend geteilt wird und die eigenen Ansprüche nicht durch eine/n Andere/n in Frage gestellt werden. Solange das der Fall ist, können auch Meinungsverschiedenheiten mehr oder weniger schlicht hingenommen werden. Die Ordnung ist damit nicht in Gefahr. Was jedoch, wenn ein/e Andere/r Ansprüche vertritt, die sich nicht ohne weiteres in die bestehende Ordnung fassen lassen? Dann wird das Andere schnell zum Problem. Religion ist in diesem Zusammenhang wieder zu einem der großen Themen geworden.

Der Umgang mit dem Anderen—wie in anderen Religionen auch—ist ein zentraler Aspekt des christlichen Glaubenslebens. Das Christentum spricht da gerne von Nächstenliebe. Statt der Erfüllung diverser religiöser Vorschriften geht es im christlichen Glauben um das Verhalten gegenüber anderen. So schreibt es zumindest Paulus in Bezug auf Jesus selbst: „Denn alle Gesetze werden in einem Wort erfüllt, in dem: ‚Liebe deinen Nächsten wie dich selbst‘“ (Gal. 5,14). Wer der Nächste denn nun ist, das ist freilich wieder Auslegungssache. Wenn der Nächste ungemütlich wird, dann wird er ganz schnell zum Fernsten und die Nächstenliebe vergessen. Besonders wenn die eigenen (religiösen) Überzeugungen auf dem Spiel stehen, wird dieses fundamentale Prinzip beiseitegestellt. Dem steht jedoch der Schöpfungsgedanke vehement gegenüber: Alle Menschen sind Geschöpfe Gottes und als solche eines jeden Nächster. Besonders Christen, die so auf Nächstenliebe beharren, müssen sich daher fragen: „Ist uns Nächstenliebe wichtiger als die Wahrung unser eigenen religiösen Prinzipien?“ Wenn dem nicht so ist, dann ist der Weg zur Heuchelei gering. Denn wer seine eigenen Prinzipien bloß lieblos verteidigt, dem ist das Selbst stets näher als ein/e Andere/r. Dann dreht man sich nur im Kreis. Die Spirale der Angst vor dem Anderen beginnt.

In der heutigen Zeit sind natürlich nicht nur Christen herausgefordert, Nächstenliebe vorurteilsfrei zu leben—egal ob man diese Liebe nun so nennen möchte oder nicht. In einer zusehends globalisierten Welt ist die Begegnung mit dem Fremden alltäglich: in der U-Bahn, beim Einkaufen, im Beruf. Wie man auf Fremdes eingeht ist die große Frage. Beurteilen wir Anderes aus unserem eigenen Erfahrungshorizont oder lassen wir uns auf eine genuine Begegnung mit dem Fremden ein? Verstehen wir, dass Fremdheit nicht nur ein Attribut eine/r Anderen ist, sondern vielmehr ein Verhältnis, das es auszuhalten, ja, zu kultivieren gilt? Je mehr wir das begreifen—oder uns davon begreifen lassen—, desto mehr werden wir krude Gegensätze von Eigenem und Fremden vermeiden und uns an der Gesellschaft eine/r Andere/n erfreuen können.

Nationalism in the Name of Jesus? – Part I

Populism is on the rise in the “West.” Despotic forces are rallying in many European countries as well as the United States. What they’re rallying against is—implicitly or explicitly—the supposed downfall of the “Occident.” The fear of the other, it would seem, is more alive than ever. Unfortunately, often the right-wing paroles are linked to supposedly Christian values.

Recently, it was the story of Christmas that served as a convenient legitimation for bolstering anti-refugee and anti-(im)migration rhetoric: “No, that part of Matthew’s gospel talking about Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt can be ignored (Matthew 2:13). Of course, they clearly weren’t refugees. No, no, they were just upright citizens on their way to census (Luke 2:1-4).” At least, that’s what some guy from the German AfD argued in a speech shortly before the holidays. Even when leaving the question of the historical accuracy of the accounts given in the gospels aside, it strikes me as absolutely outrageous to see the “Christian message” appropriated for these out/alt-right racist causes.

I must confess, I would love to dismiss this retelling of the Christmas story as plainly absurd. But maybe that would be too easy. I’ve read posts by some pastor who kept rambling on about the crumbling of the “Christian West.” He was using similar(ly absurd) arguments. Frankly, I was shocked to read something like this coming from my Facebook-feed. One would like to retort: what exactly is this “Christian Occident” you are so afraid of losing? One built one neighborly love? I would be afraid of losing that, too, but sadly I can’t see much of it—at least not in those who hold on to it so tightly. Why exactly this prejudiced rejection of foreigners, of “others” of all kind? And in the name of this “Christian West!”

Apparently, it’s the Christians who are actually propagating nationalist sentiments. Some do, that’s true. It pains me deeply to acknowledge that there are people who call themselves “Christian” (or at least swear on the Bible and this sort of civil-religious stuff) who are very much in favor of slogans like “my nation first” and “let’s make it great again.” How? By sealing all kinds of borders and building new walls, of course… Unfortunately, in some countries, such people are now in power. Should we, therefore, finally get rid of all things labeled “Christian?” I think this conclusion would also be too simplistic. We should maybe look a little closer.

Even if one does not buy into the whole Christianity-thing, it is useful to know that one can deconstruct this racist version of Christmas using the very tools employed to erect it. An interesting little detail in the gospel of Luke is, for instance, that Mary and Joseph eventually settled in Galilee, and not in Judea where the ruling powers were located at the time. Galilee—a cultural crossroads removed from the governing intelligentsia, an area on the margins, on the periphery. Jesus of Nazareth was born a “borderland reject,” a product of mestizaje, as one Mexican-American theologian writes; born a reject to oppose the abusive and unjust regimes of power situated in Jerusalem, the capital, the “national” center! A borderland Jew—with a noticeable Galilean accent—born to oppose Roman imperialism and Jewish legalism. No upright citizen, but quite the unruly fellow; a guy who actively challenged established cultural and religious frameworks.

So, what then are the broader implications of Jesus’s birth according to the story of Christmas? If we look at the circumstances of his birth, then certainly not the defense of nationalist structures. To infer that from this narrative, as I said, strikes me as absurd. I think that the Christmas story is all about the challenging of oppressive regimes. But, of course, exegesis can do all kinds of things with the “holy” Scriptures. So, let’s do some more with them, too. As far as I’m aware, most Christians take themselves as accepted into the Kingdom of God (in one way or another). One is prone to cite Paul here writing “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Of course, some Christians have taken this household to be congruent with the modern nation-state, the new so-called “Promised Land.” They completely ignore that said household-members were living in cultural environments that considered them “strangers and aliens” (Ephesians 2:18). We are talking about a time here where Christianity was far away from becoming anything like a state religion wedded to governmental power… And what about this one: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world”—that’s what Jesus himself says about his disciples (John 17:16). What I take this to mean is, that Christians cannot really draw on any national and/or cultural framework as their primary frame of reference. Doing so would be tantamount to a fundamental betrayal of what they believe in. The Christian message is not about racist xenophobia but neighborly love. To achieve this, one must be willing to let go of the supposed security of national structures and cultural boundaries, particularly in “the era of globalization.” If Christians wish to realize the message supposedly underlying the so-called “Christian Occident,” they have to be willing to let go of this somewhat aged socio-cultural construct for the sake of the higher power they believe in.

Another Grand Scheme?

I’ve always had a weakness for grand narratives, I guess. From Middle Earth, to Star Wars, to, yes, Christianity, the notion of struggling for (or toward?) a better world has for a long time shaped my view of human inter/action. Idealist I’ve been called, a dreamer.

Nowadays, for a lot of people such big stories are only acceptable when restricted to the realm of fiction. Some would even say such stories have never been anything else but fictional. The “postmodern condition,” we have come to call this. Bad news for all those hopeless romantics holding on to long stories with an even longer history. Bad news for the ones un/easily situated within any sort of “tradition.” Bad news for notions of a his/story of salvation and all that other supposedly merely religious babble. So, what to do as a person who still dares to call himself a convinced Christian within “our” apparently increasingly secularized societies?

Religion is on the rise again—for better or worse. At the same time, as I’m writing this, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. ring more true than ever: “And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land” (1965). What kind of order is this? And in what way is it connected to Christianity? And in what way is it not connected to Christianity? Starting from this, I would like to begin my own little scheme here. Most everybody in the so-called “West” has some sort of conception what this religion represents, has done, and still is doing—sometimes more informed, sometimes less so. What I would like to do is challenge all those interested to look deeper at what they are dealing with, no matter whether one willingly embraces or outright rejects it. Both positions need to know what it is they’re embracing or rejecting, otherwise we end up with nothing but in/convenient hypocrisy. There are so many particular topics that play into this. Dialogue is necessary.

So, what I would like to do in this blog is to talk about the religion that has for a long time been considered the religion of the “Occident.” Can we really talk about it that way? Can we really consider Christianity as simply “Western”? I don’t think so. And the implications of this are grander than the established narrative ever was, albeit in a very different sense. Thus, what I would like to suggest is, for both the advocate and the critic— indeed, for the benefit of all—that it is time to read Christianity decidedly other-wise.