Question: "What does the Bible say about nationalism?"
Answer: Nationalism is loyalty and devotion to a nation. Most people feel a certain level of loyalty to their homelands or the countries into which they immigrated. It is natural to love one’s homeland, and there is nothing wrong with nationalism per se. The Bible gives both good and bad examples of nationalism.
Ancient Israel was a nationalistic culture, and that was God’s intent (see Psalm 137:4–6). When He called Abram to leave his home and travel to a land God would show Him, God was laying the foundation for a theocratic nation (Genesis 12:1–4). In order to succeed, the Hebrew people had to develop a nationalistic mindset. They were not to mix with the pagan nations around them and would have their own laws, religion, and culture that would make them distinctive (Deuteronomy 5; 7:1–6). Any outsider wishing to join Israel had to submit to God’s law and become like the Hebrews (Isaiah 14:1; 56:6). Nationalism for the Jews was necessary in order to become a holy people through whom God would send the Savior of the world (Deuteronomy 7:7–8; 14:2; Isaiah 53). For Israel, nationalism was one part of keeping the decrees given by the Lord.
Jewish nationalism had taken a wrong turn, however, by the time Jesus came to earth. The religious leaders had so perverted God’s laws and so looked down on the Gentile nations that they assumed being born Jewish was all one needed to be right with God. John the Baptist rebuked such thinking: “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). The Jews were making the same mistake some of us make today. They assumed that their heritage, nationality, or religion was sufficient to guarantee their righteousness (Galatians 5:4). Nationalism had become like a religion to them and kept them from humbling their hearts to receive God’s Savior (see John 8:33).
The Bible teaches nationalism in the sense that believers in Christ are to obey the laws of the land, regardless of their nation of residence: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1–7). Those words were penned by the apostle Paul, who suffered persecution and was martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero (see 2 Corinthians 11:24–28).
While sojourners on this earth, we should support our governments, our countries, and our communities as much as possible without violating God’s commands (see Acts 5:29). When Israel was exiled to Babylon because of their disobedience, the Lord told them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). Whatever nationalistic fervor the exiled Hebrews felt for their homeland, they were to live their lives in Babylon and pray for the peace of the people in whose land they dwelt.
We should defend freedom, the innocent, and our homes from foreign threats. So it is not wrong to feel proud when our nation does right and to sing its anthems with joy and thanksgiving to God. We err, however, when we allow nationalism to displace our first loyalties to Christ and His kingdom. All those born again into the family of God are citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20). We live with the awareness that the things of this earth are temporary, including nations, governments, and material goods (Hebrews 11:15–16). When certain national policies align with biblical principles, it is easy to subconsciously substitute nationalism for Christianity and expend our zeal and passion on the wrong things. Despite how noble our nation may be, it did not die on the cross for our sin. It cannot promise us eternal life. A President, king, or military leader is only a fallible human being and cannot meet our needs as God can (Philippians 4:19).
A certain level of nationalism is not wrong. In fact, it is one way we can be good to the community in which we reside. We can send our sons and daughters to defend our community (Proverbs 24:11), pay our taxes to support it (Mark 12:17), and honor that which is honorable in it (Romans 13:7). But Christians must keep in mind that earthly nationalism is fleeting; heavenly citizenship is forever. Our greatest loyalties and our primary obligations are to that kingdom that will never pass away (Daniel 2:44; 6:26; 7:14; Luke 1:33).