National Identity and Unity: From Babel to Pentecost
by Archbishop Makarios of Kenya
Despite many areas of progress, the last one hundred years has been the most brutal age in the history of humanity. What is most shocking about modern conflicts is that it is not the combatants who have been the main victims, but rather the most vulnerable members of society: children, women, the elderly, the sick. This is due not only to violence but also to malnutrition and disease made worse by armed conflict. Wars disrupt food supplies, destroy crops and agricultural infrastructure, wreck water and sanitation systems, and disable health services. Wars displace whole populations, tearing families and communities apart.
Most modern wars are principally instigated or manipulated by what might be called the “phyletistic personality syndrome,” a phenomenon which pits humans against humans in the most violent of confrontations in the name of national or tribal identity, ethnic cleansing, racial supremacy, or cultural exclusivism, often with distinct religious components.
Nationalism, in the sense of fanatical patriotism, is an obsessive sense of national superiority over other nations and a belief in one nation’s inherent and pre-determined glorious future destiny. Ethnocentrism gives rise to tribal or racial intolerance and leads to the perception that one must eliminate, exclude, or dominate the “lesser tribe.” In the case of cultural-ideological exclusivism, the values and norms of one’s culture are regarded as superior to all others and must therefore be adopted by others or imposed on them. To better understand the phenomenon of ethnic and national identities and cast some light upon the search for human unity, it is necessary for us to explore the biblical and theological explanations for our propensity toward tribalism and nationalism.
In the period immediately preceding construction of the Tower of Babel, we learn that all people were of one race and spoke one language. The diversification of human languages was a consequence of human sin incurred during the building of the Tower of Babel, a rebellion against God’s ordinances, the ambition of “making a name for one’s self” by constructing a human empire and culture independent of the will and assistance of God.
Despite the post-Babel second human Fall, the freshly diversified global situation provided humans with the freedom either to identify with a wise and blessed sense of ethnic affiliation in a theocentric direction or to let their differences degenerate into demonic anthropocentric-nationalism, ethnocentrism and tribal pride. Clearly, the latter path was taken.
The step from ethnic identity to fanatical ethnocentrism, and from national identity to obsessive nationalism, which lies behind most of our violent conflicts, must be understood through a theological, biblical prism as a fallen, corrupt human state, a spiritually dysfunctional condition, which must be condemned by the Church.
How then can the Church assist in the search for the path of human unity? Can the Church be effective? I believe the answer is yes.
A Byzantine kontakion chanted on the Sunday of Pentecost is most illuminating in terms of the post Tower of Babel potential for a unified human condition initiated by Christ and confirmed by the Holy Spirit:
When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all-holy Spirit!
The Pentecost event in the Upper Room is God’s reversal of the punitive measures taken at Babel. Through the “tongues of fire” and the speaking in various human tongues, the potential for reunification of humanity is made possible through the unify-ing operations of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit possesses a creative force to transform and renew. The Pentecost event transformed the disciples into bold witnesses for Christ by renewing their hearts and minds. This transforming “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is capable of transfiguring human hearts and making former enemies into friends and brothers. In our search for human unity, we need to consistently experience the empowering anointing of Pentecost, becoming faithful instruments of the Holy Spirit.
The initial celebration of the Lord’s Supper was inaugurated not as an individual institution but within a communal setting, that is within the messianic or ecclesial community presided over by Jesus among his disciples. He formed a new, united community dedicated to loving and serving one another as well as “giving thanks” to Him who established it. The partaking of the holy Body and Blood of Christ by the ecclesial community becomes a source of growth in the image and likeness of Christ and the ultimate bond of spiritual and social unity, for it doesn’t discriminate against gender, class, or race in its sanctifying energy. In this way we are made ready to “receive one another as Christ received us.”
The challenge we face is eradication of phyletism within the Church. Sadly, we Church members are often guilty of promoting nationalism at the expense of our catholic (in the sense of universal) identity. Churches constituted on national lines often involve themselves in national wars, even blessing weapons before battle, and even encouraging war and nationalism in the name of Jesus Christ! While nationalistic church leaders are certainly well intentioned, in reality they oppose the work of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Christ.
It is significant that, at a time of heightened nationalism, a pan-Orthodox Synod held in Constantinople in 1872 condemned ethno-phyletism as a heresy: “We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed Fathers which support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”
As the Orthodox canon lawyer, Grigorios Papathomas, explains, “the Church must not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race.”
In Pauline terms, we may say that nationalism is the direct consequence of a “fleshly” anthropocentric disposition rather than a spiritual and theocentric human orientation. Nationalism remains in the realm of the “flesh” rather than the “spirit” as a manifestation of the powers and principalities at work in the “present evil age.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul insists that among Christ’s followers there is “no longer Greek nor Jew” but only the unity, peace, and blessedness that derives from membership in the new “Israel of God,” the Church. This unity however can only be perceived, appropriated, and accomplished in a theocentric manner by those who are reconciled in Christ. It can only be made manifest by those who bring forth the “fruits of the Spirit.” It is in this way that we may receive one another as Christ receives us and thus aspire toward authentic human unity. History is littered with the failed scraps of torn anthropocentric peace treaties, international accords, and cease-fire agreements.
If the Church is to accomplish the task of human unity, it must practice its God-appointed calling. This requires that we abandon ethnic ghettos. We have been appointed to participate in Christ’s great commission, the evangelization and baptism of all nations. This global evangelization mission of the Church bearing the message of unconditional love and forgiveness will eventually enable humans to “Receive one another as Christ received us” (Rom. 15:7).
I end with this question: Who is Jesus Christ for us? Is he merely a tribal leader who facilitates national unification? Or is he God, who saves us from malediction and death? For the believing mind, the answer is self-evident. IC
This essay is based on a paper presented in 2004 in Malaysia at a conference of the Faith and Order Plenary Commission of the World Council of Churches.