Violence and Nationalism

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Exerts from Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective by Jacques Ellul

Violence seems to be the great temptation in the church and among Christians today. Thirty years ago it was nonviolence, conscientious objection, that constituted the “problem” in the church, and it was this prophetic position that needed to be clarified. Today it is Christians’ acceptance of violence, and the theologies thereby engendered, which appear to be the central problem.

Very often, it is only after others have brought it into the open that Christians become aware of a problem, and then they climb on the bandwagon of parties or doctrines. That happened in this case, too. (p 27)

Plunged into a situation of social injustice, exploitation, and alienation, Christians soon discovered movements led by others and enthusiastically joined them. The same thing happened a century ago, when Christians fought in wars for the defense of their country. If I wanted to be mischievous, I would say that a century ago nationalism was the ideological fashion, and Christians went along with it, adducing every imaginable Christian motif to justify their stand. Today social revolution, etc., are the fashion. To say so may seem wicked, for I am told, in scandalized accents, that this is not a question of fashion, that all the truth of Jesus is at stake in this social conflict. But I answer that the Christian nationalists of the nineteenth century also killed each other in the conviction that Jesus had established nations and that love of country was part of love of God. We find that stupid nowadays. But can we be sure that, fifty years hence, today’s prorevolutionary position will not also seem stupid?

What troubles me is not that the opinions of Christians change, nor that their opinions are shaped by the problems of the times; on the contrary, that is good. What troubles me is that Christians conform to the trend of the moment without introducing into it anything specifically Christian. Their convictions are determined by their social milieu, not by faith in the revelation; they lack the uniqueness which ought to be the expression of that faith. Thus theologies become mechanical exercises that justify the positions adopted, and justify them on grounds that are absolutely not Christian. (p 28)

The spirit of nationalism cannot be expressed save by violence. (p 102)

Others declare that nationalism is a fine thing when it leads to the liberation of peoples; it is only Europe’s old-fashioned nationalism that they condemn. But this is to close one’s eyes to the fact that the characteristics of nationalism are always the same, that a young, liberating nationalism has exactly the same sociological structure as German or French nationalism, and that the transition from “young” to “old” nationalism is tragically swift. China and Algeria are examples of how, in the course of a few years, a young nationalism turns into an old, sclerotic nationalism. (p 110)