The Bible's view
What is the Bible's view of the issues behind nationalism and internationalism (or populism and globalism or however you define the tension that is behind the two sides of the debate regarding Europe)? The answer has to start at the national level and with the biblical concept of the "nation".
We begin with Genesis where the actual division of the world into nations and empires was seen as historically progressive. Unlike marriage itself in Genesis 1 and 2, the nation as such and fully formed is not part of the Creation before the Fall. However, like the family, the nation is implied in the first command for the primeval human pair: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen 1.28). The realization of both the family "be fruitful" and the nation "multiply and fill the earth" could not be achieved immediately but only after the Fall in Genesis 3. But the command is clear. It is not to stay put, enjoying Eden as a couple, but bear children and move out across the world. So we see the start of "the family" soon in Genesis 4. And later in Genesis 10 we meet the evolution of the family into nations as part of God's providential ordering of human communal life on earth. For after the Flood humanity becomes not one homogenous multitude. It is reconstituted into different nations distinguished by land (or place), language, clan and, finally, nation (Genesis 10.5,20,31). And the last words of chapter 10 are: "These are the clans of Noah … in their nations and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood" (Gen 10.32).
However, the very next words in chapter 11 (complementing chapter 10) are:
"Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there … they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth'" (Gen 11.1ff).
This reveals the sin of pride in thinking glory and power through unity is better than God's plan for being dispersed. And it reveals the sin of disobeying that plan in not being willing to be dispersed for the common good through human communities and embryonic nations. And the people suffered. For instead of one language, Gen 11.1 says: "there the Lord confused the language of all the earth [destroying this godless unity]. And then from there [Babel] the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth" (Gen 11.9). So the Tower of Babel provides us with evidence of God's judgment and mercy. Judgment in causing language barriers and mercy in forcing migration for establishing nations for communal benefit. But, then Genesis chapter 12 tells how God's plan for world salvation following the Fall is worked out through the agency of the nation as well as individuals. For God calls Abraham, and his first promise is, "I will make of you a great nation, and … in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 11.2-3).
Paul and John
What, then, can we learn from the New Testament? Among other things there is Paul's teaching at Athens (Acts 17.26), where he told "the men of Athens" on the Areopagus:
"the God who made the world and everything in it … made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place."
This divine "determination" seems to explain why in heaven national distinctives will survive, and where necessary be redeemed as John shows in Revelation (Rev 7.9; 15.3; 15.4; 21.24; 21.26; 22.2). The nation is not just God's remedy for fallen man to restrain human evil. It is also to promote what is good (Rom 13.3-4). And there is a suggestion that God's plan for nations was a positive plan from before the Fall: "God … made of one man … having determined [past tense] allotted periods and boundaries." Certainly Paul says the establishment of the nations was so "that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him" (Acts 17.27). God is clearly sovereign over the evolution of nations. Through his providential working he sets the nation as the context in which men and women can search for God. It is not surprising, therefore, that the famous Russian author, Solzhenitsyn, said in his Noble Prize lecture:
"the disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all people were made alike, with one character, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, they are its generalized personalities; the smallest of them has its own particular colours, and embodies a particular facet of God's design."
This was said in the context of Lenin's famous remark:
"Socialism's aim is not only to abolish the fragmentation of humanity into small states and to end all distinctions between nations, not only to bring nations together, but to bring about their fusion."
That, of course, was a utopian challenge to God's judgment at Babel. But as O.R.Johnston (former Church Warden of JPC) writes in his Nationhood: towards a Christian Perspective, yes, there will be, one day, a bringing of nations together not for "fusion" but first for judgment (this is before any glory and honour):
"It is remarkable that at the consummation of all things, our Lord Jesus Christ sees 'all nations' arraigned before the glorious throne of judgment and separation (Matt 25.32). And beyond that, the vision of John is not that of a city of identical inhabitants, but rather a richly variegated community lit by the Lamb and the glory of God – 'by its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations' (Revelation 21.24,26). The ultimate destiny of the faults and weaknesses of each nation is perhaps hinted at in the final chapter where the leaves of the Tree of Life are seen to be 'for the healing of the nations'" (Rev 22.2).
But that final judgment of the nations reveals, as does the book of Revelation, the demonic nature of some nations. "Babel", of course, relates to Babylon. And because of Babylon's subsequent history, it becomes synonymous with any nation like Babylon (Revelation 17-18). So it stands for any godless nation or empire from those of some Roman Emperors in the days of the early Church to Hitler, Stalin and their successors in the modern era. The nation as well as international communities, such as the Roman empire, can be good or bad. So how do we respond? Luke Bretherton in his article, Valuing the Nation: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in Theological Perspective quotes Augustine (AD354-430) in his City of God where his …
"… theo-political vision is a Christian cosmopolitanism wherein humanity is one but properly differentiated into particular polities that, while sinful and orientated in on themselves, find their fulfilment beyond themselves in a universal communion with God. Such a view is found consistently throughout the Christian tradition."
Certainly the ultimate international community is that of the …
"… ransomed [by the blood of Christ] people of God from every tribe and language and people and nation … made … a kingdom and priests to our God" (Rev 5.9-10).
This began at Pentecost after the death and Resurrection of Jesus and will be fully realized when he returns. So we should be neither utopian about the nation nor about any international body. However, it seems our first responsibility, this side of heaven, is to the nation. Failing nations are not good at internationalism! But the Christian is told also to "strive for peace with everyone." However, that goes on, "and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12.14). It is not for peace at any price, but for godly international relationships.
So, finally, let me conclude with something I wrote in the year 2000. "Jesus lived under the first Roman Empire, the first extended Europe. The New Testament reveals an ambivalent attitude to the Roman Empire of the first century. Clearly Paul used the Roman Empire for evangelism – its roads and cities, its structures and peace helped the gospel go forward. But Rome was also demonic. Both minor and major persecutions took place, and there was much violence. That, surely, is important for the question of how we should respond to Europe now. Europe provides possibilities. It is also dangerous. Therefore, we need to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10.16). We need to analyse the situation carefully and to make wise political judgments – which will be the least worse options in many cases – and then we need to evangelize. Ultimately Europe's needs will only be met by the gospel. Pentecost reversed Babel not by setting up new political structures but by the Holy Spirit convicting men and women of the truth about Jesus and his Resurrection and calling them to repentance through the preaching of the gospel and then obeying his commission to disciple the nations. A European Mission is still more important than a European Union" (from Church and State in the New Millenium p79).
And that is why, at this time, the Bible's most important teaching for us concerning Brexit is Paul's command to Timothy that we should pray …
"… for all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2.2).