U.S. ‘zealous nationalism’ decried

Published June 1, 2003

It is now obvious from the 9/11 experience in the United States and the SARS outbreak in Canada that North American isolation from the woes of the world is over. It is also obvious that, for better or worse, a Pax Americana is exerting its sway around the globe. By means of political, economic and cultural pressures, and overwhelming use of force when necessary, a global empire is being forged. As Canadians living next door to the seats of power, it behooves us to understand this global endeavour. In Captain America and the Crusade against Evil, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, a biblical scholar and a philosopher, address what they identify as “the dilemma of zealous nationalism.” They trace the development of civil religion in the United States from its Puritan beginnings through revolutionary days and the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War to the present, noting what they describe as a “strange persistence of biblical language” and a “steady theme of redeeming the world.” It is their thesis that a great national “monomyth” has been built up which today gives rise to a righteous militancy in order that what is perceived as “the evil” might be destroyed that “the good” prevail. At the present time, two world entities are vying with each other and “each side views its anger as blessed by the deity, which thereby absolutizes zeal and jihad and eliminates normal restraint.”[pullquote]The authors identify in the Old Testament two streams of development they name “zealous nationalism” and “prophetic realism.” They show how a zealous response to national realities depends on a mind-set conditioned to leadership by mythical super heroes, stereotypes of good and evil and an apocalyptic vision with millennial expectations, which, from the biblical evidence, contains the seeds of its own destruction. In contrast, prophetic realism as demonstrated by Jeremiah recognized zealous nationalism “as a dangerous and arrogant perversion of the national mission.” Hosea, Amos and Isaiah provide evidence of a tradition recognizing the claims of a righteous God taking precedence over ambitious national aspirations. In his day, Jesus, living under the occupation by Rome and surrounded by many who saw zealous nationalism as the only hope, is identified with the tradition of prophetic realism leading his followers to seek a different path. The Sermon on the Mount coupled with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” leads to a kingly rule not of this world, but certainly of earthly consequence.The authors fear that at the present time the United States has adopted the model of zealous nationalism in the form of a monomyth giving rise to civil religious fervour to fulfill its “manifest destiny” and “to be a light to the nations.” Evil has been identified, far beyond the boundaries of terrorism, and it must be destroyed so that the light, American style, may shine into every corner of the world. Canadians certainly share a common family background with Americans but not, I think, as brothers. More like distant cousins who developed in a different way following the family row in 1776. Visions of apocalypse and Armageddon have not taken root among the majority of Canadians although there are those who believe we should share the American Dream, especially economically. In conclusion, the authors want the United States to retain and transform its sense of mission. “It is not our adversaries alone who must change; it is ourselves. But we cannot accomplish this alone. It calls for the transformation of the mythic forms that shape our culture and define the patterns of our politics. It calls for a creative rechanneling of Captain America’s impulse to ‘fight for right’ toward a religious commitment that is shaped both by self-critical questioning and a sense of hope about the possibilities for peace.” Can there ever be such an entity as a Christian country? Has there really ever been one? Perhaps our prayer should not be God bless America, but rather, in a traditional understanding of blessing, may America bless God!


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