How Pervasive?

This post is from my friend, Patrick Mitchel, a theologian teaching in Dublin at Irish Bible Institute. Patrick teaches theology in a Story-framework, and I look forward to the day when his theology is in print for all of us to read.

Being from Europe and writing a post for Jesus Creed, I thought it would be appropriate and interesting to explore European and American attitudes to nationalism and violence.

In Ireland we are entering a ‘decade of centenaries’.  In this post I would like to make a general proposal and ask a question of American readers.

The general proposal is this: the story of 20th Century Ireland was shaped and framed by what Walter Wink, following René Girard, called the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. You don’t have to swallow all of Wink’s theology to agree with his main point; the myth of redemptive violence is that violence in the service of the nation is not only necessary, it works; violence is ‘worth it’ and therefore violence is to be remembered, honoured and eulogised within a nationalist narrative.

Questions: How pervasive is the entwining of power, nationalism , violence and religion in America? And how captive is the American church to the idolatry of nationalism (where religion serves the nation as a chaplain to the tribe rather than offering prophetic critique)?

Here are some of the upcoming centenaries in Ireland:

– In 1912 practically every Protestant man and woman signed the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule. Some in signed in blood; most signed in churches on a Sunday morning. The Covenant promised to resist Home Rule ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. The formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force gave shape to this threat.

– The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin against the British by a small minority of Irish republicans led by Padraig Pearse. Pearse developed his own distinctive ideology of violence in the form of ‘blood sacrifice’ deliberately echoing Christ’s self-giving death at the cross. Pearse died his desired glorious death in front of a British firing squad.

– 1916 also saw another form of ‘sacrifice’ in the form of thousands of ‘loyal’ troops of the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme. Hence ‘loyalism’ versus disloyal Irish republicanism.

– The 1919-21 War of Independence against the British, followed by the 1921 Partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State (later a Republic in 1949) and Northern Ireland. The war against the British was remembered and immortalised within Irish Nationalism as the heroic overthrow of the Empire by the righteous underdog with God on her side.

– Bitter and bloody violence exploded within Irish Nationalism as it divided over the Partition of Ireland. The Civil War of 1922-23 would cast its shadow over most of 20th Century Irish politics. At its heart was the refusal by a minority to accept the compromise of Partition. In their eyes, violence was justified in the name of the pure, whole and undefiled Irish nation.

– That shadow would darken with the re-activation of violence against Partition in the brutal campaign of the IRA from 1969-c.1998 (and off and on up to about 2004).

– A campaign that was opposed by violence in return by the British armed forces and the sectarian paramilitary violence of the Ulster Loyalists.

My point here is not to enter some blame game, but to say that pretty well every group implicated in this violent legacy of the last 100 years in Ireland continues to feel justified in what they did. The myth of redemptive violence is deeply rooted in Irish culture.

And while churches (mostly) consistently opposed violence, they tended to be ‘chaplains to their tribes’ rather than uncomfortable prophets. Only a minority offered a robust critique of the myth of redemptive violence and the dangers of nationalist idolatry.

Still today in Ireland there remains an ambiguity about the relationship between Christianity, violence and nationalism. Many Protestant churches have Union Jack flags in their sanctuaries. They identify themselves in a host of ways with the political narrative of Unionism.  Many Protestants continue to affirm the idea of ‘For God and Ulster’. Similarly, the Irish Catholic Church is deeply embedded in the political narrative of Irish Nationalism. The Irish Catholic Church blessed and sanctified the entire project of independent ‘Catholic Ireland’, a narrative that is built around the myth of redemptive violence.

This entwining of religion with narratives of power and violence in Ireland has been, in my humble opinion, a disaster and a curse. It is a form of idolatry that has deeply damaged the authentic witness of the church as followers of a crucified Messiah who rejected violence.

So, if that’s the Irish story, here’s my question to Jesus Creed readers.

How pervasive is the entwining of power, nationalism , violence and religion in America? And how captive is the American church to the idolatry of nationalism (where religion serves the nation as a chaplain to the tribe rather than offering prophetic critique)?

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  • James Petticrew

    A very powerful reflection on the Irish experience and with history being such a “live” issue the potential for violence as these anniversaries is huge. Made me very thankful that Scottish nationalism in the modern era has been almost exclusively peaceful, the ballot box without the armalite.

    I studied in the States for a year and our first Sunday was the Sunday nearest the 4t h of July I have to say I was shocked. We sang songs which all had nationalistic themes, the military were feted and the sermon seemed to be a celebration of American foreign policy and military power as a sign of God’s blessing and god choosing for the US as his special nation in the world.

    I put this down as different culture but I have always wondered how the church could be prophetic in the nation when it was so closely identified with the nation? It seemed to me that being a good evangelical was equated with being a good american which was equated with unquestioning support for the nations armed forces. On reflection this made me think of Bonhoeffer and some his warnings and the relationship between church and state.

  • CGC

    I had one pastor told me just recently that any Christian who was not willing to kill for this country was not really a Christian. I see the myth of redemptive violence everywhere. From using violence in war, abortion, capital punishment, and some Christians are even discussing or debating the legitimacy of using torture today. I just watched the movie Pearl Harbor this week. It reminded me of America as the only country moral enough to drop atomic bombs on another country. So much for the just war theory (even that gets tossed out under other moral rationales like it saved more lives in the end, etc.). I wonder how Christian Americans would feel if the roles were reversed? America has several atomic bombs dropped on it. Somehow I supsect that would not go over too well with Americans despite the moral justifications some other country gave on why it was neccesarry and morally for “the greater good.”

  • John W Frye

    Patrick, thank you for your observations regarding Ireland and questions about the USA. Your post provoked a lot of thoughts in me. Here are a few: We have a practice in the US that at the end of a funeral service, if the deceased is a military veteran, a military tribute is given (optional, but usually done). So often, as I’ve conducted funerals and if the deceased is a believer in Christ, the family asks that the sacrifice of Jesus be mentioned and tactfully explained. Then the military tribute ends the service using the ‘exact vocabulary’ regarding Jesus for the deceased who would sacrifice his life for his country the way “comrades” before him/her had done. Like an omelette, one sacrifice (Jesus’) is folded over into the other (the veteran’s). Sometimes I feel deep gratitude toward the veteran’s service for our country and, at the same time, I shiver at the melding of these two separate “sacrifices.” A large segment of the USAmerican evangelical church sees the USA as “a city set on a hill” with a formidable military to spread righteousness (read ‘democracy’) around the world.

  • Joe Canner

    I had a Facebook discussion a few years ago regarding the appropriation of John 15:13 (“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”) for use in remembering fallen soldiers. (I think the context was ANZAC Day, but I suspect this verse has been used in other similar contexts, as well.) Although there are certainly individual acts of self-sacrificial love on the battlefield, I have some reservations about using this verse to characterize military action generally.

  • Thanks John. Like James, in visiting the States a few times, I’m very aware of being in a culture that is at once familiar and yet alien – especially so around a strong sense of nationalism and identity.

    Nationalism and identity can be good things, but ‘hot nationalism’ can become idolatrous. What I struggle with is when that strong national identity is assumed uncritically to be a good and especially when the church swallows that assumption.

    Symbols are powerful markers of loyality and identity – I think for example that a national flag has no place in (or outside) a church. Christians belong to a different narrative to the temporary story of any particular nationalism – whether American, Irish or whatever …

  • Nate


    This is a great post. Thank You! This nationalism is incredibly deep in American culture. Woven deep into the fabric of the American story is the belief that soldiers are “protecting my freedom.” While this belief can be challenged on many levels, it is deeply held by many people. In my experience, to even question the sense of nationalism and Christian support of military operations is often perceived as a personal attack. Responses I’ve received tend to be along the lines of, “Don’t you appreciate how they protect your freedom? Isn’t that worth honoring?” When that is the response, it is very difficult to engage in a helpful conversation as it feels as if we are speaking different languages.

    I heard recently of a pastoral letter sent to a congregation (on the anniversary of 9/11) urging people to remember ALL who had been impacted by this event. By all, the writer meant the families of everyone..the 19 terrorists, victims of the WTC, people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. Soldiers. I hope for the day when this response is more common across the church in America.

  • Cal

    We Americans like to blend our use of the first-person plural when describing Christ’s Church and then America. We need to spread the gospel, we need to live the truth, we need to stop congress from passing such and such a bill and we need to support our troops.

    I was a former American conservative patriot and now try and walk after our Lord Jesus. This country’s patriolatry (idolatry of country) is the life-blood of this nation. From outward appearances it is difficult to tell Christ’s Church (which, mind you, is never perfect) and Columbia’s church, Mammon’s church or Eros’ church. These lesser demons are nothing compared to the Sovereign Lord but they’ve spell bound many who live in this country by courting their own desires of the flesh.

    The difference is that Ireland, while in such a grip, is not an Empire that beckons the world to its coffers. My heart bleeds for the Irish Christians who stand up against such nationalism.

  • Allen

    Speaking as a Christ follower and son of God first, a husband and father second, and an American third, I do think there are some who get these out of order. But they are the exceptions. Almost always, when someone here tries to assert that (certain) Christians want a theocracy, they are using the statement as an argument for shutting out Christianity as something that should be permitted to shape one’s views of things in the public arena. In essence, calling for Christians to lead a non-integrated life in a way not required of secularists, atheists, leftists, etc.

    According to Christian doctrine, God has never detached Himself from the affairs of the world. In Scripture, certain kings win the outright approval of God. Indeed, civil government was established by God. Politics, in its deepest and best sense, is about justice so it would be foolish as Christians to exclude from the realm of politics. Some are called to participate in that arena. But we need to have our priorities in the right order.

    Christians need to pay special attention to the fact that politics is a realm in which the witness of believers can be easily harmed. Issue by issue, act by act, faith can be seen to become subordinate to a political party or ideology. In addition, the passions and emotions intertwined with politics can prompt people to act in troubling ways. Grace must never give way to bitterness — or to viewing political opponents as ‘enemies.’ 

  • Dan Arnold

    Stanley Hauerwas argues in War and the American Difference that war has become America’s new civil religion. As per John (#3), the language of war is distinctly religious, with war the one place we are still asked to sacrifice. And in this case, it’s not just Evangelicals who have moved this direction, it’s much of the country, even if Evangelicals may be inadvertently leading the way.

  • Cal


    God also providentially orders the mobs, gangs and rebels of this world as well as the governments. Indeed, these smaller organizations effectively act as governments in certain parts of the world. It does not excuse their sins nor does it mean we should take arms against them. That’s what Romans 13 is all about.

    Yes, Christians ought to be involved in the affairs of the public domain but that does not mean we have to don the purple of Caesar. We, the Church, do no lord it over others. And given that anyway, what issues are Christians getting involved with politically? Most of the big name issues have nothing to do with being the Church and everything to do with defending a particular form of Western civilization and culture.

    Someone can be an enemy and yet still loved. I consider people like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich as enemies of the Gospel but I can still love them and (the ideal) lay down my life, in love, defending them from an attacker.

  • Patrick

    The entwining power is VERY pervasive.

    How captive is our Church to nationalism? I’d rank it about 70%. Our narrative employs God endorsing the nexus. Unfortunately, one virulent form of dispensationalism actually sees the USA as God’s client nation instead of the Church.

    Thing is, if we changed overnight to a more biblical church, even liberal foreign policy would be defunct. No interventions for any cause.

    I doubt many here really want that (I do). But, it’s hard to find biblical support for killing foreign people beyond OT Israel’s initial nation building enterprise and I assume for self defense.

  • Dan, I have a follow up post to come discussing the Hauerwas article you mention

  • This is precisely what my book *Chosen Nation* is about:

    The core issues is identity, and the inherent intertwining of Christian and national salvation narratives. Until we learn to understand and tell the story rightly, we’ll continue to have this problem.

  • Patrick, the place where I became the most profoundly aware of (and appalled by) our long history of entwining power, nationalism, violence & religion was when I visited Pine Ridge, one of the poorest locales in the United States, a Lakota reservation in S. Dakota. (cf. ) I was interviewed on the local radio station and asked about “manifest destiny” – which I had to have explained to me, again, since I couldn’t recall its import. There, the import was a visible punch in the face, daily. “Manifest destiny” was the 19th century rationalization for forcibly killing & driving native Americans off lands settlers wanted to seize, & onto reservations. Thereafter, the US gov’t removed their children from their homes to be educated in “Indian Schools” in English-only classes. One of the tenets underlying the rationalization was that native Americans could be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most weren’t persuaded, and the brokenness & bitterness remain awfully obvious 100-150 years later in history. How are we able to cope with the human wreckage our country has caused & perpetuated by such twisted misuse of the name of God?

    Some churches do seem held captive by a vision of Christianized nationalism, or a nationalized Christendom in their churches. The worst day to visit some of these churches is July 4th, when the worship of God seems to blend indistinguishably with patriotic songs and flags. My family & I visited one such church on July 4th, and I distinctly recall our 2 HS-aged children looking at my husband and me with wide eyes, “what is going on, here???” Any flag displayed as prominently as the cross is a warning sign, in my opinion!