Editor’s Note: Mark Tooley shared these remarks at the Wesleyan Theological Society annual meeting on March 9, 2018 in Cleveland, Tennessee.
There has been lots of Christian conversation amid many political ecclesial declarations about immigration over the last 10 years, including from the Wesleyan world. They stress the biblical admonition to extend hospitality and justice to strangers and sojourners. Almost never do they substantively touch on other equally important godly principles about nurturing and safeguarding existing communities particularly nation states. Nations, and nationalism, are portrayed at best indifferently, and often very negatively.
A declaration of the Free Methodist Church on immigration policy in 2013 warns against “nationalistic concerns” and “exclusionary immigration laws” by nations where “good decisions and sacrificial behaviors are rewarded.” The latter is the twelve-page document’s only mention of “nation.” The Wesleyan Church’s 2008 immigration policy statement mentions nations six times. It notes the “United States and Canada are predominantly nations made up of immigrants and their descendants. Men, women, and their families seeking a better way of life, religious freedom, political asylum, opportunity to pursue great dreams and experience new beginnings have contributed to the prosperity and diversity that make our nations strong. And it says “God is sovereignly at work to establish His kingdom in heaven and on earth. He determines the times and places where the peoples of the nations should live so that people will seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him.” But there is no further elaboration on divine purposes for nations.
The United Methodist Church, which has the most permissive stance on immigration, opposing any restrictions, has a 2016 immigration resolution that negatively cites “nation-state considerations expressed in the language of ‘us’ and ‘them’—or ‘we’ the homefolks and ‘they’ the intruder/alien.” It also insists: “Christians do not approach the issue of migration from the perspective of tribe or nation, but from within a faith community of love and welcome, a community that teaches and expects hospitality to the poor, the homeless, and the oppressed.”
Some years ago I asked a well-known United Methodist theologian and seminary president whom I admire whether loyalty to nation states has any role for Christians. His response was succinct. No.
Yet embedded into Christian teaching is an appreciation of nations as organic to His creation, nations whose existence and vitality by definition entail borders, sovereignty, and special regard by its rulers for their own people. John Wesley himself without elaborating a great deal on this point seems intuitively to have cherished his nation as worthy of love and protection, established, like all nations and human communities, for providential purposes.
As Thomas Oden noted in his volume 4 of John Wesley’s Teachings: Ethics & Society when summarizing Wesley’s understanding of “Social Sin in the Covenant Relation between Rulers and People”:
When there is such a general wickedness spread abroad, all suffer, even when they did not directly participate in the decisions that eventually led to a calamity. Why? Because nations and families have entered jointly into covenant with God. Divine-human covenants may be corporately made with whole nations involved. As divine benefits accrue from just behavior, so does divine judgment accrue from unjust behavior, and it may affect everyone in the covenanting community —both the guilty and the innocent. From this we learn that we do not live a solitary existence as if in an individualistic bubble, but in a community called to social accountability. The sin we knowingly do contributes to the burden of sin dispersed through the whole society.
Wesley in his understanding of nation as a covenant community of God, along with his love and duty to his native Britain, resembles similar understanding and regard over two centuries later by Pope John Paul II when describing his own theology of nation and his own Polish patriotism. In his famous Castel Gandolfo talks, later published in Pope John Paul II: Memory & Identity, he noted the Latin word patria is related to the word pater for father, and the fatherland “can in some ways be identified with patrimony, that is, the totality of goods bequeathed to us by our forefathers,” the same being true for motherland. It refers to land, territory with values and the “spiritual content that go to make up the culture of a given nation.” His native Poland had retained its “spiritual patrimony” even when deprived of territory and partitioned, he noted. The idea of “native land” “presupposed a deep bond between the spiritual and the material, between culture and territory.” Indeed, “territory seized by force from a nation somehow becomes a plea crying out to the ‘spirit’ of the nation itself. The spirit of the nation awakens, takes on fresh vitality and struggles to restore the rights of the land.”
According to JPII, “Christ’s teachings contain the most profound elements of a theological vision of both native land and culture,” presenting “himself to humanity with particular patrimony, a particular heritage.” This “inheritance we receive from Christ orientates the patrimony of human native lands and cultures towards the eternal homeland.” This concept of native land from Christ opens into an “eternal, eschatological dimension,” without diminishing its “temporal content.” From the Polish experience, he recalled, the “thought of the eternal homeland can inspire people to serve their earthly native land.” The new “culture” that Christ initiated “re-cultivated” the world created by the Father, so that the “divine patrimony took on the form of ‘Christian culture’” and is “marking the culture of all humanity.” Poland’s original founding as a state on defined European territory owed to a “particular spiritual inspiration” one of whose expressions was the baptism of Mieszko I and his people in 966 by encouragement from his Bohemian wife.
JPII also locates patriotism in the Decalogue from the fourth commandment, honoring mother and father, which includes the spiritual heritage of native land, combining duties to patria and pietas. Such patriotism includes “everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features,” extending to “works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius,” with “every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land” becoming an “occasion to demonstrate this love.” His Polish countrymen had confirmed this love with the “many tombs of soldiers…widely dispersed,” and the “same could be said of every country and every nation in Europe and throughout the world.” The “native land is the common good of all citizens and as such it imposes serious duty,” often disrupted, as it had been in Poland, by “private interest” and “individualism.”
Expressing skepticism that supranationalism would displace nations, JPII noted that “Catholic social doctrine speaks of ‘natural’ societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature,” and are not the “product of mere convention,” and “cannot in history be replaced by anything else.” Every society forms through family and also through the nation. Warning against “unhealthy nationalism,” which marred the 20th century, he offered “patriotism” as the antidote. Distinguishing the two, he said:
Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love of one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.
Here I would distinguish between JPII’s pejorative description of nationalism as turbo-charged chauvinistic ideology versus merely a straightforward affirmation of the utility of nation states, which the term patriotism, which is more of a private devotion, does not describe.
JPII also cited Scripture for an “authentic theology of the nation,” pointing of course to Israel, whose recorded genealogy “illustrates how the road to nationhood passes through ‘generation,’ via the family and the clan.” God chose this nation to “reveal himself” to the world. The Incarnation also “forms part of the theology of the nation,” offer invitation into a “divine nation,” and placing God’s people among all the nations, and signifying that the “history of all nations is called to take its place in the history of salvation.” Under this New Covenant “every nation has equal rights of citizenship.”
In my view Wesley would largely agree with JPII’s perspective on the sacred calling of nations, perhaps even more so. JPII was pontiff of an institutionally global church historically often friendlier to supranational governance. Wesley was priest in a national church whose nation often defined itself against supranational religious and political structures. Wesley was at very least as patriotic an Englishman as JPII was a Pole, and perhaps he was even more zealously so.
As referenced earlier, Wesley’s 1775 sermon on “National Sins and Miseries” outlines his understanding of covenant between God and nation, and understands duties to modern nation not just as celebratory but also admonishing, as with Israel and other ancient nations chided by the Hebrew prophets. Referencing King David and Joab in Samuel II, Wesley applied David’s sin to contemporary Britain, warning: “God frequently punishes a people for the sins of their rulers, because they are generally partakers of their sins, in one kind or other. And the righteous Judge takes this occasion of punishing them for all their sins.” And he says:
Is there not in several respects, a remarkable resemblance between the case of Israel and our own? General wickedness then occasioned a general visitation; and does not the same cause now produce the same effect? We likewise have sinned, and we are punished; and perhaps these are only the beginning of sorrows. Perhaps the angel is now stretching out his hand over England to destroy it. O that the Lord would at length say to him that destroyeth, “It is enough; stay now thine hand!”
Wesley particularly chastises the British people for ingratitude for their considerable liberties:
Thousands of plain, honest people throughout the land are driven utterly out of their senses, by means of the poison which is so diligently spread through every city and town in the kingdom. They are screaming out for liberty while they have it in their hands, while they actually possess it; and to so great an extent, that the like is not known in any other nation under heaven; whether we mean civil liberty, a liberty of enjoying all our legal property, — or religious liberty, a liberty of worshipping God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Therefore all those who are either passionately or dolefully crying out, “Bondage! Slavery!” while there is no more danger of any such thing, than there is of the sky falling upon their head, are utterly distracted; their reason is gone; their intellects are quite confounded. Indeed, many of these have lately recovered their senses; yet are there multitudes still remaining, who are in this respect as perfectly mad as any of the inhabitants of Bedlam.
As Thomas Oden describes of this sermon, Wesley warns that the “anarchic threat of disruption of the rule of law had become an occasion for a social theodicy – a shared, corporate, interdependent occasion of suffering.”
Let not anyone think, this is but a small calamity which has fallen upon our land. If you saw, as I have seen, in every county, city, town, men who were once of a calm, mild, friendly temper, mad with party-zeal, foaming with rage against their quiet neighbours, ready to tear out one another’s throats, and to plunge their swords into each other’s bowels; if you had heard men who once feared God and honoured the king, now breathing out the bitterest invectives against him, and just ripe, should any occasion offer, for treason and rebellion; you would not then judge this to be a little evil, a matter of small moment, but one of the heaviest judgments which God can permit to fall upon a guilty land.
Wesley of course notes that the American colonists are just as bad and perhaps even worse, as “in our colonies also many are causing the people to drink largely of the same deadly wine.” Along with a false notion of liberty, he faults love of money, sloth and profaneness among gross national sins, along with the war in America, which leaves behind widows and orphans. He offers an alternative to divine judgement:
But now the plague is begun, and has already made such ravages both in England and America, what can we do, in order that it may be stayed? How shall we stand “between the living and the dead?” Is there any better way to turn aside the anger of God, than that prescribed by St. James: “Purge your hands, ye sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double-minded?”
Wesley offers that national repentance may result in healing and national rebirth.
Show mercy more especially to the poor widows, to the helpless orphans, of your countrymen who are now numbered among the dead, who fell among the slain in a distant land. Who knoweth but the Lord will yet be entreated, will calm the madness of the people, will quench the flames of contention, and breathe into all the spirit of love, unity, and concord? Then brother shall not lift up sword against brother, neither shall they know war any more. Then shall plenty and peace flourish in our land, and all the inhabitants of it be thankful for the innumerable blessings which they enjoy, and shall “fear God, and honour the king.”
Arguably, Wesley sermon was a post-colonial critique, as Oden suggested, as he faulted Britain in its global expansion for procuring “field after field,” spreading all the “elegance of vice,” and having lost the habits of their “temperate, active forefathers” in favor of sloth. In this analysis, Wesley arguable here by implication defends the sovereignty of other lands from British colonialism.
Wesley’s “A Calm Address to Our American Colonies” though ironically a plea for continued British colonialism at least in America, echoes similar themes, while affirming his devotion to the British constitution, which offered more “rational liberty” than “any other people in the habitable world.” He notably addressed Americans as “my brethren and countrymen.” As Oden points out, Wesley rebutted American interpretations of government by individual consent by arguing for government by transgenerational consent, emphasizing the deeper, organic definition of the nation beyond just the currently living, and confirming that Wesley, as William Abraham recently asserted, was a Burkean conservative, understanding the nation and its political project as organic, transgenerational and in some ways pre-political.
In his 1777 “A Calm Address to the Inhabitants of England,” Wesley again celebrated uniquely British liberties, asking, “In what other country upon earth is such civil liberty to be found? Is it prudence to speak in so bitter and contemptuous a manner of such governors as God has given you?” In his 1778 “The Late Work of God in North America,” Wesley examined the American Revolution through Ezekiel’s vision of a “wheel within a wheel,” illustrating the mysteries of Providence working among peoples and nations.
During the Seven Years War Wesley expressed his love of England by offering to enlist troops for defense against a potential French invasion, telling a friend of his plans to “raise for His Majesty’s service at least two hundred volunteers, to be supported by contributions among themselves; and to be ready in case of an invasion to act for a year (if needed so long) at His Majesty’s pleasure, only within 10 miles of London.” John’s brother Charles, as brothers often are, was mockingly dismissive of his militarily inexperienced and middle aged brother raising troops, wondering if such troops would not be “too tardy to rescue us.”
Beyond raising troops, Wesley expressed his love of England in 1776 by writing a four volume history of his native land A Concise History of England: From the Earliest Times, to the Death of George II. His review of England’s story, which of course he saw providentially and covenantly, to “see God perfecting the moral as well as the natural world, as I would fain have others to see him in all civil events as well as in all the phenomena of nature. I want them to learn that the Lord is King, be the earth never so impatient; that He putteth down one and setteth up another, in spite of all human power and wisdom.”
Wesley’s history of England included chronicling his nation’s sins, such as having renewed the Hundred Year’s War when Henry V “attacked [France] without the least provocation.” Observed Wesley, “He filled it with widows and orphans, lamentation, misery, and every species of distress. And he died in full persuasion of having acted according to equity. So he deceived himself, as well as others! But there is one that judgeth righteously.”
Likewise Wesley chided ninth century King Egbert of Wessex, Edward I (1242-1307), and the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill, b. 1650) for “cruel” and “unjust” conduct. These evils he describes of course as England’s failure to uphold its covenant with God.
Wesley loved England, no less than Pope John Paul II loved Poland, to which he would return, setting aside his papal office, if the Soviets had invaded, he reputedly warned during the Solidarity crisis of early 1980s. The evangelist knew he was not a disembodied spirit, but a man placed in a particular nation for particular providential purposes. The world was his parish, but his starting point was England. For him and his followers, the Methodist movement was God’s work for the renewal of their land and setting it right with Him. This love of country they bequeathed, however reluctantly to American Methodists, who were admonished by Wesley to obey their new civil authorities whose sovereignty should not be questioned.
In this historically Wesleyan understanding, mostly assumed and not articulated, nations are gifts of God, having covenants with Him, to be cherished, and protected. Nations have physical places with borders, with particular peoples and cultures that have arisen organically and providentially across decades, centuries and millennia, as Wesley recorded in his history of England. As followers of Wesley address immigration issues, we must do so with appreciation that nations are not inconsequential or obstacles to God’s universal love or the universal church. Instead, we should see them as stating points from which we begin our expression of God’s love for humanity and creation.