National pride: should we try harder?

I sinned this Sunday. I wore a hat in church. Well, to be specific, I wore a Springbok Rugby hat. And a Springbok Rugby Jersey. And I dressed my wife and two of our friends in South African Rugby colours and paraphernalia and we all entered the church together, singing the South African national anthem. In a scrum. This display of subtle wit was, of course, in honour of the result of the World Cup Rugby final in which my homeland, South Africa, beat England and became world champions. Some thought it was insensitive.

World cup

Certainly some people think that identifying overly much with any sports team can encourage the basest, most chauvinistic and jingoistic parts of our nature, leading to dangerous forms of nationalism and violent expressions of self-love justified as patriotism. Me, I’m just glad South Africa crushed England beneath their studded boots like the bunch of old men they were. So I really can’t see that there’s any harm.

The thing is, I don’t even care about rugby. I have never played rugby and, if I’m honest, I’m about as into genuine athletic excellence as The Sunday Sport is. But living in England, seeing my home team play a game I admittedly don’t understand (you’re hoping for ‘a try’? I’m wanting results! A forceful ‘conversion’? I’m calling the police!) something in me changed. I became, for a while, a sports-fan. My house is still recovering from the hurricane of testosterone. I wanted desperately for South Africa to win a contest I only recently learned was taking place (when some friends sent me an ‘enjoy the game’ text on Saturday, they weren’t sure my reply of ‘what game?’ was a joke) and the only reason I can give is an irrational love of my country.

I say ‘irrational’ because I’ve been wondering what love of your country ought to mean to a Christian. I’m pretty sure that the assumption that one’s own accidental birthplace is inherently superior to someone else’s is hard to justify intellectually. The belief that people are superior based on race, as raised in the media storm last week surrounding Nobel Prizewinner, James Watson’s alleged suggestions that some races are genetically inferior, is, in my understanding, wrong. But then, I am South African and my thirst for that kind of openness to scientific investigation has perhaps been quenched a little by seeing first-hand what racially eugenic beliefs can do.

Most normal people (discoverers of DNA excluded) would see these truths as self-evident. And yet, last week, aside from rugby, the news rang with calls for a referendum on Europe. I’m sure the media are not so cynical or self-serving as to want a referendum just because of the blow-by-blow coverage opportunities and result-tracking fervour it would create, so what is the fear of Europe about? Is it possible it all comes down to a love of one’s country, both the positive and negative manifestations of that emotion?

Personally, I see nothing wrong with loving this country. It is as beautiful a part of the world God created as any on earth and it is filled with people created in his image. What’s not to love? But that is equally true of anywhere in Europe. It’s true of Africa too. And while a passionate desire for self-government, reservation of resources for those born within these borders and a distinct separation from other nations may be expedient and even practically desirable, we should always remember that these are not moral claims. And they must, for the Christian, be subservient to the claims of mercy, Grace, peace and love for all of our neighbours: Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Poles, Turks, Croatians and even South Africans.



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