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They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. (Epistle to Diognetus, 5:5-7)
The other week when preparing for a church history lecture, this striking and enigmatic text from around the year AD 130 made me sit up and read twice. The unknown author had a distinct apologetic aim in mind: to defend the reputation of Christians against Graeco-Roman charges of immorality. No, Christians are not immoral, he says. Just look at these traits—no infanticide, no adultery, and conscientious obedience to local laws. But in among the mix is a surprise to modern readers. Part of the distinctive cluster of Christian morals is a relativisation of patriotic forms of solidarity and loyalty: ‘every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign’.
The remark is striking for at least two reasons. One is that it represents one of the earliest (and admittedly only incidental) efforts to reflect upon the ethics of identifying with local forms of belonging. How does a Christian relate to various home countries (patria), and indeed to patriotism? The New Testament left us with hints and inferences to be made, but not an explicit direction on the topic, making it an ongoing question.
The second reason the comment jumps out is its difference from later Christian answers. Three and a half centuries downstream from the Westphalian settlement, in which sovereign, territorial nation-states came into being, and around two hundred years downstream from the rise of modern nationalism, Christians have more often than not accepted that loyalty to my fatherland is not to be questioned.
What’s more, without the ballast of a political theology that is integrated both with missions and the claims of the gospel itself, evangelicals have been perennially vulnerable to the lure of Christian nationalist and/or nativist responses to the ethical question of nations and borders.
When, in settler nations such as the US and Australia, the mantle of ‘Christian nation’ is deployed, (often very understandably as a way of expressing gratitude for and drawing attention to particular strands of Christian heritage often overlooked by mainstream culture), there has often hovered nearby the political implication of nativism. Let’s keep borders closed / secure to protect our (Christian) nation, the argument might run.
It is very instructive, I think, to bear in mind another overlooked forebear—evangelical John R. Mott. I make no secret of the fact that I tend toward a critical reading of Christian history and am extremely wary of Christian idealising of past ‘heroes’. But there are times when a past lesson does bear attention.
John R. Mott was arguably the Billy Graham of his era—an American centrist evangelist who could cut across national, cultural and denominational divides with dazzling and unequalled reach (until Graham), and who courted Presidents and elites the world over. Just to take one aspect of his work as an example, his world tours of the 1890s-1900s were arguably the single most significant factor in the establishment of evangelical campus student movements worldwide—in Europe, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Australia.
Yet Mott—and this is more impressive given the cultural backdrop of the 1920s as the apogee of popular and scientific racism in Australia and his native US—rebuked both Australians and Americans for their ‘white’ immigration policies of closed borders in the 1920s. As a marker of sentiment, only two years earlier in February 1924, former Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes had sailed northward to the United States to foment solidarity between Americans and Australians: both countries faced the peril of ‘watering down the bloodstream of race’.[i] Indeed, as Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have documented, many Americans proposing anti-Japanese laws pointed with optimism to the Australian experiment in ‘racial purity’.[ii]
Yet, on his visit to Australia in 1926, in an address to a high profile national missions conference, Mott made clear that he thought race-based immigration restriction was not conscionable as a Christian ethic. In fact, the whole idea of racial superiority was untenable—no matter what science claimed to say.
What was especially striking is that Mott went beyond the vague, universalistic language of ‘brotherhood’ that circulated in labour and peace movements of the time (to say they were vague or humanistic is not to say they were wrong on the point of racial equality). Nor did he seek to work against the message of trans-national and trans-racial unity that such groups offered, as others on the political right did. No; Mott departed from them but went further, and he did so in the particularistic language of the New Testament.
By His Incarnation, by the all-inclusiveness, or comprehension of His gospel and Kingdom, by His breaking down the middle wall of partition on the Cross, opening the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers, by the world-wide sweep of His Pentecostal program, and by the witness and sacrificial working of His living body, the Church, He reveals Himself as the One through whom the unity of the human race is discovered and realized.[iii]
As a result, ‘Christians should wage uncompromising warfare against … all unjust or unequal racial arrangements, laws and practices’.[iv]
Mott was by no means perfect. But he was a figure whose political-theological instincts, to a striking degree, especially given his context, were integrated with his missiological ones. Rather than holding ‘gospel’ and ‘border policies’ in separate spheres of reality, he let the former inform his ethical standpoint toward the latter. And he did so when Christian-sounding forms of nativism and racism were even more widely subscribed to than today.
[i] Cited in Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne University Press, 2008), p311.
[iii] John R. Mott, “The Race Problem”. Addresses and Papers of John R. Mott, Volume Five: The International Missionary Council (Association Press, 1946), p620.
[iv] Ibid., p619.
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