The dramatic events in Salisbury (and possibly New Malden) really show the danger to the world of populist nationalism. If you believe that your nation state has absolute claims over your life, then the State can’t really do any wrong. Truth, justice, fairness, accountability – these things don’t really matter in comparison to the security of the State. One reason why the Catholic Church has real problems about exaggerated claims about ‘national sovereignty’ and expects countries to work together and pool their sovereignty is because we can see what damage all this can do. It did enormous damage a hundred years ago: what drove the European nations into the carnage of the Great War was national self-interest and blown-up patriotism. There was no sense of the ‘common good’ of the whole of Europe: all that mattered was the law of the jungle.
If we look at examples of popular nationalism in the world – Russia, the United States, North Korea, Turkey, China – they are always centred on the cult of the leader. Not for the most part people whom we would consider to be monarchs, but people who are raised to monarchical power; the leader’s lust to dominate is transferred to a similar lust on the part of the country he runs. So often people really do get taken in by the emptiness of such cults of the leader. We often want to believe in a powerful leader; having such a leader to look up to defines us and we take it all seriously. The leader’s power is defined by violence or the threat of violence, so the leadership cult and popular nationalism are characterised by militarism and the glorification of war; again, so often we love it all.
What we celebrate today, Palm Sunday, overturns and challenges this world-view. Jesus enters Jerusalem honoured as a king – but riding on a donkey. This is predicted in the Old Testament, but it tells us that God’s kingdom and rule are of a different order. The waving of palms is not the waving of flags: something dif-ferent is happening. When we think of Jesus as a king, we are honouring him in relationship to qualities which are at odds with what kingship means in history and culture: what Jesus does is marked by self-sacrifice, peace, humility, a determination not to put oneself first; Jesus is not a king who exercises power, who is proud, who lords it over others, who uses violence.
The kingship of Jesus which we celebrate today also points to the future. Those who shout ‘Hosanna’ will soon be shouting ‘crucify him!’ By the false standards of the ‘Prince of this world’ the crucifixion represents absolute failure and defeat: a man executed as a common criminal on trumped-up charges, made to carry his cross through the streets before he is nailed to it, to die a slow and agonising death. Everything about today and next Friday subverts conventional ideas of leadership and domination: the realm of God is about non-violence and self-sacrifice; what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus should be characterised by these qualities in our own lives, and in the ways in which we proclaim a moral vision. Following Jesus will therefore have a ‘price tag’: faithful Christians are, like Jesus, victims of the violence of others, called to suffer violence exercised by others because they are Christians; so martyrdom is important and to be expected.
Often in history the Church has betrayed this vision. So often we have supported the powerful, we have blessed and endorsed what the rich and powerful do, giving rulers divine honours as if the ruler stands in for God. Even now we are taken in by the lies like everyone else. But Christian moral teaching is more authentically proclaimed, in many ways, is more effectively proclaimed than in the past: there is greater awareness now than there was in the past (unless you go back to the early Church) that the God we worship is the God of the poor, that God’s way is marked by reconciliation and peace-making, not the waging of war; and yet we have often betrayed this vision.
Christian moral teaching is rooted in other things we believe about God: so when we mark in this Holy Week the crucifixion we are making a moral statement. The Church’s resistance now to popular nationalism, our endorsement of real co-operation rather than competition among nations, our condemnation of war and all that glorifies war – all these things stem from this week, from the cross. They draw strength too from the triumph we celebrate this week on the Cross of Jesus over sin and death.