When the Group Becomes God

Over the edge

Extreme nationalism appears to be strutting back into the news. It is a bit like extreme sports, in that it usually involves a high level of danger, although cliff jumpers and other athletic extremists pose a danger mainly to themselves, unlike their political counterparts, who are inclined to take entire societies over the edge. Ultranationalists are conspiring in many places including Turkey, where fascists are once again threatening to massacre Armenians; India, where Hindu nationalists have been dragging worshipers out of Christian churches and thrashing them; and even in Holland, where anti-immigrant Dutch nationalists are stirring in one of the world’s most politically correct countries.

Some of the reporting has come by way of remembrance. Last month the world marked twenty years since old hatreds rematerialized in the former Yugoslavia, which was splitting apart as nationalism replaced Communism. Serbian forces bombarded Muslim neighborhoods in Sarajevo, launching the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and nearly a decade of extreme ethnicity throughout the Balkans. “Ethnic cleansing” became a grim catchphrase.

In a May 3 Op-Ed in the New York Times, a 31-year-old physical therapist in Queens told of how, as a seven-year-old “Bosniak” (a Muslim in Bosnia), he pledged with his classmates to spread unity in what was still Yugoslavia. He did so at a multiethnic school, in front of his favorite teacher, a Serb. Five years later, he bumped into that teacher, who had traded in his chalk and clipboard for a Serbian Army uniform:

“Hey, teacher,” I called. He knocked the grocery bag out of my hand, saying, “Balije don’t need bread.” (“Balije” was a slur for Bosniak.) Holding me by my hair, he rested his rifle against my head. “It’s jammed,” he complained. As I ran away, I caught him waving a three-finger salute, a gesture of Serbian nationalism based on the Orthodox sign of the cross.

Note the “sign of the cross.” There were many symbols of faith deployed in the ethnic crossfires, which led otherwise astute observers to a specious conclusion about the nature of that conflict in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the redoubtable Henry Kissinger declared that it was a “religious war,” not an ethnic one, “since all the groups are of the same ethnic stock”—Slavs, namely. But of course, Yugoslavia had been Communist, and its population largely atheist or at least secular, for nearly a half-century before the Balkans exploded again. So, Kissinger and others left us chewing on the paradox of a religious war fought largely by irreligious people.

Ultimate Concern

In a way Kissinger was right, though not in the way he intended. In the throes of such fanaticism, one’s ethnicity or nationality takes on a kind of absolute significance. It becomes an “ultimate concern,” not merely a “preliminary concern.” It turns into a god.

Here I’m speaking the language of Paul Tillich (1886-1965). “The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary,” the German-born Lutheran wrote in his classic Systematic Theology (Vol. 1). This ultimate concern is total, Tillich adds: “no part of ourselves is excluded from it; there is no place to flee from it.”

What happens when something less than the divine—or less than a transcendent value—is invested with ultimate concern? People begin bowing to false deities, Tillich says.

Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance …

More than nationalism comes to mind. National security or the market can become a creeping absolute, especially in a time of international crisis or extreme inequality. Tillich also italicizes—“Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being and non-being.” In the case of exaggerated nationalism, it is all too predictably a path to non-being—over the cliff. …read more