Theresa May, British Prime Minister

Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement reverberated around the UK:

If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.

My guess is that this vicar’s daughter is totally unaware of the role Christianity played in getting people to think of themselves as citizens of the world.

In the first and second centuries AD, before it became a tool of Constantinian imperialism, Christianity appealed to a sense of universal belonging that combined two earlier traditions.

One was Jewish monotheism. The most popular scriptural texts were from Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), written around 540-ish BC. Here the whole world has been created by a single god who has a plan for world peace and prosperity. We are all creatures of this same god. The implication is that world peace and prosperity are in principle possible, so if only we could see it we serve our best interests by serving everybody else’s interests.

Unfortunately Second Isaiah spoiled the effect by adding that Israel would have a special role as a chosen race. Israelis may like the idea, but for everybody else it means that, however benign the god of Israel is, you’re a second class human.

The other source is Stoicism. In the classical Greek era most Greeks lived in self-governing city states. They identified with their city, and more widely with Greek culture. After Alexander’s conquests people lived in vast empires bounded by military outcomes rather than cultural identity. It was at this stage that Stoics developed the idea of humanity as a unity. The Roman Stoic Seneca spoke of ‘the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man’ and Marcus Aurelius believed that ‘we are all fellow citizens and members of one body politic, that is to say, the Universe is a species of state’. Modern evolutionary theory confirms their view.

Christianity put the two together. From the Jewish tradition it inherited the idea of a calling by God to live together in shalom, peace and harmony, but it opened up the ‘chosen race’ to anyone who wanted to join. From the Stoics it inherited the idea of relativising local identity: before being Greek or Roman we are members of the human race, citizens of the world. Robert Nisbet writes that in the second century AD,

Christian theologians, eager to promote the theme of the Church’s universality and its availability to all human beings irrespective of family, local, ethnic, or cultural origin, and to advance the idea of God’s suzereignty over all the peoples on earth, found themselves going increasingly beyond Roman civilization in their writings, going to - mankind!

For Stoics the unity of humanity was a useful way of looking at the world since national identities had been relativised by the spread of empires. Christianity added that it was God’s way of looking at the world, and therefore the right way to look at it. Everybody is made and loved by the same creator, for the same kinds of reasons. Whatever purposes God has for the lives of our own community, God has correlative purposes for the lives of foreigners.

It follows logically that the nation’s enemies are equally loved by God, and therefore should not be our enemies. So early Christians earned themselves a reputation for refusing to join the Roman army, insisting that they were citizens of Rome by imperial permission but citizens of the world by divine design.

So while the wording ‘citizen of the world’ owes more to Stoicism, its moral force owes more to a Christian adaptation of a Jewish insight.

When Theresa May told the Conservative Party Conference that ‘if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’, she will have expected the statement to be well received both by the Party and by the British electorate as a whole. Rejecting the very idea of being a citizen of the world must have seemed popular.

Does it matter? I think it does, and for the age-old reasons. It says we don’t care about foreigners. It says we are in a mood to draw hard and fast lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and defend ‘us’ without caring about ‘them’. British citizens throw up their hands in horror when American voters support Trump or French voters support Le Pen; but when we adopt the same attitudes ourselves we think we have good reason, and fail to think what we must sound like from across the Channel.

How much the Prime Minister really meant by that statement is known to her alone, and we cannot deny that she is in a difficult situation. Protocol forbids her to admit in public that her predecessor made a pig’s ear of the EU referendum, so she feels obliged to pretend that the voters knew what they were doing and that a 52% majority settles the matter permanently. Nevertheless, publicly rubbishing the idea of being a citizen of the world can only encourage the idea that being British makes us different from foreigners, and thereby accentuate the most destructive elements of British jingoism.

It is as though we are returning to the world before Second Isaiah and the Stoics. They were both reacting against a polytheistic background. Typically, though not always, ancient polytheists could believe that each nation had been created by its own god. If foreigners had been created by different gods, it was possible to wonder what, if anything, one had in common with them. Were they equally human? As long as it was not self-evident that they were, the uncertainty made it easier to ignore their concerns. When competing governments took this view of each other, it led to one war after another.

The defensive-aggressive narrowing of perspective in British culture today does not go as far as they did. We are not talking about reintroducing slavery for foreigners, however dreadful the conditions in which some of them are made to work. Nevertheless, by emphasising British identity at the expense of internationalism, we are taking steps in that direction. We are undermining attempts at international harmony and bringing closer the next war.

Christianity’s gift of internationalism is too precious to lose. We are nationals of our own state by accident of birth. We are citizens of the world by design.