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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

What is a Nation?

October 3rd, 2019 | 11 min read

By Myles Werntz

In debates over the last two months, the question of whether or not Christians can be ‘nationalists’ has become one of the pressing questions to be answered. Unfortunately, the way the debate has proceeded so far makes answering the question impossible. The question cannot be answered by examining questions about liberal proceduralism versus substantive visions of the common good, or by providing a Christian account of the nation beginning with the nature of temporal authority. These are important questions, and have been given ample attention over the last two decades.

But while the originating statement from First Things, the counter-response from Commonweal, and Brad Littlejohn’s counter-counter-response have pushed many to ponder what to make of nationalism, none have addressed the more basic question of who a nation is comprised of, and how this comes to be. 

It is important to name the “how” elements of the argument as not adjacent but central, for two reasons.

First, it is impossible to speak of what a nation is, who its people are, and what binds them together, without simultaneously verbalizing who its people are and how this comes to be so. As philosopher Thomas Nail puts it, national borders are polity-making. They establish the parameters of peoplehood, and by extension, the limits of what a nation can consider with respect to its own identity.

Secondly, unless we answer this question of “how” these nation-making entities operate, we will be defining ‘nations’ in a place that is uncomfortable with many of the mechanisms that actually create nations. The debate as it has been conducted so far, then, is built on a flawed foundation.

As Nail puts it, borders—and specifically, processes of bordering—make nations. Nations do not make borders. The ways in which we define belonging creates the conditions of what we will grow to be. The most obvious sense is borders in a geopolitical sense, as the creation of one space over another establishes markers of belonging, but we must realize—as little of the discourse thus far has—that borders are geopolitical entities only insofar as they are first conceptual entities, ideas and notions of relation which are assumed by the public imagination and common lives; borders, then, are first a kind of sensus fidelus which in turn allow for the passage of certain concrete policies and which make certain approaches thinkable before they are enacted.

In the back and forth over what nations are, the cross-talk has gotten stuck on this point, with the Commonweal statement emphasizing the Church as a different kind of geopolitical body, and the First Things responses emphasizing likewise that valid borders make possible the work of a common culture. 

The back and forth thus far has grasped this in part: the Commonweal statement rightly articulates a broader cosmopolitan unity beyond either pieces from First Things, but fails to realize that the mechanism for this is not a geopolitical one, but one which is established, as Littlejohn points out, by a neoliberal global consensus. It is this common discourse and framework of international commerce which has established not distinct nations of common histories but a singular and differentiated global polity of consumers and buyers, of the moved and the movers.

The residency distinction which occupies so much energy in this discourse of nationalism, of whether one establishes residency in Laredo or Nuevo Laredo, is of far less importance than that both cities exist in the supply chain of Walmart. Remittances sent to Central America from the United States bind regions and peoples in practice in a global order far beyond what border policy will admit. Manufacturing done in Vietnam binds workers and Midwest consumers together in ways which supercede visa negotiations. Transnational ebbs and flows of migrants from the South form the culture of the Southern United States have always formed a world which largely moves through and around whatever border lines there have been. 

When this prior bond between demarcated polities comes into view—bonds which are created by finance and migration, but not birth or governance—all of the squabbles over admission policies, as well as those about what kinds of cultural goods a nation should engender, seem pale substitutes. For our question is not whether or not advocacy of a robust American nationalism defined by exclusive or inclusive migration policies is justified, but whether or not it is even coherent.

To assume that a polity exists of neighbors is fine, but eliminated from the discussion are the neighbors to whom we are bound in a process of buying and selling, neighbors for whom our physical proximity is mediated by our demands for physical goods. In this way, we are all within the same economic border, unequal neighbors who live in different houses, but inhabiting the same city of economic exchange. 

This all brings questions of national identity more properly into view. If we are bound together—by our volition or not—by a process of exchange which all of us are involved, then those who exist on the other side of a political border are already and always those to whom I owe something irregardless of policy. My food, not grown in a localist hothouse, is cultivated by hands I do not know, and through my demands and their labor, have become my neighbor, like it or not. Attention to what is physically proximate to us, as has been a common claim since Augustine, is good and right, but this is misleading if by this maxim we assume that only the localist version of proximity is the neighbor to which something is owed. To be in relation is indeed to be in communicative relation with another, but we are fools if we do not think that our money does not do our talking for us.

In this way, international forms of relation—be they by treaty, globalized arrangements, or migration patterns—are not bugs but features of any account of national identity. For no nation, including Israel of the Old Testament, remained self-sufficient either with respect to its culture, history, or covenant: their covenant was one established by God in and through their relations with neighbors, migrants, and battles—encouraged not to be like the nations in their pagan worship but to be for the nations insofar as all the cattle on the hills are God’s. The nations are to stream into Jerusalem to worship, bringing with them their goods with them. 

Thus far, what I have done is to establish that what binds political entities together is—for better or worse—a kind of international entanglement of nations which makes fools of our pretensions to extricate ourselves from it, seen in economic and migratory forms. In terms of immigration policy, this principle has been well-enshrined, from Supreme Court rulings which allowed for all children to receive school admission irrespective of immigration status, to the amnesty offered by the Reagan administration in 1986 on the heels of employer-centered immigration reform: who belongs and how is driven by an economic union of persons which exceeds political borders, both here and in the EU. In terms of economics, whether in the form of the EU, the USMCA, or trade wars, economic function and dysfunction keep our physically distant neighbors coming near (in the case of economic migration) or imaginatively near in our accounting for our next fiscal policy. 

What has yet to be discussed, however, is what to make of this. I do not think that the mode of economic relation between Vietnam and the United States, as mentioned above, is just or healthy, either for the U.S. or Vietnam, for the relation is one of the wealthy taking advantage of the poor. Saying that our world is linked by economics before blood is not to say that the relationships it established aren’t corrosive to us.

But it is for the conceivable moment, the present we have, and the relations which are both our distant neighbors, and in the case of the Southern border come north, our physical neighbors. How they come to be our neighbors is less significant than the fact that they are our neighbors, with the claims upon us entailed therein. 

It is here that we must return to our post-lapsarian roots to see what to make of our interrelated neighbors with respect to the case for national identity, by requiring our conversations about nationhood—largely driven by political theory—to be responsive to theological anthropology. In this, let us examine the first encounter of peoples: the story of Cain and Abel, in which the City of God diverges from all other nations, according to Augustine. The story of Cain and Abel is used by Augustine as a stand-in for the distinction between City of Man and City of God, and by extension, for the overlap and distinctions between one nation and another. It is on the basis of this overlap and distinction of church from world that Augustine is able to name the difference between nations, to the effect that one owes more to one’s own people than one’s distant neighbors. 

But the story of Cain and Abel is more complex than Augustine admits, for even the murder of Abel by Cain in no way abolishes the relation between Cain and Abel, but rather alters now what Cain is: the brother of the dead Abel and his murderer. This is not an appellation which Cain can overcome, and not one which for Augustine, the world will outlive. What I am suggesting here is this: the flourishing of Cain, though it occurs in the city of refuge, remains tethered to Abel and his memory by the God who loves them both; by extension, to posit national identity independent of past histories, ongoing relations, and the ways in which these wounds and relations name who a people is is to make ourselves into a people ex nihilo: without beginning or end, self-sufficient and without lack. In our own day, this relation of Cain and Abel is one we find repeated in our own histories of conflict and relationships established through exchange, but unless we account for these, we can have no sense of who we are.

The unjust economic relations are those which tether together distant persons who are, by Scripture’s lights, no less siblings, though lacking a common culture, language or polity. The question of these relations is not so much whether such a form of relation is intrinsically out of bounds as whether they are presently disordered, in that relations of disordered economies represent in a perverse and mirrored form what the Scriptures declare as reality: that the nations of the world are the Lord’s, interwoven together as the siblings we cannot disavow. 

If this is a nation—people who are made temporally distant though knit together under the shadows of our forms of conflict and exchange—then we cannot understand national identity purely as that which exists in territorial terms or which is cultivated by shoring up a people’s internal culture, for this is to exclude the dynamic which enables a nation to be a nation: its patterns of exchange by which it creates borders both political and economic. It is these relations which bind us to other nations and, in practice (for better or worse) the various ethnic and ideological substrates of American culture are bound together: our common consumption and cultural flows of exchange which do not occur according to border lines. 

What is needed first, then, before we can think of defining a nation in terms of shared goods or common culture, is to recognize the ongoing debts which America, in this case, owes and is bound to globally. To think of American nationalism in this era is not to offer a Constitutionalist account, avoiding centuries of history and relation, for America as a nation must begin its account of nationalism with its ongoing relations and debts (both to those who are among us and those upon whom we have depended on to shape our sense of self), relations and debts which have shaped and continue to shape our internal life, economic, political, and cultural.

A nation is one node of people, shaped by their common laws and histories, but those laws and histories are those made possible only by what they cannot live without: their neighbors who are already among them. To continue as a nation is either to make these ongoing forms of exchange equitable, to ignore them and bolster the voices of international resentment against certain peoples, or to acknowledge and own them, and be open to letting the health of a place be linked (and inextricably linked) to that which is not territorially proximate.

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