Myles Werntz’s essay brings us back to first principles by asking in his title question: ‘What is Nationalism?’ He then frames the conception of nationalism as both constitutive (“who a nation is comprised of”) and historical-contextual (“how it comes to be”). Framing our understanding of nationalism in these ways conforms with the ways competing sides have framed this discussion and helps us to move forward in better addressing the concerns many have with the idea – or more accurately, the celebration – of nationalism.
Werntz first posits nationalism as relational and negotiated. The creation of a nation or any self-identified group is inherently boundary-setting, as any group must set the parameters of what it means to belong to that group. Werntz however challenges the inviolability of those boundaries, recognizing that even across borders there is mutual exchange and mutual need, and that this need challenges our exclusivist understanding of the nation. This reality extends back to the Israelite kingdom of the Old Testament. The Old Testament conception of nationalism is commonly viewed as exclusivist, given the commands to not adopt the gods and cultures of other nations.
Nations are instead to stream towards Jerusalem, adopting Israel’s God and rejecting their former ways. Ironically, this conception of Old Testament nationalism unites proponents of nationalism, who see Biblical sanction in a more exclusionary view, and critics, who argue the New Testament provides a counter (re: superior), transnational view of Biblical community.
However, 1 Kings 5 describes the construction of the First Temple as a transnational enterprise, in which Solomon reaches out to Hiram king of Tyre and asks that he provide Israel with the timber and skilled labor necessary to build the temple. In verse 6, Solomon declares, “My servants will join your servants … for you know that there is no one among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians.” Certainly, the Almighty God could have provided the supplies and skills necessary to Israel to complete His temple if He wanted this to be a strictly mono-national affair. Yet He chooses for His house to be multi-national at its very foundation, as the chapter ends by declaring, “So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the men of Gebal did the cutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house” (v. 18, ESV).
Werntz uses this interdependence as a standard for answering the Biblical question, “Who is my neighbor?” Our shrunken, globalized world has expanded our interdependence and mutual need, and as Werntz states, “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.”
This recognition of obligation addresses another Biblical question: are we our brother’s keeper? Cain’s mockery and rejection of obligation exposes how his sin is not only rooted in jealousy but also in his failure to see his brother as his brother. The bounded nature of ‘the nation’ does not obviate these obligations.
Nevertheless, this does not fully address the controversy many see within the concept of nationalism. The above concerns how nations should understand themselves in relation to others. By introducing the idea of the nation as a historically-situated entity, Werntz touches upon what I consider the fundamental controversy about nationalism. Critics of nationalism see it as intrinsically racist because it is exclusivist.
However, Revelation 7 reveals that the nation will be eternally instituted and honored. How then do we address this apparent tension? Werntz’s answer is that the negotiations of boundary-setting that composed the nation have a relevant historical context. He focuses largely on the historical context of constitutive relations with those outside the nation, but I want to focus here on the relational-historical context within the nation.
Nation is often considered synonymous with race, making it difficult to extricate nationalism from racism. However, proponents of nationalism, such as Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, take umbrage at this conflation. Hazony, in a Times online article, rejects the idea of nation defined primarily by race, noting that multiple tribes composed the Israelite nation – including Egyptians who joined the Exodus – and likewise multiple tribes compose the American nation. His conception of nationalism is “a diversity of tribes sharing a heritage and a mutual loyalty born of a joint history.” Like Werntz, Hazony centers history as constitutive of nationalism.
However, unlike Werntz, he does not give weight to what history would mean to different tribes and how these diverse understandings would complicate a simplistic, heroic nationalist narrative. Hazony laments, “Can Americans ever unite again around a shared national story? Can they ever see themselves as brothers again?” One could respond with another set of questions: When did we see each other as brothers (and sisters)? How did that come about? What are the enduring effects of not having seen each other as brothers and sisters? How should these affect our understanding and telling of our national story? How should these affect how we treat and understand each other going forward?
The 1619 project, an initiative by The New York Times to understand America’s founding in view of the introduction of enslaved Africans, attempts to address these questions. Conservative nationalists, perhaps unsurprisingly, have strongly pushed back against such efforts. This communicates that only one tribe can tell the national story and on its terms.
An American nationalism that celebrates events, ideas, and traditions without a historical context that understands and addresses what these events, ideas, and traditions mean for all tribes of the American nation will be terribly impoverished and unable to overcome the charge of racism appended to it. The Israelite nation included traditions of lament and repentance alongside its traditions of celebration, recognizing that their national history was one of beauty and brokenness. Werntz’s understanding of nationalism as historically-constituted, intra-negotiated, and inter-situated does much to move us forward in addressing this critical deficiency.