People flourish together. That is the animating conviction behind this edition of Mere Orthodoxy. Because it is not good for us to be alone, it follows that we must needs be bound to one another in relationships of love, mutuality, and honor. This insight is inextricably bound up with a Christian conception of politics and nations. You can find Augustine reflecting in the opening pages of his Confessions on the ways in which human beings are contingent, unable to secure their own existence in the world apart from the help of others. The reformed jurist Johannes Althusius makes a similar claim, noting that the only way people can live in the world is through cooperation, mutual giving, and sacrifice. Politics, he argues, is the art of ordering those relationships so they can be mutually delightful and healthy.
Framing the problem in this way also highlights the ways in which our direct personal relationships, though necessary for the good life, are not sufficient in themselves to provide us with all our needs. We live by the work of people we do not know. We benefit from the laws of cities and states and nations, drafted and defined mostly or entirely by people we do not know and enforced by people we do not know.
There is something grand about this. I am from the Great Plains and, specifically, Lincoln, NE, a university town of 300,000 near Salt Creek in southeast Nebraska. Lincoln is capable of displays of virtue and beauty that my grandfather’s home town of Oakland, a town of 1,000 two hours north of Lincoln on Highway 77, is not. By the same token, a city like New York is capable of a degree of magnanimity that Lincoln is not. The dreaming spires of Oxford, which inspired the Mere Orthodoxy logo and which have enchanted so many for so long are a product of this sort of munificence; they are the result of a group of people who might otherwise be strangers binding themselves together to accomplish something grand that no one of them could achieve on their own. This is the glory of nations, the glory of common culture, language, traditions, and custom.
Nations, like any other good gift, can be twisted and turned to bad ends. They can become idols, false gods that make cruel demands of their followers. They can become goods that we value above God, above righteousness, above justice. In her essay on Tolkien’s nationalism, Holly Ordway notes that Tolkien strenuously opposed the idea of “Deutschland uber alles,” but was delighted to affirm the Norwegian counter “alt for Norge.” We must find ways of enjoying and delighting in our peoples without transforming that people into a false god.
But, of course, we humans are very bad at this. It is precisely because we love bad things or love good things poorly that Christ needed to enter our world to rescue us. Our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin long ago said. And so nations, meant to be vehicles of mutual delight, provision, and care, can easily become weapons of injustice, chasing after their own comfort and wealth through the exploitation of others. It is not for nothing that the Scriptures so often speak of the nations almost as if they are demonic entities — powers and principalities, in the Pauline language. And so what then? Malcolm Foley’s consideration of Black nationalism is one answer to that question. When people are subjected to centuries upon centuries of injustice, they find that one of the surest counters is to forge their own subversive nation within the nation. This is how it must be, for those powers and principalities are perversions of the original good they were meant to become. Satan, as Tolkien observed, cannot create; he can only mock. And yet if we fail to attend to the unique ways that these subversive nations promote justice, we will fail to learn the many lessons they can teach us. It is not only this problem of power and specifically racially coded power that vexes the contemporary nationalism debate, however.
There is a second difficulty: Nations, as we are speaking of them, are organic communities that arise out of the mutual needs and obligations of a people unified around common objects of love. But nations as they exist on the world stage are politically defined entities existing within geographic bounds and governed by large impersonal bureaucracies. And this creates a further problem: Many of us will have complex relationships to our home “nations.” Vika Pechersky writes beautifully of this ambiguity in her essay on imperial migrations, but so too does Michael Wear in his meditation on Italian food and national identity. While we live under the shadow of sin, no membership is without complexity, no joy without ambiguity. Our hope for this issue is to honor the goods of nationalism while resisting the ways in which national belonging can be twisted to evil ends. We want, in short, to complicate the nationalism conversation, resisting the almost instinctive anti-nationalism of the left but also the too-easy nationalism that defines many on the contemporary right. Nations are good things. But an unbaptized love of nation will become an idol, something that will lead its followers to damnation. We are for nations. We are against idols. And so we offer to you the second print edition of Mere Orthodoxy.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.