Much of who we are as people is shaped before we are even born. Did your mother have adequate nutrition to support your growing body inside of her? Were your parents married in a loving community, providing you with a stable home and other adults to care for you and them as you lived out your childhood? Was the place that you played as a child safe, and the food you ate adequate? If you got sick, who was there to take care of you? These are all questions of people and place, which means that they are ultimately questions of blood and soil.
Blood ties us to our parents and other relatives who, for the vast majority of human beings, care for us when we are at our most dependent (most often the beginning and end of our lives) and support us in networks of mutual care. To be human is to be dependent but also to have others depend on you, and we are given our families both as the primary agents of our dependency as well as the model for how we care for others who do not have families. There does not have to be a blood relationship in the remotest sense for anyone to be a family, but a family of blood relationships will always be the frame through which we view other intimate relationships (including relationships within the Church, where we call one another brother and sister). A political order that does not respect this sense of mutual dependence, the obligations we have to one another, and the deep need each of us has to be connected to a family for our nurture and support is anti-human.
Living with the soil is another inseparable part of being human. We came from the dust and we shall return to it. The earth beneath us must be healthy in order that our food might grow in it; it must be strong in order that we build our homes on it; it must be safe in order that we can walk and play and dance on it. Caring for the soil requires patience and respect for its limits, and any political order that cares for people has to set the regulations necessary for ecological health.
What does any of this have to do with nations? Nations are extensions of family and place in the social imagination, a tribe or township writ large. The universal brotherhood of man is a real thing, but human beings are limited in their capacity to love and understand one another; we need a hierarchy of loves based on mutual understanding and presence (inseparable from history and culture) that we might best love one another. It is natural to want to belong to a larger group than one’s own family or town; only the most privileged jet-setters with a secure sense of self in some other ideological (or perhaps religious) identity can think of themselves as transcending tribe or nation.
Nations provide the mutual understanding for political order, whether your group is an monoethnic tribe living in rural Africa or an ethnically diverse group of professionals living in a downtown neighborhood. In missions lingo, we call these “people groups” for the sake of evangelization strategies, but I would argue that this framework is also helpful for understanding political order. Nations also depend on an international order; the degree of mutual intelligibility and cooperative protection of nations allows diverse people groups to be united under a single government (as in most states in the world today) or to help other nations under threat (as in the First Gulf War, where Kuwait was protected by an international force). Or, as Myles Werntz puts it, “globalized arrangements, or migration patterns—are not bugs but features of any account of national identity.”
The questions that arise from this understanding are manifold. What are the limits of the social imagination of a nation—how big can a nation be and what sort of diversity can it contain within it? What sort of international order (intra- and inter-state) makes nations thrive? Most importantly, what do we need to do in order that as many people as possible in nations throughout the world can enjoy the goods provided by blood and soil?
We live in a world where various powers have callously disregarded the values of blood or soil. The history of colonialism is mostly one of displacement and stolen land, followed by the imposition of a political imaginary that interpolated blood into foreign political categories, creating the “tribalism” that sickens governments around the world. The recent history of economic development has provided many benefits to people at the cost that they displace themselves from their families or their land for the sake of a “good job.” Various wars have created our current refugee crisis, where people often have no hope of returning to their land or reuniting with their family members whose bones are sinking into that land. Extractive economies — most tragically, the drug economy — allow people in power to enjoy the fruits of the land while those who work that land suffer various kinds of violence. As Willie James Jennings puts it in The Christian Imagination:
Instead, the new worlds were transformed into land—raw, untamed land. And the European vision saw these new lands as a system of potentialities, a mass of undeveloped, underdeveloped, unused, underutilized, misunderstood, not fully understood potentialities. Everything—from peoples and their bodies to plants and animals, from the ground and the sky—was subject to change, subjects for change, subjected to change. The significance of this transformation cannot be overstated.
The earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands. The central effect of the loss of the earth as an identity signifier was that native identities, tribal, communal, familial, and spatial, were constricted to simply their bodies, leaving behind the very ground that enables and facilitates the articulation of identity. The profound commodification of bodies that was New World slavery signifies an effect humankind has yet to reckon with fully—a distorted vision of creation.
Because the Gospel must be preached to all nations, because we as Christians have a trans-national identity that ultimately trumps any other identity, and because no man who wants to feed his family should be denied the opportunity to seek the employment necessary to do so, movement around the world should be free.
The fact that any man should be forced to travel halfway across the world to do so, disrupting his relationship with blood and soil, is a travesty of the natural order. The reality that Western nations fear men doing so only demonstrates that we have built our political order on a house of cards. We quake at the possibility that the conditions we have sown in other places through our economic practices and warmongering might come to us through migration. We are hysterical at the possibility of reaping what we have sown.
I do not know how exactly we can work towards a world where every man can work in the soil he was born in and feed those he is connected to by blood without fear of war or other violence. But those of us in the West must recognize that we cannot simply batten down the hatches with a “national conservatism” that papers over the damage done to the blood and soil elsewhere — and within our own nations. Unless we reckon with the world as it is and what has come before, we will simply be building the house of cards one level higher.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org