Nationalism and the Gears of Affection

Several years ago I visited Charlottesville, VA to learn about some of the social initiatives run by churches in that town. Sadly, I remember very little beyond the fact that we had some fantastic barbeque. Reading about the horrific racism on display there last weekend has got me thinking a bit about nationalism and what it might mean to love one’s homeland well. I do not think it is incidental that many of the bigoted participants did not come from Charlottesville. Many came from other places but were united by an abstract idea–‘white nationalism’.

I must confess that it is hard for inheritors of the Anabaptist strand of Christianity like myself to talk about nationalism at all. We are not known for our patriotism. Several years ago a headline-grabbing brouhaha erupted at a Mennonite college because the school did not play the national anthem before sporting events. Most of our churches do not contain national flags. In general Anabaptists believe that allegiance to Jesus is in tension with a national allegiance. Obviously not all Christians see things this way. For some a love for God goes hand-in-hand with a love for one’s country (or nation). Those who see things this way naturally have something constructive to say about nationalism, though often too much so.

Those of us to do not embrace the tightly-twined version of love for one’s country can feel stuck with little to say. We can feel like we have no choice but to embrace some heart-numbingly bland version of loving the whole world. Such a view is helpful to the extent that it is one way to honor the theological convictions that every single person is made in God’s image and that God loves every human creature. Yet this anti-nationalism fails to match up with the gears of our hearts.

Each of us is shaped by the places, people and stories of our home communities. For better or worse, they are a part of our identity that we can never dismiss. Wendell Berry famously ended a 2002 essay with the statement that to seek the good of the land on which we reside demands not just our intellectual power, but also our affection. In his words, “the complex, never-completed affection for our land and our neighbors that is true patriotism.” This is not a love for one’s home or a love for one’s neighbours that wishes others ill. It is not the invention of some notion of race or class that privileges a certain group for reasons that degrade the humanity of others. My hunch is that Jesus encouraged us to love our neighbours, not because he couldn’t conceive of a bigger world, but because it is here that it really matters. When we focus on loving those whose lives touch ours—especially the ones who seem not to fit—we have a chance. One of the reasons we can love the people whose stories overlap with our own is because we share a set of common sympathies. There are stories and places that we both value. If that was what we meant by ‘nationalism’, loving the places and people from which we spring, then I do think it could well be a good thing. The gears of such a love, unlike the racialized affection on display in Charlottesville, can match up with the love of a God who deems the whole world to be ‘very good.’

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