Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Nationalism and Patriotism

There has been some discussion recently in the blogosphere about nationalism and patriotism, and either's relation to Christianity. Read in particular this posts by Michael J. Iafrate (and the follow-up), this post at Vox Nova and this one by Halden.

Coming from a small country like Finland, nationalism and patriotism clearly means something else than in the US, for example. Patriotism here means honoring those that took part in Finland's wars against the Soviet Union, but there is little notion of what Finland should be like today. Very few Finns have any concept of some glory of the Finnish nation, and no idea of any special status of our country compared to others.

Still, as I wrote in my post on Gutierrez last week, there is also an ugly flip side to the comparably weak Finnish nationalism, and this is I think true of all forms of nationalism. Nationalism will be used as an excuse to limit solidarity to our group. I mean, it is natural to have special concern for your family, relatives, the people who live in you home town, because you see them quite often and share much with them. In general we could say that we identify with people we share an experience with.

The problem is that identification with the nation is manufactured. My life resembles that of PhD students in other countries much more than that of a farmer in Carelia or some suit in Helsinki. What binds Finns together is the created common narrative of history taught to us in school and through media. Nothing else.

The point is, national narratives are created by the state ultimately for one purpose. To make it possible for the state to recruit people for the army. (Ok, they are some added "benefits" like shared experience of watching hockey and, but that's about it). This is the historical background to nationalism (to create empires) and it is still true today. Support for a nation's army is strongly correlated to the prevalence of nationalist ideals in that country.

The idea that something has a special value because it is Finnish is fake. One could argue that we need a Finnish culture to withstand "American" culture, but here too nationalism leads us wrong, since the problem is not about creating a Finnish alternative to for example the American, but about creating a local alternative to the global or commercial and upholding cultural diversity in general.

An identity based in real experience do not have sharp borders. The further away from Me we move, we share less experience but we can probably find something that connects us even if we move very far. But manufactured identities draw sharp lines, creates us vs. them scenarios. Finns against Russians, Christians against Muslims, Humans against nature. This is the mindset nationalism fosters. If we avoid nationalism we can learn to recognize what we share rather than what separates us.

(BTW, Our neighbours the Swedes celebrate their national holiday today. Since nationalism is very weak in Sweden (they have not fought a war in almost 200 years) they don't really know what to do on their national holiday. Very refreshing that. Hoppas ni njuter av vädret, vänner!)


Andrew said...

Hi Patrik,

The nationalism in America is really tied to different parts of history, interpretations of religious ideologies, and the myth of "the United States".

As an American, it's easy to forget what makes up our nationalism, but if we can deconstruct this, it is easy to see the many evils and lies nationalism is based on.

One of the problematic issues in the US is religious conservatism and its relation to national politics and capitalism. Puritanism, the evangelical and the charismatic movements have all had a hand in shaping the national zeal of the US.

Unfortunately, I do not see an end to the nationalism of the United States. Borders here are becoming sharper all the time. One of the reasons federalism works in this large country is because most Americans share this national zeal.

It is, though, contrary to the call to the other we have from Christ. With these sharp borders we lose our ability to accept and embrace.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Thanks, Patrik. I will link to this reflection.

kim fabricius said...

Thanks, Patrick.

If you look at the history and social science of nationalism, things become a bit more contested. Indeed, we should talk of "nationalisms" - e.g. as well as the nationalism of the nation state, a relatively recent, post-enlightenment phenomenon, there are ethnic, civic, and indeed religious nationalisms. Here in Wales, for example, the notion of "state" is marginal to the understanding of national identity. Globalisation is now also a complicating factor. And add to the mix the theologically interesting thesis (see Adrian Hastings and Connor Cruise O'Brien) that Christianity represents not only an opponent of nationalism but also a source.

Particularly salient to Patrick's legitimate worries about nationalism is the sacralisation of the nation state, especially when that state is heavily militarised, a very toxic situation indeed. Nationalism's sacred foundations include the ideas of election (exceptionalism), holy land (cf. manifest destiny), edenic ages, and the cult of the heroic dead. Here is where sharp boundaries and the fear and hatred of outsiders dangerously kick in, and the identification of sovereignty with identity threaten the kind of fluid sense of self that Patrick rightly commends.

The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an interesting case study for what a healthy, critical patriotism might look like in a disciple of Jesus.

Patrik said...

Thanks for you comments everyone.

Sympathetic as I am to Welsh and Scottish struggles for independence, I fear that would it be achieved the new state thus created would do all it can to tie nationalist sentiments to it, for the reason I gave. This was the case in Finland 100 years ago, where Finnish nationalism very much was fostered in order to enable a struggle against Russian rule. Post independence however, all the problems I mention apply. As far as I can tell this is the case in most post-colonial nations. Nationalism as a tool for freedom-fighting is thus a very double-edged one.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Patrik (sorry about the "c" in my previous post!),

I am happy to tell you that, in my view, the Welsh National Party will not realise its ultimate aim of an independent nation state, certainly not in the near future. The language question, by the way - Do you have to speak Welsh to be Welsh? - makes the question of Welsh nationalism a particularly interesting - and divisive - one.

Tony Blair has recently tried to whip up some enthusiasm for a kind of US-style July 4th for the UK. The ironic thing is that nothing could be more un-British!

dan said...

Hey Patrik,

Like Kim, my own recent concerns with "nationalism" have been related to the sacralisation of the State (cf. Furthermore, I think people like Hauerwas, and Cavanaugh, are really on to something when they talk about the State as a(n artificial) substitute for the Church. Nationalism is, I think, an alternate ecclesiology.

That said, I very much enjoyed this post. The Finnish context is intriguing to me because it is so different from the Canadian (and North American) context(s).

Grace and peace.

Justin Halter said...

The "myth" of the United States is the best myth this world can hope for, and a nationalistic love of America is not evil. Americans don't love America because it is the Holy Land or the Fatherland, or any other divisive ideal common to the Old World. We love the idea of America as the land of freedom, where human rights rest on a guarantee of individual liberty, regardless of race, sex, religion, or class. Our biggest blindspot is we forget how racist and classist the rest of the world is, and how uniquely blessed we are. America-bashing is popular, but, please, come up with something better. If the American "myth" was not so strong and true, you Europeans would be under some godless totalitarian state right now, don't you ever forget.