Nations and Narratives
An article discussing the Liberal Party of Canada’s national leadership convention caught my attention in this month’s edition of The Walrus. In it, Don Gillmor addresses, among other things, the vexed issue of what exactly constitutes Canada’s national identity, and the role nationalism plays in personal senses of belonging and identity. Consider the following quote (Ignatieff = Liberal leadership runner-up and author Michael Ignatieff):
As a cultural ideal,” Ignatieff wrote in Blood and Belonging, “nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation that provides them with their primary form of belonging.” Oddly, non-white immigrants arrive in Canada with a greater sense of belonging than whites, but that sense diminishes in the second generation, while the white immigrant’s sense of attachment increases. This suggests that multiculturalism remains more successful as an idea than a reality…
There is an innate need to belong, to attach oneself to something. The global consumerism that optimists felt would eventually displace nationalism—an idea that reached its apogee in Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches theory that no two countries with a McDonald’s had ever gone to war—has proved incorrect. Tribalism isn’t easily supplanted by common economic interests, and it remains a stubborn, visceral force.
There seems to be something problematic about Ignatieff’s assertion that men and women are to find, in a nation, their primary form of belonging. The remainder of the quote (and the article, as a whole) demonstrates that while this might represent a useful ideal to sell for a political party seeking to regain lost power, most Canadians simply are not convinced that their primary identity is to be found in the nation in which they reside.
Two obvious examples are the First Nations of Canada, and the Quebecois; both groups, at least according to their leadership, identify with Canada secondarily, if at all. Canada seems to be little more than a political framework which provides people the freedom to seek their primary forms of belonging as they see fit. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this—in fact I suspect that many of us would consider there to be a lot of things right with it; however the notion frequently appealed to in the Liberal leadership convention, that Canada must be governed by a strong understanding of its own identity and “narrative,” which is embraced by its populace seems unrealistic and, I would argue, undesirable.
I am currently reading German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship for a seminar at school. Where Ignatieff and others would have us define ourselves by our national identities, Bonhoeffer was uncompromising in his rejection of the state as the primary source of human identity. He saw many of his countrymen buying into the myth that their primary identity was found in the German State or National Socialism, yet he repeatedly insisted that there was one call—the call of Christ—to which human beings owed ultimate allegiance. No nation or political agenda could be permitted to assume this position.
This certainly does not mean that he considered the Christian’s primary identity to be a “heavenly” one. Far from it. Bonhoeffer’s decision to refuse to identify with the German church and the Nazi party—indeed to actively resist both—was a radical political stance which ultimately, of course, cost him his life.
One final quote from the article in The Walrus:
All societies have fears about breaking down because all societies eventually do break down. What kills them, ultimately, is a lack of meaning.
I think Bonhoeffer would agree. Which is precisely why the kingdom of God as the climax of God’s redemptive plan, not the narratives packaged and sold by power-hungry politicians, must be primary for the Christian.