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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.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    I am glad you decided to blog Ryan. I tried to blog for a little while but it didn’t work out too well for me. Now hopefully between you and your brother I will be sufficiently entertained by your posts.

    Obviously Bonhoeffers perspective is appropriate for the Christian who views this world as preparation for the next. One would not be so concerned about attaching their identity to any ideas that were human born or to nation states if they believed that ultimate reality was not to be reached until the next life.

    I am not sure this perspective can be very useful for the rest of Canadian society who do not identify themselves as Christian. I think the push for a national identity combined with growing centralized power in Canada[e.g. nationalized healthcare, welfare, state run energy companies, insurance companies, national education…. etc.] could transform a our welfare state into a fascist state. I guess Canada would lack the strong military. In both cases, of the welfare state and fascist state, power is taken away from the individual and given to the state. Obviously I think there is a great danger in taking power from the individual and making them sacrificial animals to the state. In Canada many seem to take national pride in this. Many Canadians take pride in there national health care systems although this sometimes changes when they actually have to use it. This new trend of making new nations with in nations has to be stopped. What it basically boils down to is a small part of Canada breaking off and claiming entitlements to be provided at the rest of Canada’s expense. I hope Canada will move more towards the idea of individual rights than the rights one might have as a collective.

    January 19, 2007
  2. Hey jc,

    You’re right, Bonhoeffer’s political views were profoundly shaped by his Christian belief – a belief which is obviously not shared by all Canadians. I would expect that the Muslim or the Hindu’s political views would be shaped by their religious beliefs as well. My point is that in a country like Canada, committed as it is to multiculturalism, tolerance of diversity etc., it seems strange to appeal to some vision of a shared national identity or “common narrative,” especially as these appeals typically come when someone is looking to attain political power. It strikes me as somewhat manipulative, and incompatible with other expressed ideals of the nation.

    January 20, 2007
  3. jc #

    I reading the January 19 National Post and in the editorial section an article entitled “From the Mouth of the Mullahs.” The story was that the BBC went undercover into some of the so called moderate mosques in England to report on what was actually said in their services. What they came back with was quite shocking. There was a lot of hate speech and anti-western ideas spouting from the mullah’s at these mosques. I also finished up “America Alone” by Mark Steyn a couple of weeks ago and he has reported some of the same things in his book. He concludes that multi-culturalism is dead as an idea. For the liberal party to create a metanarrative without a solution for dealing with this sort of extremist element would be ignoring the elephant in the room and the CBC seems to have attempted to do this with their new series “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” Now I am a sort of civil libertarian when it comes to free speech. I do not think it is appropriate to make laws about hate speech because then it ends up that we are punishing people for what they think. Thought Police. I would rather have the government punish people for action rather than words. I am not sure how a country deals with extremist elements who wish to remake the country in their own image.

    January 20, 2007
  4. naomi #

    Okay, here goes, I am going to post on one of these ‘deep discussion’ blogs, please be gentle….

    What about situations when you do nothing about what someone is ‘saying’ until there is ‘action’ and that action is violent? Can we really do nothing about what people say? Aren’t words pretty powerful things? If we wait until the stage of actions we have sometimes waited too long to prevent the words from becoming those actions.

    January 20, 2007
  5. Dad "H" #

    I think your Blog should be called “The Penalty Box” and your comments can range from a minor, major or the dreaded misconduct.

    January 21, 2007
  6. Is the statement, “all societies eventually do break down,” also true about Christian society? Have we lost meaning? Are we breaking down?

    multiculturalism is only a threat to society when a part of that society suggests/holds an expectation of conformity of the whole society which is not based purely upon thier own volition…

    January 21, 2007
  7. Hey Dale, what do you mean by “Christian society?” Do you mean those societies who trace their origins to Western Europe somehow? Are you referring to the church?

    January 21, 2007
  8. sorta both
    but mostly the former – I’m not sure how the monicker of society (in teh sense you were using) could apply to church but…

    January 22, 2007
  9. Well then the question would turn to exactly how “Christian” a society can be, at least this side of God’s ultimate redemption. I would say that “Christian society” as in a political entity has certainly been in the process of breaking down at least since the Enlightenment. However I think Bonhoeffer would look to the church and locate one of its primary strengths in that it was NOT a society in this sense – he saw it as a countercultural community governed by mutual accountability, love, and a radical commitment to the call of Christ. I think he would say that for these reasons, the authentic church is not susceptible to breakdown due to lack of meaning in the same way that nations and empires are – indeed, he might even say that it was impossible (i.e., love cannot be conquered, ultimately, by evil).

    January 22, 2007
  10. I suppose that if a society claims a Christian perspective or foundation, it is by virtue of its own claims scrutible to the parameters that that Christian identity provides. It may not be that a society is able to fully reflect the completeness of Christian values but it is accountable to them if Christianity is claimed as its basis.
    It would anger a great deal of Canadians (dare i say Albertans) to consider lifting the Christian identity from this countries foundation. And clearly the country is abismally distant from being able to honor Christian principles with integrity.
    I think for too long many have held onto an identity that is essentially false. Primarily that this country is Christian. It clearly is not. It would be better for all of us if it rejected this identity. For as long as some even distorted idea of Christianity is espoused in the country’s identity there will remain a deep sense of entitlement that those of who claim to follow Christ will hold.
    As for the church itself:
    Your comments make me wonder if there is a strong enough rationale to claim that the church itself is not a society. Can we see that church tends to function along the same functional processes as a society and that even in being countercultural it develops its own culture and societal structures. So for me I am starting to wonder about how the church transcends culture or society. Historically, we see far too much evidence of the church breaking down and fulfilling that statement precisely because it is not only vulnerable to societal infrastructure but because the building blocks of any society are it own. I agree that mutual accountability, love and a radical commitment to the call of Christ are integral distinctions from other societal paradigms. sorry for blathering on…

    January 22, 2007
  11. I agree that it would certainly be more honest to shed the notion that Canada is a “Christian” nation, although I suspect that this is a concept that only gets play in specific regions of the country anyway (as you alluded to with your comment about Albertans). From what I’ve observed in the part of the country that I currently call home, there’s very little public sentiment that Canada is “Christian” – indeed, such suggestions are often dismissed out of hand.

    Ironically, it’s possible that the church could be freer to fulfill its calling if there wasn’t any of this lingering divided loyalty (i.e., loyalty to a nation which espouses a distorted and truncated view of Christianity vs. loyalty to Christ).

    Your point about the church being subject to the same societal pressures due to the fact that it shares, or in many cases was responsible for the development of broader societal building blocks is a good one. I’m not sure how to think about this… Perhaps if the church began to exercise its transformative and redemptive potential, you would see widespread change in these structures. I’m inclined to think this is unlikely this side of the new creation, and that the church will remain a minority voice called to prophetically challenge the broader culture, but who knows…

    January 22, 2007

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