On the Waving of Flags
So, today is the Fourth of July and, given that many of the news sources and blogs that regularly track originate south of the border, I expect to be inundated with patriotic media today. Or media criticizing, redescribing, and reimagining patriotism. Or anti-American media. Whatever. I expect to see a lot that has to do with America.
Our own national holiday here in Canada was three days ago and it passed by quite quietly for me. I didn’t go to any parades or fireworks and didn’t listen to any propaganda-laden speeches. I avoided the concerts, the superlatives, the breathless “we should all be so proud to live in the best nation in the world” rhetoric. A lot of people make claims about the “best nation in the world,” I’ve noticed over the years. Usually it happens to be the one they live in/come from. Of course, most of us realize that technically speaking we can’t all live in the best nation in the world, but that doesn’t seem to slow down the rhetoric. It’s kind of like bragging about how cute your kids/grandkids are. They can’t all be the cutest kids in the world (and some of them quite obviously really, really aren’t!), but we seem to need to think they are. Or at least to say it. As is so often the case, the language we use so often says quite a lot more about us than it does about whatever we are attempting to praise or describe.
I had coffee yesterday with a guy who had just returned from a month in Greece. As he was talking about the deeply ingrained and passionately evident pride in Greek identity that he encountered—a pride that persists, even in the midst of quite dire social and economic times in Greece—I thought to myself, “While I am grateful to live in Canada and deeply appreciate the opportunities and freedoms my citizenship affords me, I quite literally can’t imagine being that invested in my Canadian-ness.” Of course, the fact that my nation is 146 years old and Greece is, well, Greece might have something to do with it, but still… It’s almost incomprehensible to me.
I thought the same thing this morning as I read about the political uprising in Egypt. Tens of thousands of people filling Tahrir Square, celebrating the overthrow of a military dictator… no, wait, that was last year… I mean celebrating the overthrow of a democratically elected leader that people decided they didn’t really like by the military. We see the usual scene of flags waving, passionate speeches, and social media almost hyperventilating with the possibilities that await the nation of Egypt. But I wonder what will happen in the spring/summer of 2014, when whoever holds power next runs out of favour? I wonder what will happen when this government fails, as all governments ultimately do, to deliver what (enough) people want/demand/expect/hope for? I wonder what will happen when we come up against the simple fact that nation states cannot bear the weight of longing that human beings so often impose upon them?
In Desiring the Kingdom, Jamie Smith talks about how as human beings we are what we love. More specifically, what we love ultimately or what we love as ultimate is the most important thing about who we are and where we are going. Could the love of nation be described as a kind of misplaced love and longing? In a world where the horizons of our hope are continually shrinking, is our temptation to put all of our proverbial eggs in the basket of the nations we inhabit? Do we look to entities like “Egypt” and “Greece” and “Canada” and “America” for salvation? For meaning? For identity and purpose?
It seems to me that Christians, of all people, should be least inclined to wander down this track. We who believe that the ultimate source of our identity, longing, and hope is found in the person and the work of Jesus Christ, we who believe that we are citizens of an unseen kingdom that advances irrespective of the arbitrary lines and names that we assign to chunks of land, and regardless of how bleak or euphoric the historical moment might look, we who are guided by a vision of shalom for all people and all creation, not just those who happen to share our ethnicity or our borders, we whose identity and purpose come not from a flag but from our status as those who bear God’s image and who are called to imitate his Son… We, of all people, ought to be most inclined to locate our love and longing in something bigger, truer, and more durable than any country could ever be.
Nations are not irrelevant in this divine project, but neither are they ultimate. Far from it. Thank God.