Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

What Makes a Nation?

Written by Ray Pennings
"Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society--its world view, its basic values, its social and political structure, its arts, its key institutions--rearranges itself. Fifty years later there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through such a transformation."
Pull out a world map published before 1989 and compare it with today's. The changes are remarkable. The former Soviet Union is now 14 separate countries. What was Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yugoslavia is no more. The changes that do not appear on a map are equally dramatic. Apartheid is no more in South Africa. The Middle East peace process continues. Hong Kong is in the process of being handed back to China by the British.

For most Messenger readers, however, the historical significance of our times is tempered by distance. Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East--these are places we know only through the media. But the final few months of the campaign leading up to the Quebec October 30 referendum--when most Canadians were forced to seriously consider that their country might not survive--shortened that distance tremendously.

While the issues and circumstances are very different around the world, one cannot help notice the attention being paid to racial or ethnic issues behind many of these divisions. Racial issues are also prominent in domestic politics as various groups assert themselves. In Washington, Louis Farrakhan organized a "Million Man March" to promote an ethnic self-awareness among American blacks in the wake of the O.J. Simpson verdict. Meanwhile, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Northern Cree insisted that aboriginals have as much right to their own country as Quebecers, and with it ought to come the huge parcels of land the aboriginals claimed as their own since "our land is our memory."

These events raise many difficult questions, also for Christians. How do we respond to ethnically-based claims? How do we respond to those who have suffered unjust treatment? When the debate involves changing the borders of one's country, where ought our loyalty be placed?

It is helpful to step back from the complex political situations which dominate our news and ask, "What constitutes a nation?" What Biblical teachings can guide our thinking as we deal with the rapidly unfolding events of history? What contribution ought Christians make to public life in these very confused times?

Biblical Characteristics
The Scriptural first reference to any form of social organization beyond the family is in Genesis 4. Cain was confronted by the Lord for murdering his brother and the Lord sent him away, after having set a mark on him for his protection. Cain travelled eastward to the land of Nod where, after the birth of his son, "he builded a city and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch" (v.17). John Calvin notes that there were mixed motives involved in the building of the first city. On the one hand, the city was a means of defence for Cain to protect himself from those who might wish to avenge Abel's blood. But Cain did not build his city in quiet obscurity. Instead, in vain ambition he named the city after his son. "Although it is lawful to defend our lives by the fortifications of cities and of fortresses, yet the first origin of them is to be noted, because it is always profitable for us to behold our faults in their very remedies."

In Genesis 10, we are provided with a genealogy of the sons of Noah. It is striking to note that the names of most Old Testament countries are derived from family names. The Jebusite, Amorite, Girgasite, and Hivite--to name just a few--are offspring of Canaan, the son of Ham (vs.15-17). We also read that the land was divided "after their tongues, after their families, in nations" (vs.5). This is amplified in the Tower of Babel narrative (Genesis 11) where the Lord introduced different languages to scatter the people. Skill and leadership are also noted in the Genesis genealogies: Jabal "was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle" (4:20); his brother Jubal "was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ" (4:21); while Nimrod was "a mighty one in the earth" as well as mighty hunter (10:8-9).

These early passages in Genesis show us the characteristics that have and continue to define nations, including common ethnic or racial backgrounds, a common language, and a sense of obligation to work towards mutual benefit and protection. One can add to these a common religion, government, military organization, defined geography, and economic or currency system.

While we can point out common characteristics, we cannot define a nation solely in these terms. We can think of nations that do not possess some characteristics, but we would not hesitate considering them nations. One need only think of the Jewish nation surviving a thousand-year diaspora or the Poles 200 years of partition to realize that nations can survive without their own governments or land. Many also argue, for example, that Canadian history is the story of (at least) two nations--the French and English (should we also add the aboriginals?)--who remain distinct "nations" although they share a country. The closest working definition of a nation is that it "is marked by the existence of some kind of active boundary (not necessarily physical) between itself and the rest of mankind."

Nations and Nationalism
The distinction between a nation and a country is an important one. Many of the current global problems noted earlier prompt a single question: Must every nation have its own sovereign state? The sense of belonging to a nation can inspire feelings of nationalism and, as we have seen in the bloody "ethnic cleansings" throughout history, nationalism can have a very ugly face. The peace settlement following World War I answered this question with a "Yes." The European map was redrawn based on ethnicity, with the Austrian-Hungarian empire divided into ethnic nation-states. This "peace" lasted only a short time, however, as history's ugliest nationalism reared its head. The consequence was World War II.

That, of course, is nationalism in the extreme and it is unfair to immediately label all nationalistic sentiments with nazism or fascism. There can be a healthy pride in one's nation and its achievements--the sort of patriotic spirit and enthusiasm that evokes a sense of belonging and responsibility.

But it is vital to understand what distinguishes a healthy nationalism (which I prefer to call patriotism) from a dangerous nationalism. In an unhealthy nationalism, people see themselves as a "chosen people" who develop a sense of solidarity among themselves based on a sense of a higher purpose for their nation. It becomes a religion in itself. And usually, the powers of the state are used to accomplish this higher purpose. Consider the Quebec example. It is in the preservation of the French language and culture that the Quebec nationalists believe people's full destiny can be realized. The only way that these aspirations can be expressed and satisfied on the world stage is for Quebecers to have their own national government.

This is not a recent invention. Aristotle (born 384 B.C.) suggested that "the state is the highest form of the community. All other societal relationships, such as marriage, family, blood-relation, professional, and labour groupings, all these are merely lower, serving components. According to Aristotle, the state is grounded in the "rational-moral" nature of man. Man cannot realize his natural perfection in isolation, but only with the community." What nationalism caters to is a fundamentally idolatrous view of a nation, whereby the national government becomes indispensable for man to achieve his potential. What it inevitably leads to is a breakdown of other institutions like the church and family, since these tend to "get in the road" of nationalistic objectives.

Time of Opportunity
If Peter Drucker is right and we are living in the midst of a period of great transformation (and I think we are), then our responsibility as Christian citizens is especially great. The society being shaped today is likely to impact generations to come, if the Lord tarries. The world map has been significantly redrawn during the past decade, and humanly speaking, there is no reason to expect this process of change to slow down. Economic globalization, the development of transnational environmental problems, and the existence of only one world superpower all point to a remaking of our institutions and a redefinition of national boundaries.

This process of change can seem frightening. The thought of nations disappearing, with governments taking on different roles, worries us. It is helpful to remind ourselves that this is not the first time that the character of governments has changed. Early governments were tribal in nature. Then came the great empires: the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman. For much of history, imperial governments ruled the colonies around the world from their European bases. In fact, the nation-state as we know it today is an invention of the past few centuries.

We know from history that the Puritans made an important contribution to the development of the constitutional structures and tradition of freedom which has characterized the history of North America. Just as they helped society form in their day--with the impact still observable two centuries later--so we may have the opportunity today. We do not know, of course, what the Lord in His providence has in store. We know from Scripture that nothing happens by accident--also in the history of nations. Through God's word given to the prophet Elisha, Jehu was anointed to exact revenge against the house of Ahab and to overcome the Syrians. Joram's breastplate offers no defence against arrow's guided by God's providence. But our task is not to try and peer into the divine counsels of providence; it is to walk in obedience to God's revealed will and to apply His Word to every area of our life, also our citizenship.

A State's Task
At this time in history, it is important that we think clearly about what nations ought to be. We must resist the idolatry of nationalism, which is a defiance against the clear teaching of God's Word that all men are created in God's image, and that all are fallen sinners in need of the Gospel. Nationalism supposes that some men are born to nations that are above others, and that their potential can be realized through their nationhood. Here the purpose of the state is to provide a means for the highest expression of personhood.

This notion of the state runs contrary to God's Word. The sword is the biblical symbol for government (Rom.13:4), as we confess in the Belgic Confession: "For this purpose [God] hath invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the protection of them that do well" (Article 36). The state does not stand above the other institutions of society, but rather has the task of dispensing justice. One of the implications of nationalism, with its inevitable idolatry of the state, is that the purpose of the state is defined in terms not of justice, but of its ability to deliver benefits. It is through the state that people can achieve true fulfilment.

Hearing God's Footsteps
As we observe the world events around us, it is important to remind ourselves that "here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come" (Heb.13:14). Governments may come and go, countries and even civilizations may fall, but God's word stands forever. This does not justify indifference to current events. We must consider Jeremiah's message to the exiled Israelites. "And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace" (Jer.29:7). Our task is to pray "for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." (I Tim.2:2).

The state is only a temporal institution, although an important and necessary one which God provides in His common grace. As we saw from the Genesis accounts, cities were formed to protect fallen man from killing each other. Until the time of Samuel, the people of Israel were governed without a king, although leaders, judges, and prophets did perform the functions of government. When we read the elders of Israel asking Samuel to "make us a king to judge us like all the nations" (I Sam.8:5), the Lord tells Samuel, "they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (vs.7). Nevertheless, the Lord provides Israel their king, and we read how He led Samuel to anoint first Saul, and later David.

In the heavenly city, there is no need for nations to defend us. The gates "shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there" (Rev.21:25). "And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him" (Rev. 22:3). Nations and governments are only necessary in this world of sin. Yet, God in His grace has given us the gift of nations and governments to provide a measure of justice and order on this earth.

As the pages of Scripture and history show us, this gift of God has been both used profitably and abused horribly. The Lord has promised blessings to those nations and kings that obey Him, and curses to those who disobey Him. When the first anointed king proved to be disobedient, the Lord told Samuel: "How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go. I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons" (I Sam.16:1).

Following his anointing, David did not take it into his own hands to carry out God's promise, but trusted in God's providence. Unlike Rebekah and Jacob who sought to "help" God fulfil His promise, even though that meant disobeying God's law and deceiving Isaac, David waited patiently. Even when Saul unjustly pursued him, David did not take advantage of the opportunity to kill Saul, because Saul was the Lord's anointed. Yet, when Saul had died, David was not passive but actively fought against the house of Saul (2 Sam.3:1) in order to receive the kingship.

Our Hearts and Our Home
Within a nation, citizens feel a powerful sense of belonging. This reality makes the demise of nations unlikely, even though boundaries are almost impossible to defend. A recent article in the prestigious Economist magazine pointed out that modern economics, military strategy, and information revolution may challenge the nation-state, but these forces are "not as powerful as the feeling that we' are different from them'." Nationalists exploit this longing for belonging which God has placed in the human heart. They promise the benefits and good feelings of community, but to accomplish it, make gods of the nations. Their promises, however are empty.

It is not the "we-ness" of belonging to a nation--with its language, culture, ideals, and visions-- hat can satisfy the longings of our heart. Only the forgiveness of sin and communion with God can accomplish this. From this relationship with God comes the love for both our neighbours and enemies which is necessary for a meaningful sense of community.

It is important to understand and uncover the foundations of what passes for politics in our day, but these things ought not to discourage us from involvement and the promotion of a Biblically-based alternative. Christ's command was two-fold: "Render therefore to Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matt.22:21). We often think that our times are worse than New Testament days, but Paul wrote the book of Romans, where he commands subjection to the higher powers that are "ordained of God" (Rom.13:1), from a prison cell when Nero was the Roman emperor. We must prayerfully make our choices in light of God's Word and exercise our citizenship responsibilities to the best of our abilities. Then, we may also trust in a providential God in whose hands all the events of history rest--also the rise and fall of nations.

1. Peter F. Drucker. "The post-capitalist world" in The Public Interest, Fall 1992, No. 109, p.89.
2. Quoted in Peter C. Newman, The Canadian Revolution 1985-1995: From Deference to Defiance. Toronto: Penguin Books, p.359.
3. John Calvin in Calvin's Commentaries Vol I. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, p.216.
4. I am indebted to private correspondence and an unpublished article In Stead of Commonism: A Commentary" by Dirk DeVos for this definition.
5. H. Dooyeweerd. The Christian Idea of the State (translated by John N. Kraay. Grand Rapids: Groen Van Prinsteren Society, 1965, p.5.
6. "The Shape of the World" in The Economist, Dec. 23, 1995-Jan. 5, 1996. Vol. 337 No. 7946, p.18.

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