This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
This post is about how we identify ourselves and who we exclude.
Nationalism is on the rise. The USA and Hungary have governments elected by people who wanted to put their own country first and adopted a stance of hostility towards foreigners. France, Holland and other countries have popular political parties with similar values. Britain has gone this way too: our immigration policies treat asylum seekers appallingly badly.
So what does it mean to be British? When we talk about ‘us’, why do we so often mean the British? Why do we (‘we’!) draw the boundaries to our loyalties at the shores of Britain?
Evolutionary psychologists study the relationship between selfishness and altruism, in humans and other animals. One variable is the extent of group loyalty. Pet owners know how dogs are more loyal to their group than cats are. Among humans, rulers often appeal for loyalty by invoking some concept that unites their subjects.
In ancient and medieval times the most successful unifying concept was often the cult of a particular god. There was logic to it. In many polytheistic traditions people could wonder whether foreign people were a different kind of animal – a different species, as we would put it today. People who looked different, talked a different language, worshipped different gods and ate different food did not self-evidently have similar minds and feelings. Should we treat them the way we treat our own people, or should we treat them the way we treat donkeys or dogs?
The monotheistic faiths answer the question by saying that the same god has created, and loves, all people. When we meet people who are very different from us, God wants them to flourish just as much as us. There is an equality of value based on being God’s creation.
This is why many early Christians rejected national loyalties, and insisted instead that they were citizens of the world (contrary to Theresa May’s unfortunate comment).
The classic biblical text on this is the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, where people from many different places all heard the gospel preached. Unfortunately Luke embellished the story with miracles that seem unconvincing today; but the point is that everybody is accepted, wherever they come from.
So for the first Christians, to see themselves as members of the Kingdom of God was to adopt a self-image transcending national distinctions.
The universalist idea based on a universal god continued through the Middle Ages, though both Christianity and Islam slowly came to be seen, as they are often seen today, as markers of difference – recreating the us-against-them attitudes which they were originally founded to transcend.
Since the sixteenth century an alternative way of asserting differences has been promoted: the nation state.
But what is a nation? It’s just an area of land defined by the boundaries fixed at the end of the latest relevant war. Why should anyone feel a loyalty to that? Why should a person in Newcastle feel more loyalty to London than to Edinburgh? In practice, rulers usually want their populations to think of themselves in terms of the nation state because it encourages loyalty in international disputes. Whether the populations are wise to do so is another matter.
The idea of the nation state was given philosophical justification in the nineteenth century by a theory popular at the time: racism. Ideally, the theory ran, each race should have its own land and its own state. Defeated empires were divided up accordingly.
More recently racism has been well and truly frowned on. But without it, what does it mean to be British? Why should the British feel more affinity for other British people than for anyone else?
After the Second World War the victorious governments were determined to make sure no such war happened again. An internationalist mood prevailed. They set up international organisations to negotiate between national governments, to relieve tensions and prevent new conflicts. The best known is United Nations.
That mood of internationalism was driven by the horror of war. Racism declined, but so did the conviction that we are all created by the same god. As the war receded into the past, the internationalist mood lost its force. While United Nations still does a great deal of good work behind the scenes, its flagship meetings of heads of states have long been reduced to power struggles as big countries bully smaller ones.
The decline of internationalism and the rise of xenophobia is not caused by United Nations. It is more to do with the widespread suffering caused by economic and trading globalisation.
Immediately after the war it seemed a good idea to encourage international trade. This way, it would be in the interests of every country to maintain peace. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Large businesses can often get their labour done in whatever country pays the lowest wages, and sell their products in whatever country pays the highest prices. Jobs come and go, often on large scales, unexpectedly, and in response to distant decisions by profiteers. The helpless poor of different countries are played off against each other.
Now, international trade no longer provides a reason to live in peace with other countries, except for the most powerful who play the game in their own interests. When countries like Argentina and Greece try to break free from international arrangements that drive them into ever-deeper poverty, the big power brokers have ways to penalise them so heavily as to maintain the system.
Unfortunately, those most disadvantaged have neither the means nor the knowledge to mount an effective opposition. Their most common response is merely to oppose the political establishment by reaffirming the nationalist rhetoric of a previous political establishment. It does nothing to improve the situation.
This increasingly exploitative system needs to be reversed; but so does the mood of anger against foreigners.
Ever-increasing international trade has proved to be the wrong answer. The right answer is the one affirmed by the first Christians and illustrated in the second chapter of Acts. ‘We’ are not fellow-members of a single state. ‘We’ are God’s children, loved by God and invited to share God’s holiness, just like every human being on this earth.