In 1870, the ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof came upon the idea with which he would make his mark in history. That year, the Russian authorities banned speaking Polish in public in his hometown of Białystok, which was then controlled by the Russian Empire though historically belonging to Poland (as it does again today). Zamenhof, as a Polish-speaking Jew in a city where tensions between Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans ran high, came to believe that language differences were to blame for the mutual hatreds dividing his neighbors. What if, he suggested, there were a universal second language in which people of all nationalities could speak with one another as equals? “Were there but an international language,” he reasoned, “all nations would be united in a common brotherhood.” So he invented Esperanto, the world’s most successful spoken artificial language, now searchable on Wikipedia and learnable on Duolingo.
As successes go, Esperanto’s has only gone so far, attracting a mixed fan base. Enthusiastically promoted by anti-nationalist anarchists in the 1920s, its use has more recently been endorsed for Islamic study by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, despite an endorsement from J. R. R. Tolkien – “Back Esperanto loyally,” he admonished – only a few tens of thousands speak Esperanto well; perhaps two million speak it at all. A 2005 campaign to make it the working language of the European Union sputtered. This magazine, for what it’s worth, stopped publishing its Esperanto edition in the 1950s.
Instead of Esperanto, we moderns have International Business English – the language you can hear in upscale urban areas from Bogotá to Bratislava. While IBE has become the lingua franca for people around the globe, its resemblance to Zamenhof’s idealistic project ends there. IBE is first and foremost for members of the professional-managerial class. The goal of their communications is not to build a common brotherhood, but to ease the efficient functioning of borderless capitalism.
Some years back, my wife and I were visiting the Tyrol, where my family has ties. Nowadays it’s an “economically vibrant” region, where as a traveler it’s easy to remain ensconced in an IBE-speaking bubble of sleek hotels staffed by pleasant young hipsters from everywhere-and-nowhere in the European Union, the kind of place with a breakfast buffet piled high with the non-local fruits of globalization: Turkish melons, Moroccan figs, Honduran pitahayas.
But there’s still a Tyrol that lies beyond that. We were eating pizza outdoors in the high-alpine village where my grandfather was born before World War I, when it was still part of Austria (today it belongs to Italy). Near our table, children were playing, speaking in a local Upper German dialect that I couldn’t follow. But my wife could, although this was her first time in Europe and she grew up in South Dakota. Four hundred and seventy years before, her forebears had fled from near here, as Anabaptist refugees from the vicious religious persecutions of the Reformation era; the language the children were speaking in their play was her own mother tongue, or close to it. She had roots here in a place she never knew – a sense of connectedness to a homeland, to the story of a people, that she will pass on to our own children.
Over the past decade, the yearning for this kind of rootedness, for being part of the story of a people that is bigger than oneself, has flared up as a cultural force to be reckoned with. It’s the theme, for example, of Michael Brendan Dougherty’s heartfelt book My Father Left Me Ireland (2019), in which the American-raised son of an absent Irish father tells of his quest to connect with his Irish language and homeland. In a policy-oriented vein, it is the impulse behind Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), which argues that democratic governance and social solidarity is only possible when nations are also states, possessing a sovereignty that can push back against the overweening dominance of the global over-class that rigs economic and legal systems to serve its own interests.
Nor is this renewed emphasis on identity and peoplehood limited to conservatives. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), with its eloquent indictment of White supremacy in America, is at the same time a father’s appeal to his son to remember who he is and who he came from: “And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. … Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name.” In these words is the same call to the duty of collective memory that gave power to the liberationist visions of Cuba’s José Martí, of India’s Gandhi, and of early Zionism’s Theodor Herzl.
Counterintuitively, when you immerse yourself in your own people’s story you may also become better equipped to find solidarity with other people’s stories. This was impressed on me when, around 2001, I entered a prison visiting room to meet with Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former Black Panther whose son was my coworker at the time. Russell was then six years into what would become an unimaginable twenty-two-year stint in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania. He struck me as one of the most alive and self-disciplined people I’d ever met – not least thanks to the push-up-heavy workout he did for an hour daily in his cell.
Apart from exercise, I asked him, how did he manage to stay sane? Russell answered by launching into an extended riff about his voracious study of liberation movements around the world, past and present – from American Indian, Irish, and Basque to Native Hawaiian, Korean, and Aboriginal Australian. His adopted name “Maroon” referred to the maroon communities of people who had escaped from slavery, and so he was especially fascinated by different kinds of communal settlements, quizzing me about the history of my own community, the Bruderhof. Though caged in an isolation cell twenty-three hours a day, his rootedness in the story of Black liberation opened up for him a point of connection with people around the globe.
That’s why I believe there’s much to affirm in the desire to belong to a people and its story. By way of illustration: For me as a European-descended hybrid born with two nationalities, American and German, it’s clear that part of my task as a father is to pass on to my children a consciousness of their heritage. That means pride in all that is noble and admirable in the stories of the two nations to which they belong. And it means repentance for the historic sins of their ancestors, with willing acceptance of the obligation – precisely out of honor toward these ancestors – to live lives that make sense as works of atonement. For my children, learning how the particular nations to which they belong have ample share in both the depravities and glories of humankind’s history is simply part of learning who they are.
The desire to preserve national identity, of course, can lead to darker places, as it has when the US border service allows Central American children to die in detention facilities, or when European nations allow African families to drown in the Mediterranean. At least since 2015, when Germany and other countries admitted more than a million migrants before quickly regretting the deed, identitarian politics around the world has typically meant a lust for hard borders and for over-simple stories. The new nationalists, who in post-Christian countries love to appeal to the memory of a Christian West, applaud when governments threaten lethal force to keep out people who may be fleeing for their lives. As I write this in mid-August 2021, leaders of wealthy nations are already washing their hands of the foreseeable deaths of thousands of Afghans and Haitians to whom they seem unwilling to offer entry.
For Christians, at any rate, to support such actions is to deny the faith. It’s often said that one can’t quote proof texts from the Bible to mandate or forbid a government policy, and usually this holds true. There are exceptions, though, and here is one of the big ones. Throughout the Old and New Testaments rings a repeated command to care for widows and orphans and to welcome the stranger: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (Lev. 19:34). The prophets don’t present this as just a question of personal morality; the whole nation is accountable to God for its treatment of these vulnerable ones. The Book of Deuteronomy mandates a triennial tithe to provide for their support, and warns: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (27:19). Jesus is even more emphatic: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (Matt. 25:41–43).
The least that we Christians in wealthy nations can do is to clamor for accepting as many persecuted migrants as our societies can accommodate. Which, if our priorities are where they should be and we fear God, is a lot.
Is our yearning for roots doomed to lead to a heartless politics of exclusion? That’s only inevitable if we wed our innate desire for belonging to the coercive apparatus of the territorial state, which guards its borders with the threat of lethal violence. But why assume that national identity needs to be defended by state power and force of arms? That was a question that occupied Gustav Landauer (1870–1919), a Jewish German anarchist, socialist, and pacifist whose thought inspired the founders of the Bruderhof communities and the first kibbutz settlements in Israel.
Landauer, who tirelessly sought to promote international solidarity among workers’ movements until World War I destroyed his labors, made a sharp distinction between state and national identity: “The state and its borders are lamentable chance products of the most miserable phenomena of history. Nationality, ethnicity, hereditary characteristics are individual qualities with wonderfully deep roots that connect people to one another.”
“Do Not Learn Esperanto!” is the title of one of Landauer’s broadsides from 1907, directed to fellow radicals who wished to submerge national differences in a culturally deracinated Internationale. For Landauer, this was a false path. National identity, as he wrote earlier that same year, is a natural good, which is not bound to, still less created by, the state and its artificial borders: “Nationality is genuineness and the bond of love and spirit. It suffices on its own, and needs no state in order to live within people and to create from within them a work of beauty.” He dreamed of a voluntary community of working people in which all are not only cared for, enjoying the good things of life, but what’s more, are able to flourish within a rich shared culture:
The French nation is a community of language, and thus also a spiritual association and a religious body: Rabelais, Molière, Voltaire are its princes and kings. The same goes for the German nation: the German folk song is the Magna Carta of this glorious confederation, and Goethe is king within it. So too the Jews have their unity and their Isaiah and Jesus and Spinoza.
Accordingly, Landauer deplored artificial schemes for universal brotherhood. For him, cultural commonalities and differences go to the heart of what makes a community human:
Anarchists need to understand that the basis of both individual life and human coexistence is something that cannot be invented artificially. It is something that has to grow organically. Society as a voluntary union of humanity, for example, has grown organically. Nowadays, this union has been overgrown by a dreadful artificial product, the state. …
Ineradicable, real difference does not only exist between peoples, it exists between all human beings. Each human being talks, thinks, and feels differently than others. In fact, humans can understand and talk to one another because they are different. If they were all the same, they would hate one another. Total sameness is not only impossible; it would also be dreadful. …
Here is my advice: practice thinking and feeling as it needs to be practiced! Practice the intricacies and complexities of languages that have grown organically – especially your own! Never give up the study of your own language! And do not learn Esperanto!
Landauer believed in a voluntary socialism of deeds, and consistently strove to put his convictions into practice. Yet he never saw his vision of a community of free workers become reality. Persecuted by the German authorities for his opposition to World War I, he was murdered during the German Revolution by rightwing paramilitaries shouting anti-Semitic slurs. Up until his death, he remained a professed atheist. All the same, he seems to have intuited that the true ground for the community he sought might lie deeper even than shared nationality or language:
Once upon a time, there existed a community of the spirit that was not subject to language, much less did it stop at the borders of the state. This community was Christendom with its Dante and its Gothic architecture, which stretched from Moscow to Sicily and Spain. Its origin was like the origin of all spirit: from the heads, yearnings, and hearts of a few, and from the dully sensed sufferings and desires of the peoples. But its meaning, when once it had attained its height, was: expression, sign, and transfiguration, indeed the art, of being a community of cult and culture. Christendom with its Gothic spires and towers, with its symmetry of the asymmetrical, with its freedom in beautiful and strict togetherness, with its guilds and fraternities, was a nation in the highest and most powerful sense: the most profound penetration of economic and cultural community by the bond of the spirit.
Historians may dispute Landauer’s idealized portrait of the Middle Ages. But whether or not it corresponds to the realities of medieval Europe, his “once upon a time” myth stirringly sketches out the vision that Landauer lived and died for. It’s a vision that owes much to his beloved Isaiah, the prophet of peace, who spoke of the day when “all the nations shall stream” together to the eschatological Jerusalem. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:2–4).
Landauer’s vision of Christendom, too, reflects a truth recognized by the early Christians when they interpreted Isaiah’s words as foretelling the birth of the church at Pentecost. On that day, as described in the Book of Acts, people of many nationalities could communicate across language barriers yet still in their native tongues. They were of one heart and soul, and joined together to share all things in common so that all were cared for, in a voluntary community not dependent on the state. Such a community is not so distant from what Landauer, atheist though he was, longed to see.
Nor is it distant, really, from the “common brotherhood” of “all nations” for whose sake L. L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto. But it is not quite the same. In the biblical vision of humankind’s ultimate future, of which the Pentecost church understood itself to be a foretaste, the New Jerusalem is a place where distinction remains – and is glorified. “By its light,” writes John on Patmos, “will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. … They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” These nations will not have lost their languages, identities, and stories as the price of unity. They will have come, beyond borders but still as themselves, to Zion.