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    PloughCast 18: Are National Borders Unchristian? And Other Imponderables

    Beyond Borders, Part 6

    By Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 25, 2021

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah tackle our hardest listener questions: What are your hesitations about Christendom? Do you think that all national borders are unchristian? What IS the Bruderhof doing about Afghan refugees? Is it OK for a community to have insiders and outsiders? Is Plough just a bunch of SJWs?

    Then, they revisit the question of the reality of nations – What’s important about national identity? Is it always dangerous? How is it related to family identity? How can we love, be rooted in, and derive some of our identity from imperfect – profoundly imperfect – countries?

    Then we move into speculation. Do nations have specific angels looking out for them? Is there such a thing as a national calling in history? If so, what is America’s?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    I: Listener Questions: What are Your Reservations About Christendom?

    Susannah Black: Welcome back to episode six of this third series of The PloughCast, focused on our current issue, “Beyond Borders.” I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough Quarterly magazine.

    Susannah Black: And we are here with listener questions, and also some kind of general reflections on what we may or may not have learned. A reminder, If you’re not subscribed, do that now. We’re going to be going after this episode into six weeks’ worth of Plough read-alouds, which are also great to listen to. And then we will be back with season four of our podcast for the next issue.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, we have some really great listener questions today. “Are open borders required for Christians to support?” “Is Plough socialist?” What are some of the other juicy things that came in?

    Susannah Black: These are some really good ones. Let’s start here: both of you said that you have some reservations about the idea of Christendom. Pete, what are your reservations about the idea of Christendom?

    Peter Mommsen: Violence. So, the problem with historic Christendom was of course, that it implied a unity of church and state. I’m a member of the Bruderhof, I’m an Anabaptist. I believe that following Jesus involves a commitment to absolute nonviolence, in the same way that he lived out, that he taught, that love of enemy is incompatible with the use of lethal force against anyone, for any reason, for people who are following him. So there’s a big problem there with any confessional state arresting, or torturing, or executing anyone for believing the wrong things. And that’s my major reservation with what some people mean by Christendom. But if your idea of Christendom is rather that there is a Christian civilization, a civilization of love, to use the Pope’s beautiful phrase, then that’s, to me, the opposite of those bad things I’ve just mentioned. And that’s a kind of Christendom I can wholeheartedly support.

    Susannah Black: Mine is a little bit different. So, my dad’s Jewish ethnically, and I am always very aware of, all right, so what would this look like? What would my little integralist fantasies look like for my Jewish family? I pray for them. They’re not Christian. They should not be compelled to be Christian. And now, obviously, there are many ways to talk about this. One of those ways is that, in Christendom as it was, the Jews were not treated great at all, but they were given a kind of status: it is okay, at least in principle, for there to be non-Christians in a Christian civilization. Even in a Christian empire, and actually often the Jews are treated better under empires than they were under nation-states – For example in England, which was not part of the [Holy Roman] Empire, which was a kingdom.

    So I guess, thinking more concretely, I pray for everyone. I want everyone to come to Christ. I don’t want anyone to be compelled by force to come to Christ. And I want there to be room for the Holy Spirit to do whatever He does with everyone in His own time. And I want there also to be a way for us to live as part of a political community with each other, even if we don’t share religious commitments, because we share our humanity, and we share our understanding of the natural law, or at least our awareness of the natural law, of basic ideas about what humans are and what goodness is. Even if we don’t agree on those intellectually, I think we experience them directly. And I think there’s a way for us to love each other, politically, even if we don’t share faith commitments, in the way that a family can love each other, even if they don’t share faith commitments. And I want there to be room for political love among Christians and non-Christians. And so, that’s my primary reservation with the idea of Christendom. But actually the idea of Christendom, in principle, can include that. So that’s kind of what I would say.

    Peter Mommsen: And I think that just needs to be done with a great care for liberty. Liberty of conscience, which sounds, and some people will say that’s a very post-Enlightenment, liberal thing to talk about, but it is not, Early church father Tertullian speaks eloquently about there not being compulsion in matters of religion. And of course, that was when the early Christians were on the receiving end of compulsion in the matters of religion, but the principle holds true too the other way around. And it just holds true pastorally. I mean, I think in terms of my own community, the Bruderhof where we are, you could say, a little Christendom inside our community, living together. There was an expectation [for those who live with us] that not everyone will necessarily be Christian, but we do expect that you will be open to seeking God’s will with us. That’s actually the language we use. And that’s sort of the condition for an adult, at least, to stay a longer time in our community.

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil Photograph from U.S. Geological Survey (public domain)

    But that goes together with a deep respect for the integrity of the individual conscience, which again, is not just some post-Enlightenment invention, but goes back to the heart of Christendom: that God wants willing followers, right? God wants people who desire to follow Him. And there were also just concrete historical examples. I mean, you can mention, of course, most extremely, the 3,000 Anabaptists being drowned and burned at the stake and so forth [in the]15th century. And everyone says, “Oh, well, that’s an old story,” but actually it’s kind of not that old.

    And there’s a softer version of it. There’s the little Mennonite family I know in Colombia. The country of Colombia had Catholicism as the official religion in the constitution until not quite a generation ago. And they actually had to flee their native village because their kids were so bullied in school for not going to the state-mandated Catholic religious education classes. So, in what sense is the gospel served by any type of regime like that? I think it comes back to the question: what is truly a Christian society? And I would argue that’s actually not a Christian society. That’s one going under the name of Christian that’s actually oppressive. And so a truly Christian Christendom …

    Susannah Black: A truly Christian Christendom, I think, I would go for.

    II: Listener Questions: Are All Enforceable Immigration Restrictions a Denial of the Faith?

    Peter Mommsen: What’s next?

    Susannah Black: A friend of the magazine and of the community wrote that, “You state that those who advocate using lethal force to keep out migrants are denying the faith.” That was a quote from your leading editorial. So he wants to know, “Is that anyone who supports any kind of border enforcement? From Biden to Trump, from Ocasio-Cortez to Cruz, all of these politicians support some kind of border enforcement.” Is that what you meant, basically? Come on Pete.

    Peter Mommsen: Right? So basically any Christian – and this was essentially the point that this writer was making to me, was that if you say that anybody who’s endorsed any type of border enforcement which involves at least a threat of lethal force, is denying the faith, is possibly not even a Christian, is an apostate, I suppose, if you want to really push the line of argument, well that would apply to a heck of a lot of people, including probably some of you, our dear listeners. No, that’s not what I was intending. And in the context of the essay, I make it pretty clear that I was referring to some pretty literally lethal things.

    So for instance, I have friends who work with migrants in the Balkans, some of them are, or very likely are, real refugees right there, at risk of their lives, if they return to their home countries in Afghanistan, or the Middle East. In there, if you have a hard border with barbed wire and armed guards, and it’s the winter, and you have little kids involved, you very quickly reach a point where you literally have people dying to enforce a hard border.

    And what I was describing in the editorial was very specifically this situation of people using the language of “preserving our Christian heritage” as a justification for little kids dying in the cold, by a barbed-wire fence. And that, to me, is denying the faith. That is using the language of Christianity to do deeply anti-Christian things. Now, I do think, in the context of a very short editorial, I obviously didn’t give a complete set of criteria for how to judge what a moral migration policy is, and I’m not even going to do that right now, surprisingly.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I mean, I guess you could say, well, it’s a motte and bailey thing and you’ve just defended the very strong and it’s very sensible motte, but then there’s this bailey that we’re just going to have no border enforcement at all, or no border policy. And my whole thing with motte and bailey arguments is, you know what? I like mottes, and I like very well-defined, precise arguments. And I don’t think that that means... I think you just have to be disciplined about not letting yourself then give away the bailey.

    Peter Mommsen: It probably won’t surprise longtime listeners to The PloughCast, or readers of Plough, that we don’t view ourselves as a policy journal. We are not here to tell those of you who are voting members of Congress what legislation to craft in response to the migration issue. However, there are certain principles that we are passionately committed to, and those do have real world consequences. And I think there’s two that we can name, and one is that welcoming the stranger, caring for the orphan and the widow are these, as we said in earlier versions of this series, Susannah, are really basic, kind of unconditional, categorical imperative type things, to use very non-biblical language, [things] that are in the Bible, and that you do not get away from by just waffling about prudence and so forth. We really do need to take seriously that, if you’re a believing Christian, scripture and tradition tells us that God, as judge, will hold us to account in a particular way for how we treat people in this situation, and we’d better fear God and take it very seriously.

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil Photograph from U.S. Geological Survey (public domain)

    Does that tell you exactly what to do when a lot of Haitian migrants are crossing the Rio Grande? No, but it better inform it, pretty well. And the other one is actually something that our good friend Pater Edmund Waldstein, the Thomist monk from Stift Heiligenkreuz, Austria, spoke about in the earliest episode of this podcast. I’m not Catholic, but I do largely subscribe to Catholic social teaching, which uses the language of the universal destination of goods. And he used this cool word, fringsen, which is German for basically, under Catholic social teaching, if you really need something to survive, you’re allowed to take it.

    Susannah Black: Jean Valjean did nothing wrong. I stan.

    Peter Mommsen: Exactly. So, rather than calling it fringsen, or speaking of the universal destination of goods, which is a lot of syllables, we could just say, the Jean Valjean thing is okay. And that also applies to migrants trying to get in here.

    Susannah Black: And there is actually one thing that I kind of wanted to mention, which is that one of the arguments that you especially see people in certain Reformed camps making, and I’m thinking in particular of what is called the … Whatever, this is so super inside-baseball, but the Westminster West Position, or R2K, and it’s a particular Reformed political theology, which basically wants to say, that the law and the gospel are two utterly different things politically, to the point that it is the job of the church to preach the gospel, and it is the job of the state to enforce the law, and that our commands under the gospel should have, essentially no impact on political deliberation, or political ethics.

    And I mean, that is a very specific position, which is not the majority position. It’s not Saint Thomas’s position. In that very harsh division, what it would mean, just to sort of check yourself, if that is starting to sound good to you, is that it is wrong for a king to be gracious. It is wrong for a king to be merciful. It’s wrong for a king to pardon people, or to listen to the voice of the poor. That that is failing his office as enforcer of pure justice.

    And that is insane to me, because kings are supposed to imitate God. And just as all people in authority are supposed to mediate God’s authority to the world, with justice, and mercy and behaving towards the world, as Adam failed to do, and as we’re to do in Christ. And so that kind of harsh division between law and gospel politically, I think is a nonstarter. But it’s also something that I think is behind some people’s ideas here.

    Peter Mommsen: It may be behind them. It just seems inhuman to divide up one’s actions like that. And at the risk of doing 1930s analogies, we can just remember that there have been times in not so distant history, when people invoked Romans 13, and this strict separation of the state’s authority from the church’s ethic, if you want to use that language, in ways that were not so great.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. And just to sort of, one other reminder of what I think is a kind of better model here, is what I would call again, Oscar Romero integralism, where like it is the church’s job, it’s the job of a pastor to command, using his authority to speak God’s word to those who are his flock, politicians and others, to command them to imitate Christ. And to do that politically, and to remind those in political authority, what it means to actually be just, according to God’s standards, and actually be merciful.

    III: Listener Questions: So How Many Afghan Refugees Has The Bruderhof Taken In, Huh? And is Plough Just a Bunch of SJWs?

    Susannah Black: Okay. We have a question from, if not a friend of the pod, then at least [a] close follower of the pod, who shall remain nameless but who has posted a couple of times when I’ve posted or when Plough’s posted about basically things having to do with refugees and the refugee crisis, “How many Afghan refugees has the Bruderhof taken in?” So the implication here is, you want me to take in refugees to my community, i.e. America, but you refuse to do anything concrete and you are maintaining your very well-ordered community. So Pete, what’s the Bruderhof doing about Afghan refugees?

    Peter Mommsen: To directly answer the questions, we’ve had three to four people almost all the time since the Afghan refugee crisis began working with the organization Save the Children, with whom we have a long partnership, actually welcoming Afghan refugees. A monastic community, so to speak, is obviously not the place where these refugees are being settled, but we do have kind of boots on the ground welcoming refugees. And where is the best place and way to take care of them when they come? It’s often the people [at organizations like that] who do it well, rather than just people putting up refugees in their basement, and then wondering what they’re meant to do next. But we do absolutely take seriously the commitment that when we say things like welcoming refugees is good, it’s something that we, especially if we’re able to, should do something about.

    Susannah Black: And I think that one of the things too, one of the things that was implied by that, and by thinking more carefully about these things is, this is not something that we do in order to make ourselves feel good. And therefore, it is not necessarily the case that putting up a refugee in your basement is going to be the best thing for that refugee. [Rather, we need to be] figuring out where people who are in desperate need can best get on with their lives and can best be integrated into local communities. The point is not to own the cons. The point is not to intentionally disrupt American civilization of various kinds. The point is to actually help people in ways that are effective.

    And as we mentioned, one of the best ways to do that is to do things to prevent there being refugee crises to begin with, which is one of the many reasons why we tend to be pretty down on war. We just don’t think it’s a great thing. So that is that. But one thing that something that you were talking about did kind of bring up is, the Bruderhof itself does have borders. They’re more powerful borders than national borders. You take lifetime vows. You renounce private property. There’s nothing fuzzy about who is in the Bruderhof and who’s not, including [that] your own children are not full members. So it is not bad to have boundaries. Borders are important. Do you want to talk about that?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, of course the Bruderhof, like any community, has borders. And I can understand why folks would be worried that the national community also needs borders, otherwise solidarity among its citizens would be kind of imperiled and diluted. And what’s the point of saying we’re all Americans who support each other if it’s not even clear who’s American to start with? Again, you mentioned the parallel to the family. Right? You know, the point of a family is not to exclude, and yet a family that included all seven billion human beings on the planet wouldn’t really be a family. Right?

    It needs to make a difference that you’re my relative for the purpose of being part of my family to mean anything. And so I think there’s a kind of natural worry there. On the national side though, I do question to what extent that there really is a national community. I think the United States with 300 plus million people in it is a little big to be hugely worried about cultural cohesion. Like, what is that thing anyway?

    For the Bruderhof itself, yes we are a church. And that means, as we were talking in regard to Christendom, it needs to be a place where you want to be, and also where you feel that God has called you, and where you submit to the discipline, and the order, and the expectations, of the community. So I don’t really see a lot of conflict there.

    Susannah Black: But of course, hypothetically, if an Afghan family wanted to join the Bruderhof …

    Peter Mommsen: Absolutely, and we have had stuff like that happen over the course of our history. You know, the Bruderhof has moved around a lot in the course of its hundred years. You know, Germany, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, England, Paraguay, Uruguay, United States, Australia, England again, South Korea now. So although we have a pretty strong kind of German cultural DNA, and I do on my mother’s side of the family, there’s actually people from quite a few different nationalities who have joined.

    And our direct neighbors for a long time is this South Korean family who’s fully part of our community, and who try to pass on their own culture, traditions to their kids. There’s people who grew up in Paraguay, Paraguayans, Guarani folks. I’m not making a “Bruderhof is a Benetton ad” claim here, just that it’s actually not culturally defined. It’s a church that depends on an individual calling to live in the spirit of the early church.

    Susannah Black: Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof, also had a vision beyond the very tightly knit, highly committed, vowed community, as to how the Bruderhof, how those borders could be a little bit more porous or how those borders could be stretched.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. He always saw the community itself as a kind of nucleus with concentric circles of folks who were moved, in his language, right, moved by the same spirit who are working in their different places, in their different vocations for that same renewing of the world in the spirit of the gospel. And that’s really one big reason why the community supports Plough. Right? And we try to be one part of that.

    Susannah Black: I keep having sort of half thoughts that I’ve not fully formulated about starting something like a Bruderhof tertiary order, which I think would be fun. But yeah, I mean I think that also informs the way that we as Plough look at the people who we collaborate with, or publish, or consider friends. We do not agree, like we don’t have … We’re not super good at the friend-enemy distinction. We’re just not great at it in the sense that we disagree with people profoundly on certain issues, but we tend to work on the places that we do agree with people on. And we don’t try to enforce a kind of uniformity of thought on the people who we publish, on the people who we partner with. We find the good. We find the good that they are doing. We find the place that we think they’re responding to the Spirit, and we work with that.

    Peter Mommsen: And I really do think there is a sense in which encouraging people who are Catholic to be very good Catholics, and people who are Anglican to be very good Anglicans, and people who live in the Bruderhof to be very good Bruderhof members, and people who are Jewish to take their Judaism seriously, is not just a kind of “isn’t it all beautiful that we’re different?” thing. But is a real key to people doing what they’re actually meant to be doing in life.

    And I have as my authority here a certain Cardinal Ratzinger who, in a meeting with members of our community like 25 years ago, said the solution to the differences between Catholics and the Bruderhof or Anabaptist communities is not in some type of diplomatic solution where we both sign on the dotted line between carefully negotiated doctrinal statements that we can both affirm, but for both of us to really seek to follow Jesus as intensively as we can in the traditions that we find ourselves in and are committed to. Because if we’re following the same Jesus, then that is what will bring unity and not the other. And I think that is what we try to encourage through Plough, not a sort of superficial sameness.

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil Photograph from U.S. Geological Survey (public domain)

    Susannah Black: So one of the big differences that is not minimized at all in America these days, is what you might call the culture war. And we got an email from a listener, actually reader, saying, “I found your Beyond Borders issue to be very socialist. I’m tired of hearing these progressive pieties from everywhere, including religious organizations. It seems to detract from the gospel.” So are we SJWs? Aren’t we just swimming with the progressive stream? Like, are we that annoying?

    Peter Mommsen: Right. Well, that’s absolutely why we did the Beyond Borders issue, was just to prove to all our progressive friends that we’re actually okay.

    Susannah Black: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: And the next thing we’re probably going to do, is going to do an issue where we sign up for every other progressive …

    Susannah Black: Yeah. Cause.

    Peter Mommsen: Because if O’Sullivan’s Law is true, the famous one that any organization that doesn’t specifically identify itself as right wing is going to eventually be left wing and that surely applies to Plough, too. Right, Susannah?

    Susannah Black: Oh yeah. I mean, I’ve found that.

    Peter Mommsen: So actually everything we just said is not true. I think that any really thorough Christianity is going to tick off everyone, eventually. So welcoming refugees, for instance. And I assume that that is what is being referred to by this reader. And I’m glad for the sort of candid response there. Kind of part of loving your neighbor, [the] command to love your neighbor is part of the same gospel that tells us some other things, for instance, about no divorce and remarriage and the sanctity of life and some other issues that aren’t nearly as popular on the left side of the spectrum right now.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I mean, so one of the ways to think about this is that if we make you angry, at least we’re also going to make your enemies angry, which is sort of comforting.

    Peter Mommsen: Do you think that would comfort this particular reader?

    Susannah Black: I think so.

    Peter Mommsen: So Plough has a pretty firm commitment to a range of things. And I don’t know why it is that everyone allows that right wing, left wing sorting to be applied to them, when Christianity and the gospel predates all of this stuff. And it’s just silly. Is Dorothy Day a left-wing or a right-wing person?

    Susannah Black: Is Oscar Romero?

    Peter Mommsen: Is Oscar Romero, we mentioned. Is he left-wing or right-wing? I mean, that Opus Dei background, he must be a terrible reactionary, except I believe at the time he was actually undermined significantly at the Vatican, by people who accused him of being a communist, even after his death.

    Susannah Black: Fannie Lou Hamer, is she a reactionary or is she progressive?

    Peter Mommsen: So we can go down the list. I think this kind of returns us in a weird way to our discussion about Christendom, at the beginning, right? Because if you are thinking about a particular cultural and political arrangement, as the Christian thing that needs defending. The road from there to defending things that are really unchristian, just so that structure doesn’t get disturbed, becomes quite short. And if the idea is that we can’t let in Haitians and Afghans, who at least in the Haitians case, may be far more committed Christians than we are. And possibly with the Afghans too, far more committed Muslims than we are, in the name of protecting sort of the integrity of our country.

    Well, leave that aside. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves, by Christ. And Matthew 25 tells us what it means: to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give the glass of water, visit the prisoner. So we have pretty clear marching orders. And maybe we should just kind of stick to those and not worry about whether that makes us look socialist or not.

    Susannah Black: I mean, if the corporal works of mercy make us seem like SJWs … I mean, at least some of them will make us seem like SJWs. And then some of them won’t.

    Peter Mommsen: We can also say that Plough is an adamantly pro-life magazine. We do have an editorial position on that. Those are all things that are part of the same gospel that tells us to take care of the refugee, the stranger, the prisoner. And to care about people with disabilities, to care about the fact that, increasingly across the world, all babies with Down syndrome are aborted before they can be born.

    And so that consistent Christian love for the powerless, for those who are marginalized, those for whom God especially cares, needs to guide us. And I think if we practice thinking along those lines more … I mean, I find myself affected by these same progressive versus liberal thought patterns, too. But maybe we just need to, like, train our brains not to think in those terms, to do so less and less.

    Susannah Black: And to, in doing that, be less worried about our own position. And therefore more able to like look at the people who might disagree with us, both from the left and from the right, as human beings who God loves, and who are similar to us and who are different from us, and who it is not our job to fix, but it is our job to sort of be honest with.

    Peter Mommsen: Our founding editor, Eberhard Arnold, had a great quote that I often think of in this regard, especially right now when people are so apt to disassociate themselves with somebody else, just based on the fact that they’re on the wrong side of this polarization, right? And he was, again in the ’30s, he came from a religious socialist background himself. But after 1933, when Hitler came to power, he felt pretty strongly that we cannot treat Nazis as demons. They’re the same human beings that we were dealing with last year, but now they call themselves Nazis. So we must hate their hateful ideology, but we must treat them as people. Nobody is a devil. And we must extend the same love to them that we wished to extend to them last year before they had signed up for this stuff. And he had this one line that I’ll just close my comments on this with, and he said, “We are in all ways untimely.”

    IV: What Have We Learned? Nations Revisited.

    Susannah Black: All right. So we have come through another series of six episodes of The PloughCast. And as always, we are going to kind of do a little recap. What have we learned from doing this podcast, from doing this issue of the magazine? Let’s review.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. So I mean, as always, it’s so comforting just to be confirmed in my own opinions that I had at the beginning and not to have changed any of them. But that’s not quite true, actually. You know, one way we could structure this, Susannah, is by going back to the three theses that we kind of sketched out at the beginning of this series. And I’ll just refresh any listeners’ comments, because of course you've listened to that first episode.

    Susannah Black: Haven’t you?

    Peter Mommsen: And the first thesis was that roots and nationhood are good.

    Susannah Black: I think you said, even nationalism.

    Peter Mommsen: And nationalism is good, if you define it the right way. And the second is that welcoming refugees is very good and is actually required. We talked about that today. And the third is that Christendom is good, but we have asterisks.

    Susannah Black: Asterisks. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: And we talked about some of those today. So of all of those, I think it’s actually the first one that I’ve been thinking the most about.

    Susannah Black: Me too.

    Peter Mommsen: The nationhood and the rootedness piece. Because it seems to me that, although there’s all kinds of bad nationalisms around, it remains that a real sense of nationhood, of belonging, to a people and its story is really important. And I think, in talking about some of this stuff, there’s a lot more work to do, in terms of explaining what the good form of nationalism looks like.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. When you kind of get into something, you start realizing how much you don’t know and what your gaps are. And I feel like one of my major gaps here is the actual political philosophy of nations, nation-states. And getting into the ideas, like what were the problems that was trying to solve? What is the strongest case that can be made for them? And one thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is the fact that the UN Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to national self-determination, meaning essentially the right to a nation, a people. Having a state with borders, that it can control, is one of the sort of standard human rights of this quite, like on the normie end of progressive, but quite progressive document in circa 1948, was saying was absolutely crucial to uphold.

    Peter Mommsen: And virtually self-evident to uphold.

    Susannah Black: Yeah, virtually self-evident. And obviously, the context was hugely different. What they were talking about was like anti-colonialism.

    Peter Mommsen: Sure, because in 1948 there were many, many clearly identifiable nations that did not have the ability to exercise that right of self-determination.

    Susannah Black: Right. So both under the USSR, which was essentially an evil empire, as we might say. It was at least a …

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and the British and the French empires were very much intact. The United States was directly controlling many areas and had certainly not let go of its sort of imperial ambitions in the Caribbean and the Philippines and so forth, either.

    Susannah Black: And so it was like one of the things that it was trying to do with this statement was to sort of ease the British Empire in particular, I think, out of the empire business and usher in nation-states like India, which was founded in, I want to say 1948 was partition, 1947 was partition, onto the world stage.

    Peter Mommsen: Israel.

    Susannah Black: Israel.

    Peter Mommsen: 1948.

    Susannah Black: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: And Israel being sort of, as we’ve talked about, and as Yoram Hazony outlines in his book on nationalism, where he makes a strong argument for it, Israel being sort of the exemplar of the nation and the nation-state.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. So I do feel like, I am a strong imperialist by my own very strange definition, meaning I think that empire is in various ways a superior political form to the nation-state or at least can be. And also that I think that America kind of is an empire and we should admit it, because trying to make us into a nation-state gets really gross. But I do think that I’m interested in – kind of my own personal following of nerdy rabbit trails that I live my life doing, I feel like I want to get more into making the best case I can for the nation-state, to myself.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. So I don’t personally feel like I have a political philosophy of nation-states. I don’t even particularly feel like I need to have one. But it did make me think, I guess, just quite practically, “How do I raise my kids?” That is why Michael Brendan Dougherty’s book, My Father Left Me Ireland, left a big impression on me. Because in that book, he writes again about how this absent Irish father wasn’t really a father to him, but it did provide a bridge to Irish culture, Irish language, a whole identity that would otherwise just have been lost in the sea of New Jersey suburbia, where he was growing up. And I think of the ways that it was so important to me, that my parents brought me up with a sense of connection, going back generations.

    Not in some sort of obnoxious way. It’s not like, if you go back up the Mommsen family tree there’s famous, rich, and aristocratic people. I mean, there’s a couple here and there, but they’re really not very notable, but rather just a sense of connection, of obligation also. A sense that there were things that your ancestors, the ones who went to Africa and Sierra Leone after being in one of the early Oberlin classes, to be missionaries there, or the ones who fought in World War I, or whatever, that their lives have a meaning, right? That relative who died at age 17, after volunteering to fight for the Kaiser out of his high school class, and is buried somewhere in Paris, you have a connection to him. And he’s part of your story. He’s part of your life.

    And that is something that, if you don’t have that, maybe you’re a little more susceptible to just being shaped by the zeitgeist in a lot of negative ways and not really knowing who you yourself are. And not being really kind of in touch with … and this sounds a bit therapeutic, but sort of in touch with who you yourself really are. And you’re more likely to kind of chase cultural will-o’-the-wisps and allow yourself to be formed in a bad way, by just whatever happens to be an offer in 2021.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. And I think one of the things that is so powerful about that, is that you don’t choose your parents. Like if you want to get interested in who you actually are, in terms of the gift of self that you got from your parents and that they got from their parents and try and trace that story back, you can’t shape that story. That story, you can research it, you can ask your parents about it, you can tell the stories again to your children, but this is not a bespoke thing. This is not you trying on different identities to find one that feels right. This is more of a finding-out. This is a “who am I,” not by looking inside myself or to find a true self that’s pre-cultural or the self that is not shaped by your family. And it’s also not deciding who I want to be and creating a kind of Instagram-style avatar of the best imaginative self that you can be. It’s more like archaeology. It’s more like excavation. It’s more like discovery. You’re finding out who you are by finding out who your family was.

    Peter Mommsen: And then the nation is an extension of that family, right? Because your family’s stories take place in a national context. That’s what’s the opposite of a kind of false chauvinism about one’s family or one’s nation is an honest connection with one’s family story and a love for the people that came before you. You can very much go with the sort of humbling discovery of their false moves. So not only do I my grandmother herself who fled Nazi Germany and was a refugee and got away, there’s also her brother who joined the Nazi party because he was scared that the private school the family had run for generations would be shut down unless he did, and just did the coward’s move.

    But then when the Soviets invaded afterwards and they made him the same offer, he said, “No, I’ve burnt myself once and I’m not joining the Communist Party. I’ve sold my soul one too many times already.” Learning a story like that and knowing, you know what, this is kind of – “flesh of my flesh did this.” That tells you something a little important about what it means to take responsibility for the decisions that might lie before me or my kids. I think we can do that in a national way too, with all the kind of hemming and hawing we’ve done [about] what our nation is really. The fact is that there is some sort of peoplehood and story that we are part of by being part of a nation.

    It’s helpful and good to identify it, just so that it’s a little easier not to point the finger at previous generations and say, “What horrible people. How could they do that?” But to realize, “You know what, human beings can do really, really, really bad things.” Just because we belong to the same story as the people and are, in some cases biologically descended to them, we need to learn a lot about those things and take responsibility for them and atone for them. Our lives need to be in some sense a response to the harms that the people I belong to have done.

    Susannah Black: But not just that, I mean, that becomes … there can be a kind of narcissism of “worst people in the world”ness. I think that one of the things that America has a tendency to do is put itself at the center of all stories. Sometimes that can be at the center of the story of being bad guys. I think that a sort of fuller and more realistic understanding of the story of America is another kind of thing that we can do for ourselves, which is not just to say that we need to invert the pure jingoism into a pure “we are of all people the most wretched and hideous”. It means that history is really complicated.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. Of course, apart from Native Americans, very few of us or none of us are just American, right? We all came from other places. So there’s those stories too. There’s those nations too that we belong to. I think in that sense, although I’m not really sure about the language of empire at all, I do think that overlap in quality, recognizing that I’m not just American, I also come from an Irish or Korean or Vietnamese family, and I have that nation in me too, kind of helps guard against that American egomania that either we’re MAGA or we’re the ultimate source of evil in the world, which is both bogus, right? Knowing a bit of other countries’ history will remind us of that pretty fast and approach it with a bit more of a sense of humor.

    The other thing I’ve realized, I didn’t know very much about, and I still don’t, so I’ll just sort of register this as a question is in our conversation with John Milbank in an earlier episode, we talked about the question of does the nation have a soul and do nations have a calling in history. Now, if you go back to the 19th century Romantics, the answer is absolutely yes. Fichte will absolutely be very comfortable talking about the calling of England and the calling of France and the calling of Germany, and even our favorite anarcho-syndicalist-atheist Gustav Landauer in his wonderful writings talks about the calling of these different nations in a way that most, let alone progressives, most moderns just would find weird and a bit creepy, right? But I do wonder, is there something there?

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that when I started reading the Old Testament after I converted was most surprising to me was that God seemed to notice nations. Nations show up in the Old Testament not as, like, purely ad hoc, nominalist collections of individuals, or even collections of families, but as things in themselves, which are responsible before God for their own actions and which God sees as a whole.

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil

    Tietê River, State of São Paulo, Brazil Photograph from U.S. Geological Survey (public domain)

    I have a thousand questions about this and there are a thousand sort of theological niceties that one would want to add on to that, not least I kind of jokingly asked John Milbank, but it’s not really a joke if we’re going to take these ideas seriously: Is the nation, when we’re talking about the UK, is it the UK, is it England? Is it an idealized version of England?

    There are obviously incredibly dangerous ways that that can go – in fact, with the German Romantic understandings of nationhood, did go. But at the same time, if we want to take the scripture seriously, not only does God see nations, but there are even indications that nations or political bodies at least have angels that are attached to them specifically. The Book of Daniel talks about this. I have no idea how this works, but it’s another challenge to the kind of essentially nominalist, essentially materialist and individualist idea of how reality works, which I’m always up for.

    Peter Mommsen: I think of a comment made by one of our guests, Dhananjay Jagannathan, who’s contributed to our issue, and he said, he was talking about America and of course his own experience of growing up first in India and then Jamaica, and then becoming an American citizen, choosing America and what America is that that you’re choosing, what does it mean to be patriotic, which he says, “I feel very patriotic and a lot of people are surprised by that.” But he said, “It’s a question of values,” and this is a language he used and he referred to Frederick Douglass in his very eloquent call to America to be America, to be this land of freedom and of justice and of equality and a very, actually biblically-based vision of what America should be. Maybe that is part of the answer to the question of “what is America’s calling?” is to be the country that Frederick Douglass spoke of.

    Susannah Black: Wants it to be. That does not necessarily mean … one of the things that has happened in the last 20 years is that we tried to make a whole lot of other countries look like us and that didn’t work very well. That is not to say that justice is not part of every country’s calling because it is, and that is not to say that freedom properly defined is not part of every country’s calling because it is. But there is an American flavor of what those things mean and maybe even an American flavor of what it means to be cosmopolitan or international as a nation, the whole nation of immigrants idea that is maybe more specific to America.

    I wonder whether thinking about what Douglass was specifically responding to, the question of slavery, whether there’s a particular way in which America’s calling is to wrestle with and seek to atone for and seek to move forward from and seek to not reject each other on the basis of questions of racism and questions of, I don’t know, just things that are specific to our own history that are not true of the histories of all other nations.

    Peter Mommsen: You mentioned earlier in this series, Susannah, and we’ve talked about that great passage in Revelation where each of the nations and the kings of the earth all come into the heavenly Jerusalem. So perhaps there we land up, again: those nations need to be themselves. They need to be the nations that they were created to be in order to come in altogether to the heavenly Jerusalem and bring their various gifts, not all the same, and to build the kingdom, and that their peoples, I think in that sense, can be proudly part of those nations as they all come streaming in. That should encourage us to have that same kind of, not to think that everything about our country makes it God’s gift to humanity, but realize that it’s not just happenstance.

    Susannah Black: Maybe there is a way in which we need to [be] listening to Frederick Douglass, listening to a lot of other voices, including the Founding Fathers, I say, as a postliberal, I will give the Founding Fathers their due, sort of. Maybe we need to listen to those people and find out who we are as a nation and be ourselves as thoroughly as possible and as justly and mercifully as possible and then present ourselves before God as that thing.

    Well, thank you for listening to this last episode of this series of the podcast. We’ll be back in six weeks with more new content. Actually, for the next six weeks, there are going to be read-aloud pieces from our issue that you can listen to. As always, get in touch with us however you’d like to. You can drop a comment on YouTube, on Twitter. You could email me

    Peter Mommsen: We’ll see you back in six weeks.

    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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