Are national cultures something God values? What do we owe the sojourner? And is there something to this idea of Christendom?
About this Episode
Are national cultures something God values? What do we owe the sojourner? And is there something to this idea of Christendom? In this episode of The PloughCast, Peter and Susannah talk about Peter’s lead editorial’s controversial anti-Esperanto take, the perils and joys of Christian nationalism, and whether it’s coherent for an Anabaptist to be in favor of the idea of Christendom.
Then, they welcome Plough’s favorite integralist, Pater Edmund Waldstein, to discuss his piece on the natural law case for welcoming refugees, what relationship that has to the Gospel imperative to do so, and how to think about those obligations in relationship to the integrity of the cultures and places and people who receive those sojourners.
Also covered: Gustav Landauer’s surprising atheist Jewish anarchist pro-Christendom position, the relationship between the nation and the political state, and how to think about national borders.
- On Not Learning Esperanto
- Three Theses: Nations, Refugees, Christendom
- Pater Edmund Waldstein on Refugees
- Pater Edmund on the Three Theses
- Peter Mommsen, “On Not Learning Esperanto”
- Pater Edmund Waldstein, “When Migrants Come Knocking: What Natural Law Demands”
I: On Not Learning Esperanto
Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. Did you miss us? At series three already and you are listening to the first of six episodes covering the latest issue of Plough Quarterly magazine, and it’s titled Beyond Borders.
Susannah Black: We’ve got a lot in store for you. We’ll be talking nation-states, empires, borders and all things Christian nationalism. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.
Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough. If you haven’t already, you should really catch up on our growing back catalog of episodes.
Susannah Black: This is the episode where the Catholics and the Anabaptist talk about how much they love Christendom and how suspicious they are of the nation-state. We are going to talk about Pete’s lead editorial, and then we’re going to hear from friend of the pod, the Bruderhof’s favorite integralist, Pater Edmund Waldstein. Peter, what is this editorial that you have written for us?
Peter Mommsen: It’s about why you should not learn Esperanto.
Susannah Black: But Peter, we used to publish this magazine in Esperanto.
Peter Mommsen: Right. Which is one of the cool little details that got me on this going. The editorial is called “On Not Knowing Esperanto.” Obviously playing on Virginia Woolf here, but, I found myself fascinated by learning more about the story of Esperanto. I’d always heard from one of my older colleagues, Martin Johnson, about when he first joined the Plough team back in the 1950s in England, when we were still located there, one of his first jobs was actually typing out the Esperanto edition on an old ditto copying machine, in a farmhouse out near the Welsh border. I dug into it on this editorial. It was invented back in the late ninteenth century in what’s now Poland, by a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist who was living in a town, Białystok, I believe is the way you pronounce it, where the Russian emperor who controlled the town just then, after Poland’s partition, had forbidden the public speaking of Polish.
This was a deeply divided town with four different linguistic groups in it. There were Germans, Jews, Russians and Poles. He thought, the way that we could bring, he said, common brotherhood and elsewhere, he talks about this peace, international peace that would be established in his hometown, but also throughout Europe, would be this universal second language and he invented Esperanto. He had this vision of universal brotherhood and of course the story of Esperanto is quite checkered since then. The anarchists loved it, Tolkien loved it.
Susannah Black: Which is, I mean, that’s just because he liked inventing languages, come on.
Peter Mommsen: The Ayatollah Khomeini loved it because apparently he objects to the use of English as this international language. He says you can study Islam in Esperanto and there’s actually …
Susannah Black: Esperanto Quran.
Peter Mommsen: Yeah, there’s an Esperanto Quran School somewhere in Iran. However, there’s obviously a huge problem with any universal language because it basically takes away your roots. In L. L. Zamenhof’s terms, you’re no longer a Jew or a Pole or a Russian or German – and what have you lost? My unconsidered take on this is that you’ve lost a lot. I think of my own kids, it means a great deal to me to pass on them who they are, not in some nationalist sense, but in the sense that they’re part of a story and that they therefore have certain obligations to other people and to themselves to carry on that story themselves. I don’t know, you probably, I’m sure you have the same, right?
Susannah Black: Absolutely. Actually, would you tell the story about Wilma and visiting the Tyrol?
Peter Mommsen: What we don’t have today is Esperanto everywhere, L. L. Zamenhof’s dream has not become reality, but we do have something that superficially at least is very similar to it. We have International Business English, so you can go anywhere nowadays almost and find especially young college-educated professionals who will speak to you in English, who will actually prefer to speak to you in English. If you go to Prague, young Czechs, even if you know a bit of Czech will not want to speak to you in Czech: they are proud to speak to you in English. Certainly that’s the case in German speaking areas. I happen to have dual citizenship. I’m both German and American, but I have a really strong American accent when I speak German, so instantly young Germans will speak to me in English a lot of the time.
My wife and I were traveling in Tyrol where we have some family ties and we were up in this little Alpine village where my grandfather was born in 1913 on the eve of World War I. Right next to us, as we were eating pizza, were a bunch of little kids from the village. Actually this part of the Tyrol is now part of Italy, ironically, right? “Beyond Borders” is the title of our issue. But it’s still a German-speaking area and they were talking the local Upper German dialect, which I can’t follow. But my wife could, even though this was her first time in Europe and she’d grown up in South Dakota, but she grew up in a Hutterite community that still speaks an Upper German dialect. Her people came from this area of the South Tyrol back in the 1530s. She was hearing her mother tongue being spoken by these little kids, right by the pizza place.
Susannah Black: It seems to me that the idea of that going away, and these little kids not having that mother tongue anymore, that whole people, that whole culture being erased by a tide of International Business English – That’s not good! Esperanto is cool and weird, but we have this visceral, or at least I do, this visceral dislike of the idea of local language, local cultures being swamped by a homogenized Americanism. Yet there’s this weird beauty, or at least there’s something that the ophthalmologist whose name I am not going to attempt to pronounce, was getting at. Even the idea of brotherhood, the idea of “there’s no more Czech or Jew or German or Russian, but we are all one,” obviously that has echoes in Christian theology.
So there’s a way in which this can superficially seem like a really good idea. Let’s just have one big global monoculture and nationhood, not in the political sense, but in the sense of people-hood. We can move beyond that. Yet actual Christian theology is quite different, and interestingly different. The way that I had thought about this is you think about, all right, the tower of Babel happens and originally there was this one language and then as punishment for attempting to build a tower to reach the heavens, all the peoples were scattered and their languages were confused. This is bad: different languages are therefore bad. Then you’ve got, many thousands of years later, you have Pentecost. On Pentecost, Babel is healed. But it’s healed in this really interesting way.
It’s not that everyone, once again, is speaking whatever that original human language was, some proto-Indo-European something. Rather, it’s that everyone is speaking their own language and understanding the apostles’ preaching in their own language. That kind of healing is very typical, in a weird way, of God. God does things like this and I actually think it’s a beautiful picture of the value of cultural difference, with linguistic difference as one of those things. Yet in the face of that, we still have brotherhood, but it’s a complicated kind of brotherhood.
Peter Mommsen: Well, it’s a brotherhood that takes seriously our difference and that doesn’t erase it, that doesn’t turn everyone into the professional managerial class, the college-educated, from nowhere type of person that you can encounter all over the developed world today. When you go to Prague, you want to be in Prague. When you go to Bogota, you want be in Bogota. When you go to Shanghai, you want to be in Shanghai. At least I do. I don’t want just meet more cookie cutters of the same.
Let’s step back though. Pentecost really is where this all comes together, that the church is a church of all nations. That all nations are gathered together and yet remain nations, and probably Acts 2 will continue to be the chapter in the Bible that we most frequently return to in this podcast, because it should be.
On this first episode, let’s take a step back and let’s talk about what the stakes of this are. We see around the world, various nationalist movements, reacting to this homogenizing internationalism, globalization. A lot of those movements are pretty ugly. We see just in the last few months, with the events in Afghanistan, in Haiti, in other parts of the world, and the debate over who and how many people should be let into the United States or other countries. A pretty strong debate about what roots and identity and preserving social cohesion and preserving national cultures should be. Including among Christians and especially among conservative Christians. I just feel, Susannah, that if you look at global politics and specifically at the politics in the United States, the stakes of the issues we’re going to talk about in this series of podcasts are pretty high. But I think you’ll agree, they’re also high in terms of some felt needs in our culture.
Susannah Black: Yeah. Simone Weil, who I can never figure out how to pronounce her name, wrote a book called The Need for Roots. That phrase just sticks with me because it’s something that people – I don’t know if people are like noticing it more because they’re feeling unrooted because we move so much, because we are less connected to our grandparents and our great grandparents. But I feel like virtually everyone I talk to have has the sense of wanting some kind of stability, wanting some kind of historic rooted-ness, a sense of who they are, a sense of who their family is, and really feeling like the lack of that as an ache, a real, personal, profound pain point. To say that you shouldn’t feel that, or you shouldn’t have that hunger is like telling a hungry person that they shouldn’t be hungry because it’s wrong to be hungry. It doesn’t work and it’s unhuman.
Peter Mommsen: Well, human beings have always, I think, and with all the asterisks you need there, human beings have always had a sense of belonging to a community, to a group. So it’s absolutely just part of who we are or who we should be. I mention in my editorial two books that to me illustrate that: Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland where he speaks about his absent Irish father, he being raised in the Northeastern United States, his Irish father is away and his search for roots, his learning the Irish language, his desire to pass that on to his own kids, I found profoundly moving. There’s a sense that in which Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me from a few years ago is similarly a father passing on a people’s story to his son.
You see that going back a little farther and nationalist movements over the last two centuries again and again, it’s people, whether it’s Pedro Albizu Campos in Puerto Rico, whether it’s the Irish nationalists fighting against the British, whether it’s José Martí stoking sense of Cuban national pride to resist the colonialists. You see the same in African countries, in Asia. “Our people have a story. You, my child, belong to this story. I want to pass this on. I want the stories of your ancestors to live on in you.” Those are things that really belong to being human and yet in this International Business English, cosmopolitan professional managerial class, whatever kind of acronyms you want to throw at it, get lost. They have no place. It hurts when they’re not there and I think particularly when you’re looking at the next generation, you realize that’s really something that you’re going to have to reckon with or something else will fill that void, something probably a lot more nasty.
Susannah Black: Yeah. I mean, I think again, obviously this can go very badly and it has in history gone very badly. But I think very frequently, it goes badly, precisely when those hungers aren’t met and when, in order to supply a lost sense of rooted-ness, people turn to a toxic nationalism. But that’s not to say that the thing itself is not good. There’s a good there. There’s a there, there.
Peter Mommsen: One of my favorite books that illustrates this is by Günter Grass, the German novelist. Its translated title is Crabwalk. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a short book and really, if you want to understand identitarian movements, particularly in Germany, but more broadly in Europe, you should really read it. It’s a story of three generations. It’s the formerly Nazi Oma, the grandma who was sixteen when she was on a German boat full of refugees, that was torpedoed by the Soviets at the end of World World War II, and then her son, who is a classic generation of 1968 liberal progressive, who wants nothing to do with the nationalist, crude, Nazism of his mother. Then there’s his own son who reconnects with grandma in a horrible way. But it was actually the son’s fault in a way for not providing his son with a positive sense of who he was, in my reading of the novel: he left a void in his sixteen-year-old …
Susannah Black: Which was answered by …
Peter Mommsen: Which was answered by the unreconstructed, both Hitler and Stalin-loving grandma.
Susannah Black: Wow.
Peter Mommsen: Because she had something solid to offer.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: Of course the results were tragic, but it’s also a hilarious novel. It’s not only dark.
Susannah Black: I mean, if you think about it as a hunger, people are going to eat poison if they can’t get good food. I think one of the things we have to figure out is both from a theological perspective and an anthropological perspective, what is that good food? What is that good belonging and how to feed that, so that people don’t go around looking for poison and ending up finding grandma’s old Nazi propaganda or something?
II: Three Theses: Nations, Refugees, Christendom
Peter Mommsen: Let’s take a risk here, Susannah and actually stake out some positions at the beginning of this series of podcasts. Let’s go back to the story of Pentecost in Acts that you referenced, the way that scripture seems to both affirm roots, identity, nationhood, most famously in the story of Israel itself, and yet to radically subvert them. There’s an interesting way in the way that the New Testament treats the family, is pretty similar to this, that the family is on the one hand radically affirmed and radically subverted.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: Let’s see if we can sketch out a few theses, that we’re going to explore here.
Susannah Black: Go for it. We’ve already come out against Esperanto, so our …
Peter Mommsen: Yeah. That was okay. That’s our prolegomenon is –
Susannah Black: That’s our prolegomenon.
Peter Mommsen: No Esperanto.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: But the first thesis is: Roots and nationhood and identity are good.
Susannah Black: They’re good human things.
Peter Mommsen: Then I think our second one though, to compliment that, is that there is an almost unconditional categorical imperative. You’re going to hate that phrase.
Susannah Black: Yeah, you’re really triggering with that Kantian stuff, Pete –
Peter Mommsen: – to welcome immigrants and especially refugees.
Susannah Black: Yeah. This is not one of the, “maybe if you feel like it” things.
Peter Mommsen: This is not one of the, “well subject to prudence” things. Scripture, again and again, says care for widows, orphans, the stranger, and that, in our thesis here that we’re going to get into, definitely applies to the Southern border. It applies to people coming from Afghanistan and Haiti and how does that fit together with the thesis number one, that nationhood is good? Then third finally, is that the idea of a universal civilization, some people would say Christendom – and Anabaptists might quibble with that, – but there’s an idea within Christianity of a universal brotherhood of man and woman.
Susannah Black: And a universal brotherhood of nations too, where national particularity within this brotherhood is respected, but there’s still a brotherhood that transcends that.
Peter Mommsen: So our third thesis is that something in that Christendom idea –
Susannah Black: – there might be something there, there.
Peter Mommsen: There’s a there, there. So now, have we said enough to get ourselves canceled by everyone?
Susannah Black: Oh, absolutely. Everyone hates us now. We’ve done it.
Peter Mommsen: I’d like to talk a little bit more about the refugee part of it, I think because of some of the other things we’re going to talk about that we need to keep our eye on, is what it means to “preserve national identity” by cutting people out. I remember most vividly, as you know, I spent a bunch of my life in Nicaragua and I have friends down there. I remember that one of my friends at a point when he had three kids my kids’ age, two of whom had really severe childhood asthma.
He was only able to earn a few dollars a day. His infant daughter was wheezing, gasping for breath, several days of month. It’s an agonizing thing for a parent to watch, particularly if you don’t have money to buy basic asthma drugs: horrible. He wanted to illegally immigrate to the United States. At the time I advised him against it, it was one of the times when border policies had just been cranked up and he asked me, “Why don’t you want people like me in your country? Why can’t I get asthma medications for my 18-month-old daughter?” To me that is the kind of question that you better have a daggone good answer to.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: If you are saying, no, we better throw up some more border walls in the name of national cohesion.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: It has to be a better answer than, “Well, in my old high school town of Kingston, New York, the main street used to be hot dog stands and pizza shops and now there’s all kinds of Salvadorian restaurants and that just bugs me.”
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: That’s not a good enough reason for a little girl not to get her asthma drugs.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: I think there’s, again, biblical reasons to think about this, because the prophets tell us that whole nations, not just individuals, are going to be judged by the way the stranger, the widow and the orphan are treated.
Susannah Black: When God addresses Israel talking about this stuff, he roots it in his own provision for them in their own distress. He repeatedly says, essentially, welcome the sojourner, be kind to the refugee because you were sojourners in Egypt. It’s interesting to think about the fact that they were not … They did not flee to Egypt from political persecution, there wasn’t a war: it was a famine. So that kind of sojourning apparently counts with God.
Peter Mommsen: Right. The sojourner and the person knocking at your door is almost never going to be the perfect asylum candidate. I know from my own community’s experience. My grandparents, refugees from Nazi Germany, pacifists, knocked at the United States’ door in 1940 and said, “Can we come in?” The United States said, “No, we don’t want pacifists here. Very nice that you aren’t Nazi, but no, thanks. You don’t fit the kind of American we want here right now.” Obviously, that type of story, I think, helps maybe temper the wrong kind of nationalism and yet a good kind of nationhood is something really important. I know that you, Susannah, have just been immersing yourself in your own roots, quite literally.
Susannah Black: Yeah, we had a little bit of post-Ida flood here in New York City, over the weekend and I spent about 72 hours, okay, I spent about 20 hours over the course of 72 hours, literally in my great-grandparents’ – I live in their house, this old family house – lugging around boxes of books that had been flood damaged. I know it’s going to be really painful for some of you to hear. It’s okay, they were books that I was going to sell anyway. None of the good books got damaged. So I spent the weekend with mud from my great-grandparents’ basement under my fingernails. I felt very racinated, shall we say, and possibly radicalized too.
Peter Mommsen: Deeply rooted.
Susannah Black: Deeply rooted.
Peter Mommsen: You were no longer just a cosmopolitan from nowhere, you were from a very particular spot.
Susannah Black: I was an extremely rooted cosmopolitan at that point. One of the many things to think about in trying to balance these apparently competing imperatives of rooted-ness and welcome to, especially, refugees, is there are all different kinds of rootedness that we need.
If you don’t have deep family roots or good parenting or people who have given you the sense that there’s a solid ground for you to launch from, that is a lack, and that can’t be made up for, by a strong ethnic national culture. I’m not sure that there are incredibly good answers or simple answers, I think there are some political forms that are more hospitable to good answers than others. I’m in many cases very suspicious of the nation-state, because it seems to me that it is, especially in the way that it was envisioned in the ninteenth century, there’s this purifying impulse to it, which does want to stop history and say, “There’s been all kinds of travel and immigration throughout history, but now we stop that. Now, we just go with what we are.”
At the same time, I’m listening to this Peter Ackroyd history of England at the moment. It is also the case, that ancestors of the English have been on that island for a really long time. That seems to me to be a good, people having deep national roots in a place to be a good, and the gospel imperative and the historical reality of immigration and refugee-ism is also obviously not a good but, welcoming people who need to be welcomed is a good. I don’t think that we can lose either of those.
Peter Mommsen: One of the best known exponents of the new nationalism today is Yoram Hazony who wrote a book, arguing for it. He grounds the idea of nationhood in the story of Israel, right? The proto-nation, the paragon of what a nation is, in a way that is fascinating and we’re not going to get into that a lot right now. But one of the things that gets transferred onto other nations is Israel’s calling, that Israel was elected by God for a certain purpose in history, and other nations, certainly Christian nationalists in the U.S. claim some of those same promises for the United States and that certainly happened with other countries too. If you look at the propaganda spread around, say before World War I, by Christian nationalists in all countries, they all claimed that their nation was elected by God to play a certain role in history. Nowadays, World War I was so horrible and atrocious and senseless that, that whole idea for many is permanently …
Susannah Black: Marred.
Peter Mommsen: Disqualified.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: Yet I sometimes wonder if we haven’t lost something, this idea that a nation actually has a role to play and that is a God-given role.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: There’s a reason it exists and that it might actually help a country to be called back to its specific calling.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: That all sounds really suspect and atavistic until you remember that somebody like Martin Luther King did precisely that for the United States.
Susannah Black: Yeah. I go back and forth on this so much, and I was recently in a Twitter fight about it. Not a bad Twitter fight, I rarely get into bad Twitter fights. But I get periodically irritated with people who claim that the U.S. was a Christian nation or was founded as a Christian nation for various reasons, including that the religious tradition that most of the founders overlapped on most was Freemasonry. There were these weird masonic rituals surrounding the construction of the Capitol building. I would say, well under half of the founders were Trinitarian Christians. John Adams was very irritated with his son, John Quincy Adams, when he abandoned his father’s Unitarianism to become a Trinitarian. I don’t think that the US was founded as a Christian nation.
On the other hand, maybe it should have been. If you’re thinking about a nation having some kind of reality in God’s sight, better to be a Christian nation, which is attempting to consciously follow the gospel, maybe, than a non-Christian nation. It’s one of these things where I’m like, if you don’t like Christian nationalism, maybe post-Christian nationalism is going to be worse.
Peter Mommsen: I think we’re going to get into some of these things. I know that we have people from various countries, England among them, that we’re going to be talking with, in future episodes, about what it means to belong to their nation.
III: Pater Edmund Waldstein on Refugees
But now let’s test out our three theses on our favorite integralist, Pater Edmund Waldstein, a monk at the Stift Heiligenkreuz Monastery in Austria and obviously a Catholic who’s able to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on some of these things.
Susannah Black: Welcome Pater Edmund. The last time both of us saw you actually, you were here in Upstate New York for the Plough Writers Weekend.
Pater Edmund: Yeah. It’s great to see you again, at least, over the screen.
Susannah Black: Anyway. As we’ve been talking about, this is our Beyond Borders issue, and you’ve got a piece in this issue. It’s a web exclusive titled, “When Migrants Come Knocking: What Natural Law Demands.” You talk in that piece, among other things, about your own experience ministering to primarily Syrian migrants, although other migrants as well, refugees, in your own community. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that happened and what that’s been like?
Pater Edmund: Yeah, absolutely. In 2015 there was a huge wave of migrants coming into Austria through the Balkans. Many of them went further on into Germany and so on, but many stayed in Austria. The place where they’re first received in Austria is a place called Traiskirchen. There’s a huge barracks there, which is used as an asylum for refugees. At the time I was curate in two of the parishes that my monastery takes care of and Traiskirchen is right between the two parishes, so I would drive through every day. It was full to bursting, the whole town, Traiskirchen is a small town and it was full of refugees. The huge barracks completely full, the people were camping out in the garden, in tents and so on. Particularly one of the parishes where I was the curate, tried to do what they could, helping the refugees coming in, bringing them stuff they needed, trying to organize German lessons and so on.
Susannah Black: There’s something about that, what you’ve described that gets at in a pretty visceral and immediate way, some of the big issues that are involved in thinking about the issues of borders, issues of nationhood, people-hood, migration. Because, obviously as we know, there’s a huge debate in Europe about how to deal with primarily Muslim migrants who are not European, coming in.
One of the ways that people phrased that was that Europe is a Christian civilization, Austria has a Christian civilization and therefore, we can’t afford to let these non-Christians and non-Europeans in. There was something good about Austrian people-hood and there was something good about village community life that you could imagine would be disrupted.
Yet there’s also something that it seems like we need to work through: what does it mean to be a Christian civilization? Does it mean that we have a Christian heritage or does it mean that we’re attempting to obey Christ and have the values of the gospel and the teachings of the church direct our politics as well as our personal behavior?
That seems like a really complicated batch of questions, but what you described and what you get at in your piece seems like it’s attempting to drill down into some of those. Do you want to like talk a little bit about that? The subtitle of the piece was “and what natural law demands.” Do you want talk about what the principles are of ethical analysis of this kind of thing? What does natural law demand? What would the church teach us about how to think about something like the refugee crisis?
Pater Edmund Waldstein: They’re two questions that you pose to me: what the church teaches us and what natural law demands, and they’re very much related. Because part of what divine revelation does, which the church hands on to us, is it reminds us of what God has already written into our nature. That’s what we mean by natural law, the law that God has written into our hearts as his creatures. The scriptures, part of what they do is remind of us of that. They also reveal more things that aren’t contained in natural law. But with regard to migrants, it is, I think, something where scripture is reminding us of something that God has already written into our hearts, into our created nature, something that in a way we already know.
In the book of Leviticus, when God says to the people of Israel, “You should not wrong the stranger in your midst because you too were strangers and foreigners in Egypt” – He’s reminding them of a principle of justice that is already inscribed into their hearts through creation, but which it’s easy to forget. Because as you say, when strangers come into your community, of course, it’s easy to be afraid that they’re going to take away what we have, that they’re going to disrupt our community, they’re going to threaten our way of life and so on, they’re going to bring their strange customs and ideas and errors.
So there can be a lot of anxiety around strangers. So the scriptures remind us of the kind of debt of justice that we have to those who are in need. The migrants who are coming, who are fleeing are often, or almost always, coming because they’re in need, because they’re in danger in their original countries, or because they are in poverty there, or because they’re suffering some other kind of necessity, which makes them come to us.
Susannah Black: Something that you said in there, I think I’d like to unpack a little bit, you mentioned a debt of justice. A lot of people would think of this as a matter of charity, as a matter of supererogatory generosity. But you’re talking about justice. Can you talk about a little bit more about that, about the universal destination of goods, maybe?
Pater Edmund: Yeah. Part of this is that God has given the world to us human beings and the external goods of the world, the land and the fruits of the land and everything that we make out of the fruits of the land, He’s given these things to us for the sake of supporting our lives, allowing us to live and to flourish. So, it’s unjust if there’s some human being who’s not receiving enough of the fruits of the lands to survive and to flourish.
Normally, we divide up the land because it helps us do things in an orderly way. But when there’s someone who’s suffering from actual need, then it’s not just a work of optional generosity to give them something. They actually are owed a share of the goods that God has given to humanity as a whole
Peter Mommsen: Speaking of this, in terms of natural law, as something that God has written on our hearts, it makes a lot of sense to me. Shortly after the first big waves of migrants came in, in 2015, I was living over in New York at the time, but I went back to the East German village, where I’d lived for seven years before then. I was raising my family then. Although the tide quickly changed in German politics after that, at the time, what was remarkable to me was how there was truly a spirit of Christian love among many very non-Christian people who from their hearts recognized the need of the people coming and in many cases just went to huge lengths to take care of them, to look out for them, to run soccer games and make sure that they had to place to stay and integrate them into family firms, offer apprenticeships.
Again, in terms of European politics, a lot has soured over the last six years. Yet I think from a Christian point of view, actually that first impulse of generosity is the one that we ought to be affirming.
Pater Edmund: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I had the same experience, the first couple weeks of the big wave of migrants, you had really an outpouring of generosity and people going to the train stations to welcome the migrants and so on and to help them. But as you say, that quickly soured for various causes. Partly because some of the migrants committed crimes and so on, which of course stoked anxieties. But yeah, I agree that first impulse is the right one. You want to welcome them.
Peter Mommsen: It reminded me actually of twenty years ago, in New York after 9/11, and in some ways, there is something in the human heart that responds to those claims of justice that you were talking about and yes, then, by the cold light of day sometimes, afterwards, things can seem more complicated and life is complicated. And we need to talk about the hard things, the difficult things, the things that can’t simply be solved by a warm impulse, right? But it does seem to me that that is something that we ought to encourage, and it’s also a training in the virtues, to encourage that type of response in ourselves rather than a coldly calculating, self-interested one.
Pater Edmund: I was talking earlier about how scripture in a way reminds us of things that we already know. It reminds us in the sense, it also makes us remember those impulses that we have when we see people in need.
Peter Mommsen: One part of it for people in this German village was that many of them had themselves been refugees sixty years ago after World War II. So there was a memory of what was done for us when we arrived here, sixty years ago, and a desire to pass it on to others. I think so often, a connection to the past, to rooted-ness, to one’s own people’s story, which for most people involves actually, migration and times of difficulty and times of suffering, can ironically be the biggest help to standing in solidarity with those who are outside one’s own people and one’s own nation.
Pater Edmund: The famous injunction in Leviticus, Love your neighbor as yourself. There are two ways of taking it. One is you love him the way you love yourself. That is, just as you will good to yourself, you will good also to your neighbor. But it can also mean love your neighbor because he is like you.
IV: Pater Edmund on the Three Theses
Susannah Black: I think as though in the context, now that we’ve described a little bit of the concrete kinds of questions that are raised by this issue, Pete and I had this … We developed three theses.
Peter Mommsen: Right. We developed on the fly, just three theses.
Pater Edmund: Very good.
Peter Mommsen: We wanted to try them out on you, Pater Edmund.
Pater Edmund: Not ninety-five theses?
Peter Mommsen: No, just three. The first thesis is that there’s something good about nationhood and rootedness and national identity. The second one we’ve covered is that Christians have a direct duty toward refugees and toward migrants who are strangers because they’re fleeing suffering– to themselves and their families. The third is that there’s something about this idea of a universal civilization.
We started off by talking about Esperanto, and the secular version of this.
Pater Edmund: Right.
Peter Mommsen: A brotherhood through superseding and transcending national and linguistic differences. There’s something good in this vision of a universal civilization of love, which in Christian history has been called Christendom: there’s something there.
These three theses seem to be a little bit in tension with each other. I don’t know if they make any sense to you.
Pater Edmund: Yeah. They make a lot of sense.
Peter Mommsen: Or which one of these you’d want to respond to.
Pater Edmund: Yeah. Well, let’s begin with …
Peter Mommsen: We’re giving you a menu.
Pater Edmund: Well, let’s use the Alice in Wonderland method: Begin at the beginning and carry on to the end and then stop. So let’s start with the first one. There’s something good about nations and rootedness. I think that there’s something to true about that. I think that, I mean human beings, we are not purely spiritual beings. We’re also bodily beings and there’s something necessary for our spiritual life to remember that we’re bodily beings, that we have parents and that we were born in a particular place and so on. There is something very good about rootedness as you put it, about a connection to the land where you’re from, the memory of your ancestors, the customs of the people there and so on. Nation can mean a lot of different things.
The word nation comes from the word to be born, nasci. So the etymological meaning is the place where you were born, which I think is an important aspect of human life. But nation comes – and here we’re moving towards the last thesis about Christendom – the nation-state in the modern sense is something that very much arose, in opposition to the universal vision of Christendom and as a way of breaking that apart and making the highest and most important human community be the nation-state, a big territorial state with a sovereign ruler and a homogenous culture, one language, one poetic tradition and nobility, which is found in smashing all the other nation states and being the top nation in the world and having the honor and so on.
Peter Mommsen: That’s a problem. That’s the nation-state, right? Now, there’s an older idea of nationhood that isn’t necessarily identified with the state. And of course, the nation par excellence is Israel, which for millennia did not have a state. There has been recently an upsurge of interest in what’s being called national conservatism. You’ve mixed into those debates at times yourself, I believe.
Pater Edmund: Yes, indeed.
Peter Mommsen: So what’s good about the idea of a nation first and does that nation actually need a state to be a nation?
Pater Edmund: Yeah. Well, I think because human beings have a rational nature, we’re capable of more profound and also larger community than irrational creatures are. There’re gregarious animals that live together in a pack or a group or something, but in a human community, it’s not just a pack, there’s something spiritual about human community, about a shared life, that has a spiritual dimension, a common good that’s really shared among many persons. The nation is one way in which that kind of community can grow, a nation of people who have a kind of in origin.
I mean, you see this in Israel, very clearly. Israel is the name of their ancestor, right? Jacob, Israel, the son of Isaac. He gives the name to that nation because they all originate from him. They’re descended from him. Being all descended from him, they share a family resemblance and a family tradition with him. I think that’s good.
Peter Mommsen: In my essay in the magazine, I go into the thought of anarcho-syndicalist Gustav Landauer, who’s a German Jewish writer from a hundred years ago, who I’m a huge fan of, and he wrote a great deal. Among other things, he was one of the key inspirations for the founding of the Bruderhof movement, actually. But he wrote a great deal about the value of nationhood, but he separated it, as a good anarchist would, from the coercive power of the state, the state with boundaries, defended militarily. He spoke of the “German nation” or the “French nation,” or the “English nation” as communities of language and of spirit, that actually extended beyond geographic boundaries.
Now that can sound all very eerie, but I’ll just give an example of that. The German nation, for instance, beyond boundaries. One branch of my family is from Riga in Latvia and they were Baltic Germans, and they view themselves as Germans. They viewed themselves as subject somehow to the Holy Roman Emperor, even though they weren’t politically, they were part of the Russian Empire.
They communicated with Schleiermacher and Pestalozzi and so forth, early Enlightenment figures. They were part of that. They viewed themselves as part of this culture, this community, this conversation, even though politically what was on their passports down to my great-grandmother who I still knew, they were Russian, she was Russian.
So I’ve been playing around and I’m not, obviously, trying to sketch out a new political theory here, but it just is interesting to me that the language of nation-state of nationalism, so often can flatten and thin out and actually erase the complexity of real human experience in a lot of ways.
Pater Edmund: Yeah, I think that’s very true. The nation-states have this drive towards homogenization. You see this very clearly in France where local dialects are replaced by Parisian French. But you mentioned the Holy Roman Empire there, which is one way in which Christendom tried to get a framework. The Holy Roman Emperor, one of his symbols was the pomegranate, which is one fruit, a beautiful, spherically-shaped fruit. But, if you open it up, there’s hundreds of little compartments inside of it, with all these miniature fruits inside of it, as it were. This was taken as an image of the Holy Roman Empire and of Christendom: There’s an overarching unity, but within that, you have these different nations and free cities and prince-archbishops and all the rest of it.
I mean, part of what makes the migrant crisis so difficult is the whole question of Islam, because of course, Islam. I mean, to me, Islam is one of the most mysterious things in all of world history. In many ways, it seems like a Christian heresy, and it simplifies a lot of things about Christianity, and the Ummah is a simplified version of Christendom, where there’s this drive for subjecting the whole of the world to Islam. It seems like every time that Christendom becomes weak Islam becomes strong. It seems like it has its origins in the early divisions within Christianity between Arians and Orthodox Christians and also the monophysites and nestorians, and all those early heresies. The internal divisions of Christendom become so strong there, that then all of a sudden Islam comes out of the desert as this strange reaction.
You get the same thing. I mean, the Siege of Vienna, the first one in the sixteenth century and then the second one in the seventeenth century. Both of the sieges of Vienna where the Ottoman armies come all the way up here and which during the migrant crisis, people were making some comparison to them, obviously with a lot of differences. But there again, you had just had the Protestant reformation, the shattering of the unity of Christendom through that. Then the Muslims become very strong again. It’s a very mysterious thing, but I think that there must be some providential role for Islam in the history of the world.
Peter Mommsen: As you point out your essay, the Muslim migrants coming to Europe, to the supposedly Christian Europe, are coming to societies that actually aren’t all that keen on being Christian, most of the time.
Pater Edmund: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: They’re coming to societies that on most days view themselves as practically post-Christian.
Pater Edmund: Exactly. Yeah. In some way, I think that the Muslim migrants can remind us to be Christian. Because they come, some of them, many of them, in fact, they come here and they expect to be coming to a Christian country. Then they’re kind of surprised at some of what they see here, the complete moral corruption and so on that is so typical of Western society today. That can be a helpful reminder to us that we should repent and become Christians again.
Peter Mommsen: My favorite story on that front actually, is when I was living in this little German village I was describing, and there’s about ten percent of the population of that part of Germany is Christian and ninety percent is post-communist atheist. There was a little local neo-Nazi cadre in a neighboring village who stickered up the town one night. They went after the Kurdish immigrants, and also our community, because we have a certain style of modest dress, with the same sticker, “Islam out of Germany.”
Pater Edmund: Yeah, that’s funny. Yeah. I mean, you had an analogous case, but, at the juridical level in France: some of the rules against wearing veils that were supposed to target Muslims backfired. So teachers in schools were forbidden from wearing veils, for example. You had all these French nuns who taught in the schools who had to remove their veils because of these anti-Muslim rules.
Susannah Black: Well, I mean, it’s almost a reverse as well, because, I remember thinking when all the anti-headcovering laws that came down in France during that time, that this is French laïcité, which was originally aimed against …
Pater Edmund: Of course, yes …
Susannah Black: Catholicism. So it’s kind of …
Pater Edmund: Yeah.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: In many senses, we found with our Muslim neighbors there and with Muslim friends here, a great deal more commonality, in terms of a desire to submit to God and to live a life pleasing to God than with even nominal Christians, who are not interested in those things. I wonder, Pater Edmund, would you be able to do us a favor and see if there’s any way of integrating our three theses of rootedness being good and duty to refugees, and then something about this Christendom thing – which I should register as an Anabaptist, I have footnotes and asterisks under, but we’ll set those aside.
Pater Edmund: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: I’ll talk about it in a Gustav Landauer anarcho-syndicalist form of Christendom, for now, just to keep things simple.
Susannah Black: I do have to say as I guess, the representative of magisterial Protestantism here, this is exactly what my people were worried about, this Anabaptist and Catholic alliance going on right now.
Pater Edmund: Very good.
Peter Mommsen: You should be worried.
Pater Edmund: Well, I think that the first and the third theses can be synthesized through, well, in Catholic social teaching, what we call the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that the larger communities shouldn’t usurp the role of smaller communities. So what can be done by the family, the municipal community shouldn’t shove its head in and say, “All right, bedtime is going to be at such and such a time.” No, you leave bedtime in the family, right? That’s the proper place for that.
So one of the ideals of Christendom was subsidiarity. And of course, because human beings have fallen in practice, there’s going to be a lot of strife about what belongs where and who’s really responsible for what. But the idea was you can have multiple levels of community, that each has its own role and the higher doesn’t usurp what the lower does, but it does help the lower and when the lower is unable to fulfill its role, then the higher can step in and help out.
So you can have a super-national community, an empire, encompassing the entire world, which doesn’t destroy nations and say, “Okay, now we’re all going to speak Esperanto,” but which looks after and fosters the nations, keeps peace among them, makes sure that they’re fulfilling their roles properly. Then the nations, looking at the various provinces and cities and tribes, and so on that make up each nation. Again, not usurping the role, but trying to foster them. That’s how I would see those, the first thesis that there’s something good about nationhood and communities with common language and history and culture and so on and that there’s something good about this overarching idea of Christendom.
The middle thesis that we Christians, especially, and all human beings really, have a duty to welcome strangers and migrants: Well, part of the reason why we get these huge migrations does have to do with warring nations. I mean, we see this very clearly in Syria where you had the civil war, but also now in Afghanistan, where you had the war against the American invaders and so on. I think part of the role of the overarching community of Christendom would be to make sure that people are welcoming strangers, in such a way that they can still keep the identity of their communities, but also to try to address things at the roots and try to make it less often that people are driven from their homes by war and famine and so on.
Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you, Pater Edmund. I think that gives us a lot of food for thought and synthesis to work with. This has been a pleasure …
Pater Edmund: Yeah, it was so great to talk to you.
Peter Mommsen: To talk about this, and we look forward to having you on the podcast, again.
Pater Edmund: Thanks so much.