Self-Giving Communitarianism: Toeing the Line Beyond Nationalism and Patriotism

A wheelchair-bound man, who has been fighting for rights of the disabled, was abused at a multiplex on Friday for not standing up when the national anthem was being played. (Times of India, October 2, 2017)

A 59-year-old man was allegedly assaulted in a movie theatre in Mumbai for not standing up when the National Anthem tune was played on screen during a scene in the movie Dangal. (Hindustan Times, January 23, 2017)

These are some incidents that have occurred in the context of the ongoing debate on nationalism in our country. The cacophony on this issue has only grown louder in the past few years with the shrill voices of every other news anchor, journalist or TV panelist opining on it. The debate has spilled over into other spheres of public life, with people being asked to prove their patriotism by reciting the national song or standing up for the national anthem, often aggressively and with the help of state machinery. With the issue taking ugly turns (sometimes even violent ones) and religious and political issues being conflated with it, the liberal left has taken upon themselves to differentiate patriotism from nationalism—the former as the true and desirable form of dedication to one’s country while the latter being categorized as repressive and jingoistic.

The line between the two has been blurred to the point of being invisible by the unsavoury and dreary nature of the debate in the current context. However, history show that a distinction between the two forms of devotion to one’s country does exist. In his essay “Notes on Nationalism”, novelist and journalist George Orwell differentiates between nationalism and patriotism in the following way,

Biblical communitarianism is rooted in the very being of the Triune God—a community of three persons. The foundational precept of this community is the self-giving nature of the three persons that constitute the Trinity.

By “nationalism” … I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.

Sydney J. Harris, another journalist, says it thus: “…the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.” The disastrous consequences of the nationalistic tendencies of different countries are strewn across the past, serving as warning signs to the present. Extreme German nationalism led to the rise of Nazism, thereafter resulting in catastrophic consequences, under the rule of Adolf Hitler. Japan’s imperial nationalism led to her invasion of China, thus precipitating the Second World War. In recent times and closer to home, nationalism has been exercised in different and narrower ways, to the point of excluding its own citizens by antagonising anyone with a different perspective on certain issues. These hyper-nationalists, intellectuals or average men, often target the minorities and underprivileged people within the nation, and barricade themselves away from the outside world. An example of that can be seen in the official Indian stance towards the Rohingya refugees—something that was panned by countries and global organizations across the spectrum.

But where should the church stand in this debate? The supportive stance of both the Protestant and Catholic churches in Nazi Germany, to the point of condoning even a horrific genocide, are examples not to be followed by today’s church. On the other hand, the emergence of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leader, and their belief that the church has nothing to do with the state and vice versa, doesn’t offer a very helpful alternative in the highly politicised and divisive world that we live in today. Communitarianism seems to be the answer.

Communitarianism, as a philosophy, emphasizes the relationship between the individual and the community, with the emphasis being on the community than the individual and the way in which the community shapes the individual. Modern Communitarianism was espoused in the late 20th century as a reaction to the extreme individualism found in political theorist John Rawl’s writings. Communitarianism in itself, however, falls into the same trap of moral and political relativism as it centers itself around humans by focusing on human communities. Human communities, as recent times have shown, are some of the worst frameworks for moral, political and religious precepts.

Communitarianism, one must remember, is not a new idea. Communitarian principles can be traced back in history to early Christian monasticism, and before that, to the Bible itself. But how does biblical communitarianism differ from modern communitarianism? Biblical communitarianism goes back to the very beginning of everything and is rooted in the very being of the Triune God. The Triune God is a community of three persons—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit-united as One God. The foundational precept of this community is the self-giving nature of the three persons that constitute the Trinity. As Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a noted Trinitarian theologian, points out, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit eternally exist in a self-giving and other-exalting relationship in the community that’s the Triune God.

God’s nature as self-giving and other-exalting also manifests in the way God relates to humanity in the creation and redemption events. The creation of Adam and Eve resulted in a community of three—Adam, Eve and God! The communitarian emphasis can be seen throughout the Old Testament in the way God relates to the patriarchs and the people of Israel. God’s condemnation and wrath came upon Israel due to many reasons, one of which was their increasingly self-centered attitude, as was highlighted throughout the prophets. In the redemption event, we can see the self-giving nature of God—the Father so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son (John 3:16). Jesus points out the self-giving and the other-exalting nature of the Holy Spirit in John 14 and 16. Philippians 2 points out the self-giving and the other-exalting nature of the Son and the Father. This principle is not limited to two persons or communities who love each other. Jesus self-giving nature extends to his enemies as well, thus practicing what he preached (Romans 5:8–10). This Triune God is the community that the church has been called and chosen to emulate in the world.

When seen in the context of the tension between nationalism and patriotism, biblical communitarianism offers the right alternative as it avoids the inherent chauvinism found in nationalism, while not undermining patriotism either. On the contrary, biblical communitarianism underpins and gives meaning to patriotism (as opposed to an empty devotion to one’s country) by giving primacy to the needs of the weaker and marginalized sections of the community in and through a web of self-giving relationships. It has been said that the measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members. To come true on that measure, we will have to embrace biblical communitarianism, in spirit and in practice.

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