As I embarked upon my reading of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, I felt uncomfortably trapped at a formal dinner party sitting next to the most erudite, obnoxious man. He was unfortunately trying to impress me with his name-dropping, and relished quoting obscure literary texts in their original languages. It was only as I compelled myself to sit through the appetizer, main course, dessert, and aperitifs that the brilliance of his argument began to dawn on me. We create nations. They are a figment of our imagination. And yet, while they begin in the mind, they end up having real power and enduring presence in our world today.
As most of you know, I live just a few hundred metres from the border with the most powerful nation in the world. At the end of my street looking out my office window, I see the St Croix River, which is the easternmost Canada-US boundary line, and on the other side, less than a rowboat paddle away, the town of Calais, Maine. There is no Wall to separate nations; at low tide, if you could bear the cold and ice, you could wade across the river. The closest gas station to my house is on the US side, and, what a deal, I can fill up for two-thirds what I pay back home. My borrowed library books for our studies get sent to a PO box in Maine because books can be sent for free anywhere in the US but not to my home address outside the US a kilometre further. As I walk across the bridge, immediately the accent of the locals changes to the peculiar non-rhotic twang of a Down Easterner: “I pahked the cah on Hahvahd Yahd.”
John Breuilly’s symposium on Nations and Nationalism celebrated the work of Anderson’s groundbreaking study of what makes nations a reality. He states, “Imagined Communities is itself a loose-jointed work of historical comparativism. It offers an account of what kind of social phenomenon nationalism is, how it arose and how it spread around the globe.” Beginning in the New World with “creole pioneers”, the social experiment of nationalism expanded and strengthened through the advent of print capitalism in vernacular languages.
In Anderson’s thesis, imagined doesn’t mean imaginary. Nations are real. But these definitions are created in our minds, and hold over us a strong and emotional power. Something happens to the chemistry in my brain when I walk across the bridge at the end of my street. I know I’m in a foreign land. Even though I may live in the same valley as my neighbours on the other side of the river, I feel like the other: an outsider, an interloper, just visiting.
In his 2015 obituary for Anderson, New Republic editor Jeet Heer summarizes the issues raised in his celebrated career exploring nationhood: “How do diverse nations like Indonesia, made up of many languages and ethnicities, hold together? Why do they sometimes fall apart? What keeps people in large nations from killing each other and why does national cohesion sometime fail?” The answer, says Anderson, is that we create “narrative of identity” to hold us together. The stories we tell ourselves hold us in place and give our place in it meaning. The dramatic and inspirational Story of America arcs over the Boston Tea Party, the War of Independence, and Manifest Destiny’s “rocket’s red glare/the bombs bursting in air”. It’s a loud story, and it’s hard to get a word in edgewise when your neighbour is ten times the size. A quieter story is told north of the border in the slowly evolving Story of Canada with its voyageurs and United Empire Loyalists, deference to the Crown, a complicated bicultural and bilingual French-English reality, and the celebrated fact that we are all immigrants in the top half of North America.
In my view, Anderson’s study of nationalism and the creation of imagined communities can and should be applied to our understanding of the church, an imagined community that supersedes current national boundaries. We tell ourselves this story, for example, from Peter’s first letter:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
We must use our imagination to understand these truths that pull together people across deeply loved national boundaries and into covenant with each other. We are in the world but not of it, so our identities as British, American, Canadian, Filipino, Algerian, and Colombian are merely window dressing. What matters is our love for Christ and willingness to follow Him in service for our world. Our allegiance goes beyond that of a flag.
One of my tasks this winter is to create a new imagined community of millennial givers with the launch of the Spark Initiative with my colleagues from the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. I recently created a Facebook group, similar to our own PDX Seminary LGP8 DMin Cohort, where an imagined community can be crafted and nurtured to benefit others in the name of Christ. The stories we tell and the values of faith and generosity we uphold will guide this group.
While narratives are powerful, national stories are beginning to fray. Pico Iyer, author of The Global Soul, often speaks of the rootlessness experienced by many world citizens today. This strange transnationalism, where one feels at home everywhere and nowhere, is yet another manifestation of the postmodern shakeup of all things, which, like nationalism, are modernist creations of the imagination. After a lifetime of wandering, he strangely ends up settling in Japan, one of the most homogeneous societies on earth. He states, “Japan is therefore an ideal place because I never will be a true citizen here, and will always be an outsider, however long I live here and however well I speak the language. And the society around me is as comfortable with that as I am… I am not rooted in a place, I think, so much as in certain values and affiliations and friendships that I carry everywhere I go; my home is both invisible and portable. But I would gladly stay in this physical location for the rest of my life, and there is nothing in life that I want that it doesn’t have.”
Iyer’s attitude toward his adopted nation to me seems like the sort of approach we should develop as Christians towards our own nations. Content, not yearning for more, yet always aware that we are outsiders, belonging to a more eternal Kingdom.
 Breuilly, John. “Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: A Symposium.” Nations and Nationalism 22, no. 4 (October 1, 2016): 634. https://doi.org/10.1111/nana.12236. Accessed January 18, 2018.
 Heer, Jeet. “Benedict Anderson, Man Without a Country.” The New Republic, December 13, 2015. https://newrepublic.com/article/125706/benedict-anderson-man-without-country. Accessed January 18, 2018.
 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (New York: Verso, 1991), 205.
 The voyageurs were French fur trappers who explored the rivers of North America by canoe. The United Empire Loyalists were those American colonists who migrated north and remained loyal to the King and British North America.
 1 Peter 2:9-10 (NRSV).
Brenner, Angie; “Global Writer, Heart & Soul – Interview with Pico Iyer”, Wild River Review, November 19, 2007. http://www.wildriverreview.com/interviews/pico-iyer-global-writer-heart-soul/. Accessed January 18, 2018.
21 responses to “Beyond boundaries”
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Hey Mark, I went to the same scripture, and said (though much less eloquently than you) something similar about the Kingdom of God. You did a better job than I did at connecting Anderson to your project and how you are creating a community of young philanthropists. What are the benefits (to them and to the Spark Initiative) of developing a “shared identity” among the participants?
And of course, I relate to the ideas of transnationalism. One of my favorite quotes is by Ijeoma Umebinyuo: “So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”
I, like Anderon’s idea of a nation, am also “limited.” I can adapt so far, but I can never fully integrate. I can’t become French. But in Christ, I can become a part of the royal priesthood of believers, which is richer for its ethnic and cultral diversity. There, I don’t so much have to adapt as bring my whole (transnational) self and let it be transformed.
I have learned much about what it means to be a “pilgrim” in the Biblical sense by living as an outsider in France.
Salut Jenn. Yes! The image of being on pilgrimage is one that we can deeply resonate with. I also know that those who have experienced time living abroad will also bring a great deal to the conversation about who we are as people. We are more than a label.
What stayed in my mind longest when I read your post was, “at home everywhere and nowhere” and my thought connection to the Scripture that says “This world is not our home.”
“In the world, but not of the world” took it a step further.
So, I would say that your BLOG was very successful for me. Not just something to read, but something to ponder. Well done, Mark!
I think some of us struggle with being home everywhere … they are attached to one place and are stuck. Others struggle with being home nowhere … they lack community due to lifelong wanderings. We need to cultivate both, I think. Anchors and wings.
I find it particularly interesting that you are attempting to develop a community of sorts with millennials for philanthropic purposes. To me this generation seems to be the least engaged in those very communities that Anderson seemed to be suggesting. My own reading of him, as well as some reading around the text, led me to believe that the virtual social connections they develop appears to be having an adverse effect on the sense of nationalism etc. I wonder if this is as strongly the case in your Canadien context as it seems to be further South.
Yes I think in Canada that millennials are less likely to be traditionally nationalistic. Community seems to be defined less and less by those with power (those who are drawing the lines) and is becoming more organic and self-defined and fluid.
Great post Mark! You and Jenn were on the same wavelength, using the same scripture. The following part of your post was the most inspiring to me: “We must use our imagination to understand these truths that pull together people across deeply loved national boundaries and into covenant with each other. We are in the world but not of it, so our identities as British, American, Canadian, Filipino, Algerian, and Colombian are merely window dressing. What matters is our love for Christ and willingness to follow Him in service for our world. Our allegiance goes beyond that of a flag.” I love the fact that because of Christ I am part of the same family as all of my brothers and sisters in all of the wonderful countries of the world. You have a beautiful way with words and I love how you connected the book to the most imaginative community of all!
I love thinking of imagination as a key ingredient of our new community of Christ followers. That is a quality that is sorely lacking in evangelicalism.
I have often wondered how those that live along the border of our self imposed great nation can stand the arrogance that a simple lines represents. I am glad you have a good attitude or have a good experiences with your neighbors to the south. I have had similar experiences of crossing a border and instantly felt our of my element. These “imaged” boundaries are real in our own hearts and minds.
I love your reflections on Peter’s call for us to be a “royal priesthood and holy nation” and how as Christians our responsibility is beyond what we are comfortable with. I love talking with young people what don’t see themselves as in the ministry rather they see themselves as working and living missionally. To do so I believe requires a focus not only outside our country but our personal agenda.
I thought of you this week as I was writing my post. How we love to set up enemies to be against. I was thinking about the divide that seems to come between protestant and Catholics, the anti-Christian rhetoric . We love our separation in nations and in our faith. Do you hear this kind of divisive language in your area?
Thanks Greg for your comments. I was saying to my wife this week how grateful I am to be a part of two Christian communities here. One is the Vineyard where we both attend. There is a desire to be inclusive and welcome everyone. The other is the Catholic parish. This winter we have had a new priest appointed. He is a missionary from Tamil Nadu in India. I have loved watching him adjust to -30 degree weather and Canadian customs, and at the same time he brings such a fresh perspective. He stops his homily at the end and then asks questions of the congregation, inviting feedback and their thoughts. It’s very out-of-the-box for this community, and I am proud of them because they all seem to be welcoming him with open arms.
Thankfully, it is rare for there to be much division between Protestants and Catholics nowadays. Historically that wasn’t the case. But I think one of the benefits of living in a postmodern culture is that we recognize these labels aren’t really that important anymore.
Thank you for recognizing the power of your neighbors to the south. Why is it that Canadians do not like being called North Americans? Lol.
Thanks for linking Paul’s call to Christendom. I agree that we have minds and imaginations that God gave us, but I do see a critical difference in the Body of Christ, we use faith. It is more than imagination, belief, or hope. You credit the values of faith, as one of the key components for your Millennial Community. I hope and pray your call to the millennial giver “pays off” and helps advance the Kingdom of God.
We like being called North Americans, but we don’t like being called “Americans” because that adjective is already taken by another nation. 😉
Thanks for praying for our millennial community as it develops. I hope a lot of good will emerge from our gathering.
Hi Mark! Love, love, love your post. So well written and connecting many different tenets of nationalism. I’m intrigued by your quest to get millennials on board with philanthropy (and I heard Dan’s frustrations). I think the millennials are just as giving, but in different ways… I would like to hear more about your strategic plan to engage them?
Millennials don’t want a transactional philanthropy – give money and that’s it. They want to be involved in the solution. They want to sweat, and ache, and cry, and celebrate together with those they are helping. I call it transformational philanthropy when not only are we changing lives, we find we are also being changed by our giving.
Wow Mark what a fascinating experience you have living on the border of these two nations. I really appreciated your post – particularly the section on what keeps diverse peoples together as a nation, and the answer of narrative identities. Here Anderson is knocking at the door of postmodernism and the multitudes of micro/local narratives that form our (fragmented) identities in the loss of a single meta-narrative. I wish that Anderson had spent more time discussing identity narrative theory because it is obviously what gives Christians identity, belonging, and purpose. I might have missed what Anderson said on the matter of the disappearance of meta-narratives. But I’m curious how your national identity is shaped by living on the border. Thanks again for your thoughtful and creative post!
Yes, it is actually fascinating to witness how the two nations understand different topics.
Some examples include: universal health care, immigration, refugee resettlement, guns, marijuana, gay marriage, etc. It would be easy to say that Canada is more politically liberal. I find it fascinating that all four political parties (from conservative to socialist) would be supportive of universal health care, immigration, gay marriage, banning guns, and refugees, for example.
Mark, I really liked your last quote from Iyer, “I am not rooted in a place, I think, so much as in certain values and affiliations and friendships that I carry everywhere I go; my home is both invisible and portable. But I would gladly stay in this physical location for the rest of my life, and there is nothing in life that I want that it doesn’t have.” The idea of being a wanderer and foreigner but being at home with that is something that is fitting in my world right now. We are outsiders where we live and are trying to make peace with it. Even though less than 30 miles from both my spouse’s birth places and family homes, we are outsiders culturally and often ideologically.
I don’t know if I really fit in the millennial mix but what you say about giving and what you are creating resonates deeply with us and our friend groups (especially what you mentioned to Jean above). We want to be in relationship with others as real partners in the work they are doing. We participate way beyond giving money and often discontinue giving somewhere that we feel disconnected from unless there is a deep conviction to give. I hope your new work goes well.
One question for you. How would you feel and what would you do if the US decided to put a boarder wall on the north side as well? I would like to hear your perspective.
Thanks Trisha. I’m glad to know you resonated with the description of how millennials give.
So… if Trump built a Northern Wall?? The way sentiment is here, many of us would be happy to keep the Americans out! 😉 (Just kidding.) Since Trump was elected, we’ve had large numbers of Haitians and Salvadorans walking across the border to escape to Canada. Some of them even walk across the North Dakota border into Manitoba in the winter.
Canada is the largest trading partner of the US and Trump is a businessman; I anticipate he will do the smart thing and continue to facilitate cross-border business as both countries benefit from it. A lot of the economic processes (eg for making automobiles) are intertwined with a mutual benefit for both countries.
Thanks for answering my question with both funny and a serious response. I am glad to learn from a non-American perspective. Of course no one ever mentions border walls except for those wanting to come into our country.
Mark, love the sentiment in your message! I have moved well over 20 times in my life, being forced to make new friends, settle into new homes, and trying to get comfortable in a new community each time. I remember by the time I made it to high school that my attitude was to just make the best of where I was until it was time to move somewhere else. To this day, I still have a very shady concept of what is truly “home”, except for when I am with my church family. I have traveled from one end of this nation to the other and found Christians waiting for me there. I went into the army and was on a brief leave once with no where to go, and found a church welcome me in as though I was the long lost son. I have gone to foreign lands and was shocked to find a buddy that used to attend another church I preached for, at the same gospel meeting. The only true home I have ever felt is the church and I am so blessed to know that God has told us to look forward to the time that we can all be home in heaven together. One of my favorite hymnal songs is “This world is not my home, I am just passing through.”
That’s a great perspective Shawn. Moving so much can be a big challenge for a kid, but it does shape one to be resilient and flexible. I’m glad you were able to allow it to make you a better person!