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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

From Imagined Communities…to Brexit

Written by: on January 11, 2017

As Anderson puts it, a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. (p. 6)

I consider myself to be British and a part of this nation of Great Britain, although I can never meet all of the 65 million plus inhabitants of these British Isles. I imagine this community – though I will never see it all.

This imagination is a powerful thing. “Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” (p. 7)

According to Anderson, imagined communities were created because of “print capitalism” – the convergence of capitalism and the rise of the printing press. Books and newspapers were printed in the vernacular to maximize circulation. Anderson states that the first European nation-states were thus formed around their “national print-languages.” Indeed, language is a key factor in the creation of communities – both the demise of Latin and the privileged access and position of the learned elite, and the rise of local vernaculars.

At the same time, ruling dynasties that spread across many countries were in demise, and all but disappeared by the end of the First World War.

This subject of nationalism and imagined communities is particularly interesting in the current context of Brexit – Britain voting to leave the European Union. With mass migration (since 2000 the population of the UK has increased at a faster rate than any time in the previous 90 years) and the loss of sovereignty to a European ruling elite, Britain has voted  to leave this grouping of 28 member states and to go it alone. The drive towards a European superstate has been too much for a number of the nation states to bear, and there is, across Europe, a rise in populist, nationalist movements, from UKIP in Britain, to Alternativ fuer Deutschland in Germany and Le Front National in France. The driving force for many in the formation of the European Community (now Union) was to prevent the destructive nationalism of Nazi Germany and the Second World War from ever being repeated in Europe. There is, however, no shared language, no shared culture, no shared symbolism or history among these nations, and the efforts of the ruling elites to bring about ever-increasing political and economic union has resulted in a fracturing and discerption of the unity that such groupings have attempted to create.

The false constructs of monetary and political union are not enough to overcome the stronger bonds of the nation states and the cultural and symbolic history of these nations. The European Union’s insistence on freedom of movement across Europe and the right of any European Union citizen to live and work in any country has resulted in large increases in migration from the poorer to the richer European countries. All of this has had its consequences – not least the resurgence of nationalist movements and emphases.

Anderson’s words are interesting in this respect:

“In an age when it is common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on a near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.” (p. 141)

For many in Britain, a construct such as the European Union will never inspire such love and loyalty. There is no shared language and culture and history and symbolism. There is only a new dynasty, distant from the people it rules.

And hence Brexit.

 

About the Author

Geoff Lee

9 responses to “From Imagined Communities…to Brexit”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Geoff, all I can say is, “what a powerfull, well-executed and well-written post.” Your writing is eloquent and persuasive. This quote (one sentence!) is especially compelling:

    “There is, however, no shared language, no shared culture, no shared symbolism or history among these nations, and the efforts of the ruling elites to bring about ever-increasing political and economic union has resulted in a fracturing and discerption of the unity that such groupings have attempted to create.”

    The attempt to bring about a union has actually resulted in the opposite affect. What an excellent analysis.

    Thank you Geoff! I will share this with my colleagues on our Europe team.

  2. Mary Walker says:

    Geoff, your thoughts are especially interesting to me since I have studied history and know something of colonialism. You live in the nation that once said, “The sun never sets on British soil.”
    Anderson makes the case that the “creoles” wanted independence from their elite masters. I can understand that as a Yank (and I’m half Irish!).
    The British have gotten much bad press, but I would like to point out something that Anderson did not – the good that was done.
    When the British pulled out of India and Africa they left behind infrastructure that they had built at their own expense. Many people, in India especially, had jobs and a living.
    When the communists came in the people were reduced to abject poverty, worse than before the British were there. I suspect that Benedict Anderson as a Marxist would not want to emphasize that aspect.
    Also as a Marxist he would not care, and would probably oppose the idea, that while the British were in those colonies the way was made safer for missionaries to go in with the Gospel. Along with new life in Christ, the British missionaries built schools and hospitals enhancing the physical life of the people as well.
    Ok, well Britain went from Empire to nation to part of the European Union and back to nation again. What an interesting time we live in.
    There does seem to be a tension between the advantages of globalism and the longing for people to live in a more manageable-sized community.
    Great post and hope I didn’t insult you.

    • Geoff Lee says:

      Not insulted at all Mary!!
      Love your knowledge of history and your thoughts and insights on British colonialism. I am sure you know a lot more about it than I do!
      Thanks

  3. One’s imagination and reality sometimes collide. Your point on being a community reflecting no unity among those within the community.
    The place this world is headed seems right now unimaginable. What type of global community will we see?

  4. Very interesting post Geoff. I appreciated getting the Brittish perspective especially in regards to Britain exiting the European Union. You explained it simply and beautifully. A strong read and valuable perspective.

  5. mm Katy Lines says:

    Geoff, as an American outside the European conversation, it seems to me as if you hit the nail on the head. We often wonder why GB would want to leave an economic and political opportunity to speak with a louder voice, as a member of the EU. As Anderson proposes and you identify, it is a shared story, communicated in a common language, that connects a (perhaps diverse) people. It unifies them and gives them something (invisible) to love, and possibly even die for. When Brits (and, I imagine, other nations, soon) see much of their identity being superseded into a “European identity,” there is great resistance.

    On a different scale, I think back to the people we worked with in Kenya, the Turkana. Through much of the recent past, they primarily identified themselves as Turkana, not Kenyan (and most Kenyans would agree). However, in the past decade, more children are attending school and learning English & Swahili (with Turkana spoken in the home). There is an active movement towards “Kenyanization” of those identified as Turkana. Generally, the Turkana seem to WANT to be part of this bigger identity (it will be interesting to see how that evolves) in a bigger nation-STATE. I share this as a smaller case scenario than Brexit, though again it is based on identity as shared language.

  6. I really appreciate your point of view and insight here, Geoff.
    “There is, however, no shared language, no shared culture, no shared symbolism or history among these nations…” This makes so much sense to me, mostly because of what I have seen in the other countries I have visited where there is a long, rich history and culture that has developed over time.
    It is visible in America but not to the same extent because we are young and we have not come to terms with the darkness in our past.

    The development of cultures and language and history comes with a flipside. When people immigrate (like my grandfather did from Sweden to America), there is often a push to “learn the language and adopt our customs or go back where you came from.” As a result, our family missed out on learning about our Swedish culture (as well as our other heritages) because my of the shame that was put on them for being different. They didn’t just learn the shared language, symbolism, and history of their new country, they abandoned that of their home country.

    I would like to believe that we can find away to help people assimilate without forcing them to give up those cultural identities from their home countries.

  7. Geoff this post was very insightful! We have talked briefly about your feelings as they relate to Brexit but it was interesting to read your reflection in this post.

    The notion Anderson puts forth that ” it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love” in and of itself seems to be a long shot for many nations today. National allegiance for many is done blindly in hopes that it would one day manifest such a provacotive impact. No one today knows the true long term impacts of Brexit. What cannot be ignored is the feelings and the outcry of the people for change.

  8. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “The false constructs of monetary and political union are not enough to overcome the stronger bonds of the nation states and the cultural and symbolic history of these nations.”

    Geoff, this book was a very timely choice for someone living in England. For the 6 months I lived in Ipswitch (Summer/Fall 1989), I felt the proud nationalism of Britain.

    When I went to London, it was modern and progressive. But in Ipswich, things were very old-fashioned. Men wore wool jackets, vests, and caps. Women wore skirts (not pants). I learned to eat Yorkshire pudding and mushy peas (I passed on the cow tongue). Every old church I visited had plaques listing the names of members who died in WWI and WWII. Ispwitch was not cosmopolitan. The people did not identify and Europeans. They were proud Brits with a rich heritage.

    I can see why the Brexit vote went as it did.

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