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

Learning and Unlearning Nationalism

Written by: on January 19, 2018

Sometimes education takes unlearning: unlearning methods that do not help our growth, unlearning terms that are more couched in modern vernacular than the truth of their meaning. When coming to a text on nationalism by a sociologist who is thinking anthropologically and has lived all over the globe with an education as diverse, there is a good chance that my western American mind and his are going to come to different conclusions. Both of us are using the same basis for knowing: history, media, and culture, but his education and experience in the topic greatly eclipse my own.

In beginning to read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, my mind flashed through the past year with a president who has awakened the alt-right nationalist movement like none I have seen in the US during my lifetime. Thus, when I think of nationalism I tend to think of the fringe groups attracting so much press. On the other hand, I quickly realized I had some unlearning to do as I read Anderson’s work. His depth and breadth caused me to rethink my perception of nationalism in America, and indeed the meaning and implications of the term.

To begin to comprehend Anderson’s writing requires removing ideological framing and instead viewing the nation through an anthropological lens. To define the term nation Anderson says, “it is an imagined political community— and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”[1] The limitations focus on the geography, the literal boundaries of each nation while the sovereignty is the perception of being part of a larger ‘imagined community’ of homogenous people who share the same identity within the territory. In addition, sovereignty is identified as the nations freedom from a ruling higher power, particularly a religious power. These nations, bounded by land while free to rule themselves, begin to derive a national identity.

Anderson explains the development of the nations through multiple historic and cultural changes, with the primary influencer being print-capitalism. The power of print cannot be overstated as it changed the way people identified themselves individually and collectively. Through language and writing that could be understood and dispensed to the masses from a small number of sources, print would reshape the collective conscious cultivating and reinforcing the beliefs within the nation to make imagined communities into real ones with shared communal experiences.

Of course having a collective experience based on the print media of the day from minimal sources also had the power to evangelize the most important values of those in power, and it did beginning with the literate population of Europe, expanding through the religious movement of the Reformation and finally in the common language of the day by those who wanted absolute power.[2]

In reflecting on what was happening during the shift to national consciousness, I began to wonder about the general public’s ability to think critically as they read from these sources. Would they be able to analyze and evaluate thinking presented to them with a view to improving it as Paul and Elder’s text proposes?[3] Would the masses have a voice into the collective thought or would they be mere recipients of the download from those in power?

Fast-forward to the twentieth century and the national consciousness being shared through radio, print and television. In asking the same questions of critical thinking as above, I think of a nation outside my own, namely South Africa. A minority group from the outside rose to power and separated people into townships in order to control urbanization and growth of the indigenous people of the nation. The reality of the nation and the collective conscious was divided. The boundaries of Apartheid would eventually crumble with the growth of the oppressed majority and the release of their leader, Nelson Mandela, from prison.[4] With Mandela leading from a place of humility in seeking to unify the nation, South Africa would have an opportunity to be transformed by re-imagination of the community through improving the standards of life for the whole of the nation and not merely one people group.

Coming together as a unified nation would take unlearning by many who had habituated oppression of non-white ethnicities. This would take much time and effort, and as we saw in our recent visit to Cape Town last September, the unification of the nation for the good of the collective people in the nation has not yet happened.

Margie Warrell in her article in Forbes leadership section writes about the difficulty and necessity of unlearning, “Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring. It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70% of the work while repainting is only 30%.”[5]

Still grappling with Anderson’s text and its layers of meaning and unfamiliar jargon, I recognize the power of the media through the internet and social platforms to grip a nation, polarize them and keep them addicted to the continuous unfolding drama having little to do with the truth of life or the deeper realities of a country and the people within it. Yet, I also recognize the vast majority, of my nation at least, has access to not only receive the content but also to contribute through our own voices. And for many, including myself this will take effort. It will require a re-education. As philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”[6] This relearning requires humility, as we will not and cannot know everything. And although there is truth that never wavers, nationalism will continue to evolve, just as the nation itself has evolved into the modern world.

 

[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verson, 1983, 6.

[2] Anderson, 40.

[3] Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools. 7th ed. Thinker’s Guide Library. Tomales, CA, 2014, Locations 33-34.

[4] Welsh, David. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Jeppestown: Jonathon Ball Press, 2009, 57.

[5] Warrell, Margie. “Learn, Unlearn And Relearn: How To Stay Current And Get Ahead”. Forbes, Accessed January 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/02/03/learn-unlearn-and-relearn/

[6] Warrell.

About the Author

mm

Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

20 responses to “Learning and Unlearning Nationalism”

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Trisha, I imagine that the idea of “unlearning” speaks to you project as well, as the church probably needs ot unlearn some past ways of doing and understanding discipleship to move into more effective ways.

    Are there ways that you see nationalism influencing discipleship or vice verse, particularly in the current political context in the US?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Yes, I see unlearning as vital to growth. I kept thinking of drummers as I was writing because they often begin as self-taught and then when they go to music school or lessons they have to fully relearn how to play. It’s frustrating to undo years of practice a certain way. I see pastors of churches all the time doing things a particular way because it has ‘worked’ for them yet it doesn’t really work for making disciples or helping to lead the church into the future. They have to go through the rigor of ‘stripping the paint away’ to start fresh but often are caught in the day to day grind and don’t feel they have time. This program is a way that I am unlearning and relearning- and it’s taking work! But it’s really good for my mind and my soul. Hopefully, it will be good for those I lead as well.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Trisha,

    Great thoughts on “un-learning” and also on “re-education” and it brought to my mind Christianity as a whole is unlearning and re-education. Romans 12:2–“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Is this exactly what you described? Me thinks “YES”. Well done Trish!

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jay! Great verse reminder. That’s one of my favorites when I talk with people about calling and discipleship. I want their whole self to be engaged and I think much of our transformation begins with the mind.

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Trisha,

    I wonder if there are specific things that a majority of citizens of the US should attempt to ‘unlearn’ in order to adopt the broader understanding of nationalism as exposed in the Anderson text.

    This is a great post, pulling in threads from last semester and even our time in SA. Your humility in recognizing your own ‘blinders’ after reading the Anderson text offers some hope that others too may be willing and able to ‘unlearn’ and ‘relearn’ that which offers greater benefit to the wider society. Well done.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Maybe we should shadow people who do our job from a whole different angle to unlearn. Or possibly have others come observe us and help us see multiple routes to get where we are going? I wonder if everyone could take classes in civility and humility? 😉

      Thanks for your thoughts. I had about five different ways I wanted to go and although I thought this one might miss some of the text because it was less direct, I liked the perspective and felt it close to home. Besides, you and a few others hit thoughts I resonated deeply with and I am glad to have your more coherent posts on them!

  4. Great post once again Trish…way to pull it out 🙂 Like you, I am weary of the white extremists in our country who like to call themselves American Nationalists, while propagating the opposite of what our country stands for. One of my favorite parts of your post was…”As philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” This relearning requires humility, as we will not and cannot know everything. And although there is truth that never wavers, nationalism will continue to evolve, just as the nation itself has evolved into the modern world.” I love this concept of learning, unlearning and relearning, and I agree with you that we all will need to learn how to unlearn and relearn the appropriate things. I am so grateful we have the ultimate source of TRUTH to lean on during this turbulent time. I’m curious what you think will be the most important thing for Americans to unlearn or relearn?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks Jake! I nearly wrote the same post you did. Glad you wrote what you did. It was like a parallel track for me and now it’s archived! 🙂

      I don’t know what’s most important to unlearn- perhaps it’s that we think we are the center of the world and most everyone else acknowledges it too. The mind of our imagined community/nation is much too big for our actual borders. We are an arrogant people who don’t consider others well and consume like we have no children or future. We just don’t think about the ways what we do now will effect tomorrow for anyone else. Okay, I can stop my rant there.

  5. Greg says:

    Beautiful beginning Trisha, especially being self aware of your own limitations. Good uses of past books. I think we are all products of the information we ingest. It shapes our world in ways we don’t always recognize. Unlearning what our context has taught us might take divine intervention. Maybe even recognizing that what we knew needs to be relearned and our world view reshaped is something that would be beyond most people without some very uncomfortable moments of reflection.
    How does a western Christian unlearn the un-Biblical or potentially destructive cultural and spiritual lessons taught by the society they are formed within? I do hope we in the states do not need a radical disruption like South Africa to recognize our own fallacies. Thanks Trisha. You are an engaging and thought provoking writer.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks Greg! I appreciate your thoughts and perspective. I don’t think most people want to unlearn. I don’t like it. It’s painful and it takes too much time.

      Your question, “How does a western Christian unlearn the un-Biblical or potentially destructive cultural and spiritual lessons taught by the society they are formed within?” is good and one I am investigating. I think it’s a major part of my project, especially with leaders. I think it’s deep and multi-faceted but one of the answers is we must constantly look to the Lord to know ourselves instead of the world. It’s just way easier to look around than to God and within, yet we are misguided by the ever changing landscape of trends and people. I hope we don’t need a radical disruption but my guess is that we do. When I think of those notable radical disciples (ie Bonhoeffer) throughout time it seems there were always great forces of good and evil at work and people had to make a decision to follow Jesus or go their own way.

  6. mm M Webb says:

    Trisha,

    I think there are a lot of community scenarios where people need to exercise your principle of unlearning. For instance, Christians need to unlearn all the bad habits they are continually bombarded with from the dark forces who feed them with lies and distortions about their Christian worldview.

    Check out this author, Jason Xidias, a Macat author whose review of Anderson’s work gave me hope. I did not know this, but the Macat Library focuses on “making the ideas of the world’s great thinkers accessible and comprehensible to everybody, everywhere, in ways that promote the development of enhanced critical thinking skills.”

    It looks like you Bayardized your review of Anderson. Good job!

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    Jason Xidias. An Analysis of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. (Macat Library. London: Routledge, 2017) 5.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks for the source Mike! I appreciate it and will check it out. And I agree, lots of unlearning on many levels for society and Christians.

  7. I really like the image of stripping paint being 70% of the job versus repainting at 30%. Unlearning takes a lot of effort. I wonder what unlearning you anticipate in yourself and others as you think through concepts around discipleship?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Mark, part of this is my response to Jenn as well –
      “I see pastors of churches all the time doing things a particular way because it has ‘worked’ for them yet it doesn’t really work for making disciples or helping to lead the church into the future. They have to go through the rigor of ‘stripping the paint away’ to start fresh but often are caught in the day to day grind and don’t feel they have time. This program is a way that I am unlearning and relearning- and it’s taking work! But it’s really good for my mind and my soul. Hopefully, it will be good for those I lead as well.”

      I think pastors and leaders (disciplers) have to be willing to try new ways of doing things and be willing to give up the old. As technology progresses churches are rapidly forced to keep up or fade away and that may not always be in the services but at least in their communication methods with parishioners and potential members. This is true in so many ways and yet, I think the heart and soul of spiritual formation must remain core which is hard to do with all the demands on leaders. I could go on and on. I think this is a key theme in my work (and I didn’t realize it until I let this post sit for a couple days).

  8. Shawn Hart says:

    Thought provoking post Trisha. Here’s my question though, how does America take 50 united, yet very independent states and convince them of what re-education they are supposed to have? We live under a democracy, but we are bi-partisan; we claim to be united, and yet numerous states keep threatening to leave the union; we were once “One nation under God,” and now we are “Let’s just leave God out of it.” So how do we determine whose nationalism is the most appropriate? I would love to see God leading our country, but I am quite certain that there are number that would rather not.

    Re-education is already taking place in our school systems by forcing the topic of evolution and replacing God completely…I’d rather not have that re-education going on in the first place, but again, I know many others that desire that. Even the classification of “American” can become very offensive to some, take for instance the “American” Indians living on the various reservations in this country; I have met a number who resent that word added to the title of “Indian” because of the history that they have seen.

    My point being that I see any goal of ever seeing a perfect nationalistic pride ever being formed has probably been lost due to the individualism that we face on a global scale in the modern world.

    Great post!

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks for your insight Shawn. Your question, “So how do we determine whose nationalism is the most appropriate?” gains a response from me of we don’t. Our nation is founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which means we all do whatever we want and hope we all end up content with the outcome. That actually sounds kind of crazy to me. I think pastors and churches have to continue to share the only hope we have for being a united nation of people and that’s Jesus. It just isn’t going to happen in the public/secular context in my opinion.

  9. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Trisha,
    The thing that comes to mind after reading your post was Jesus calling on Israel to unlearn what they had been taught by man and to relearn what God was trying to reteach them. I suppose it is the wave of the future to have to unlearn what we have been taught, but I think it is unwise to forget while unlearning. We must never forget the lessons of the past while listening to what God is leading us into the future. What do you think?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      I fully agree Jason. The most helpful lessons for me have been around remembering what I did poorly and then the unlearning or redemption that came to pass and the new way I function now. Forgetting dooms us to repetition. Remembering our history gives us the ability to be wise and create innovative ways of moving forward. We need to remember God’s faithfulness/mercy in the past so we can own it today and for our tomorrow.

  10. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks for this post, Trisha! I resonated with what you wrote about the contemporary/current day use of the term “nationalism” and how it evokes some fairly negative things right now. I think the parallel is definitely there with our discussion of the term “Evangelical” (capital E). You wrote that it would take some intentional “unlearning” by majorities in our country if we were going to move in a new direction (and referenced the South Africa experience in particular). Do you think there’s an appetite in the US for this kind of (re) formation? What would it take to inspire that kind of change work in us?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks Dave, glad it struck a chord. Your question, “Do you think there’s an appetite in the US for this kind of (re) formation? What would it take to inspire that kind of change work in us?” I don’t know is my first response. I think some Christians really want it but in various forms. I think the general public is looking for reformation on a lot of levels (ie #metoo and Oprah’s recent speech, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, and on and on). I just think we have a lot of splinters and so many independent voices going for so many specific causes that are often focused on ‘my rights’ that we won’t get very far. Unfortunately, and I am an optimist so this is not my normal stance on things, I think it will take some heavy things happening to unite our nation. I also (as I mentioned to Shawn) think it’s the churches job to continue to promote the only real hope for reformation and unity which is Jesus.

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