by Brent Hamoud
Tomorrow is November 22, Lebanese Independence Day, and it is bound to be another interesting day. Then again, every day of independence is interesting to me. Most of the world observes this modern phenomenon,[i] and surveying the list of when and from whom independence days were achieved makes for an insightful reading of world history. The holiday often draws from national narratives steeped in procreational imagery along these lines:
An inspired people in a land of destiny conceive national aspirations within their hearts and minds. Intense labor pains ensue as they push through noble campaigns of resistance. Finally, after great struggle, an independent sovereign is triumphantly birthed and wrapped in the national garments of liberty and justice.
Needless to say, Independence Day is not a time to be concerned about historical accuracy.
November 22 is nearly here, but this discussion is not about Lebanon; it is about the object of an independence day: nation-statehood.
We live in the age of the nation-state. The 20th Century was effectively a long, volatile verdict declaring the era of empire to be over, and from the ashes of world wars and colonial catastrophes arose a system of nation-states with its borders, sovereignties and citizenries. Such a system is so familiar to us in 2019 that we easily forget the historical novelty of this global status quo. Nation-state independence is still a relatively young concept, and it is one that demands faithful reflection.
National identities cut deep and their emotional chargeability run high. It is unwise to say anything offensive about a country; however, I suspect no one will take offense when I say that these are bad days for the nation-state. We could literally crisscross the globe to explore case after case of populations and governments experiencing types of existential crisis as they question their national substances. What are our values? What is the nature of our relationship with neighbors and the international community? Who truly belongs to us? While some states engage these questions through the civil methods of elections, administrative procedures and politicking, others appeal to more drastic, even violent, measures. Wherever we look these days, especially in the MENA region, the state of the nation-state gives us cause for despair. As people of faith, the challenge is then to examine these political realities and despair well.
Cynicism never has a chair at the table of productive discussion, but reasonable criticism is always fruitful. On this eve of one state’s holiday of independence, I offer three critiques of our world of nation-statehood.
Each state has its own unique genesis story, but a common theme of problematic beginnings can be found across plotlines. Many entities exist in their current form because a small group of people arbitrarily dictated terms and conditions for a wider population. Those drawing up the plans sometimes were not even part of the lands carved up.[ii] Even seemingly honorable and just independence movements have their dark sides. Nation-states largely suffer flawed formations, and it should be no surprise that a world of nation-states is laden with flaws as well.[iii]
In theory, nation-states are meant to grant everyone a legal belonging in our world via nationality- the legal link between people, territories and political systems.[iv] In reality, nation-states have produced an extreme form of exclusion. Millions currently live without nationality and suffer statelessness; their existence is a case of nonexistence as they live outside of the global political system. It is an enigma brought on by a myriad of complex forces, and the suffering of the stateless only intensifies as the nation-state system is further formalized.
National aspirations are fueled by a desire for something better; an old way is deemed inadequate and salvation takes the form of an independent, sovereign state. While independence often brings progress, history shows that the “growing pains” of post-independence are largely drenched in agonies of coups, political unrest, and civil war. Nation-statehood is very often paid into with large deposits of sacrifice and hopefulness, but so often the return on investment is disappointment.
To be fair, there is nothing exceptionally bad about nation-statehood. All forms of human political authority warrant such criticism. In 1 Samuel, scripture tells of how Ancient Israel, settled in a territory and organized into a union of tribes and judges under the central rule of God, petitions for political reform. “We want a King,” the people say to the prophet Samuel, “so we can be like the other nations.” God honors the referendum and they get their reforms but not before Samuel delivers a timeless lesson of political theory:
“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8:11-18
Needless to say, Independence Day is a time to be concerned about biblical theology.
Having stated the preceding, let me now change my tune and bring some nuance to this discussion by providing three reasons for why I am actually positive about nation-statehood.
The 20th Century, in addition to delivering the age of the nation-state, witnessed historic advancements of human rights as international conventions and organizations clearly outlined essential qualities for the human experience.[v] Though global bodies mandate human rights, nation-states are the administrators. Human rights need to be bestowed by a functional power and states are currently using their power to secure rights at historic levels. But there is much room for improvement.
Our global community is admittedly marked by drastic disparity, but the nation-state system creates the potential for people to coexist on more equal footing. This is experienced in countless ways, from participation in the Olympics and Eurovision to membership in the United Nations. As fellow citizens of recognized states, people are engaging in increasingly equitable ways- and we need this in order to tackle the massive human problems threatening our globe. The current international system provides nation-states a voice, and this is a step in providing every individual a voice.
This is admittedly a given- there is no context in which the Church does not have the opportunity to demonstrate the gospel- but I mean to emphasize that the nation-state system provides institutions and conditions of public life that faith communities can utilize in ministering the good news of the kingdom at local, national and international levels. Massive challenges persist, especially in the MENA region where public life involves arenas of dangerous political entanglements. Even so, the Church is to engage. The question then concerns the nature of engagement. This is a question we will explore in depth at ABTS during the Middle East Consultation 2020 The Gospel in Public Life: biblical foundations for engaging politics and society in the MENA region and beyond (June 15-19). We hope you can join us as we consider our world, study scripture and discuss pressing issues of faith and witness in these disorienting times.
How then can we celebrate Independence Day? We would do well to recognize the weaknesses of the nation-state, appreciate the strengths, and exalt the eternal kingdom that reigns above and throughout all nations.
[i] Some nations commemorate a national day or a union day, which I will consider as a de facto independence day. I realize this is debatable.
[ii] One of the most riveting examples of this is the 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference where a small group of individuals and delegates in Europe divided the world in ways that would impact hundreds of millions, even billions. A century later and we are still grappling with the outcomes of that fateful event, especially in the MENA region.
[iii] In some cases the flaw can be seen as denying a nation an opportunity for dignified statehood all together, such as the case of Kurds and Palestinian.
[iv] The rise of the nation-state can also be considered the rise of the passport.