I have enjoyed my discussion with Paul Manata. My critique of the name of a sports franchise that happens to be in Cleveland Ohio has unleashed from Paul a torrent of labels like race-baiting and liberal, all driven by his own projections of my psychological state and political inclinations (projections about which he was refreshingly candid, even if they were all nonsense).
Unfortunately discussions like this often tend to fracture rather quickly and go off in countless different directions. So before leaving the topic behind I’d like to close with an illustration and a final reflection.
Let’s say that I read an essay online critiquing the oil sands in northern Alberta, a massive development just a few hours drive from my home and a massive economic force in the province. The essay laid out a case that the oil sands are a complete environmental disaster, they are ruinous for the watershed, wildlife, and the climate, not to mention the millions of gallons of freshwater that are wasted extracting petroleum from the bitumen. I conclude that the arguments of the essay were strong enough that I shall have to rethink my sanguine view of the oil sands.
Then at the end of the essay I read that the author is an American living in Houston, Texas.
How should the discovery of the nationality and place of residency of the author feed into my assessment of the overall worth of the essay?
If I were Paul Manata, I suppose I should respond like this:
“American? Texas? Deep Water Horizon? Why don’t you clean up your own backyard first buddy!”
Alas, that would be an absolutely foolish response. My assessment of the essay and the arguments contained therein should be completely separate from the nationality and place of residence of the author. Those things don’t matter. What matters is the quality of the argument.
I have no problem with Paul Manata contending with my arguments. But he hasn’t been content to do that. Instead he has repeatedly insisted on criticizing me for not sharing his nationality or living in his country. To call that kind of response a red herring is to slander the poor fish.
This is where I turn to my closing reflection. About twenty years ago I read Jacques Ellul’s classic book The Presence of the Kingdom (originally published, as I recall, in 1948). In the book Ellul argues that Christians have one primary allegiance. It is not to a nation state, not to a political party, and not to a social movement. Instead, it is to being a disciple of Christ who labors to see God’s kingdom of righteousness come in its fullness. This will potentially involve the participation in various nation states, political parties and social movements. The disciple is wonderfully pragmatic about those affiliations. To the extent that he sees the kingdom being realized in a particular nation state, political party or social movement, he commends it and seeks to perpetuate it. To the extent where he does not he is a critic of it. His voice is no less legitimate if he happens not to be a member of the nation state, political party or social movement in question. All that matters is his commitment to the kingdom and the quality of his arguments seeking to demonstrate that the nation state, political party or social movement is or is not in accord with the coming kingdom.
It is for this reason that I simply do not share Paul’s flag-waving mentality. I am a citizen of Canada by historical accident and I hold that citizenship lightly. I criticize that nation, its political parties, and its social movements as surely as I do those of any other. And I welcome criticism of it both from those who live within the nation and those who do not. If an American or a Brit or a Korean has a good critique of the oil sands, or Canadian healthcare or the seal hunt or hockey or anything else I want to hear about it.
And what about patriotism? I do not count patriotism a bad thing in itself. But I think we must all hold our national ties lightly, for the idol of nationalism is a perennial one in the Christian tradition and indeed among all people. So let us be patriots, but only to the extent where that patriotism serves our fundamental commitment to the kingdom of God. And always remember that a true patriot is always open to criticism of the nation in which he lives (or any institution or movement or practice within that nation) regardless of where that criticism originates.