However, in this day and age, to live in the UK or in the US is no less to have certain specific relationships to various groups of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, even if the machinations of globalization, gentrification, and so on try to hide this fact from us. Indeed, the histories of colonial power and imperial conquest that these nations are caught up in only serve to expand the scope and deepen the responsibility of the question: “And who is my neighbor?” The same duties of love apply to our non-citizen neighbors, in the same channels of concrete proximity; therefore, these relationships constitute an identity as a citizen of the UK or the US no less than the familiar relationships of culture and blood.
Our very identities, thus, must be chastened by the warning against idolatry and the reciprocal command to love. The work of modern historians shows us how our cultural identities are products of long trajectories of exchange, conflict, and hybridity. Similarly, the Christian call to love our neighbor, and even our enemy, suggests that we must not be overly concerned with maintaining identitarian “purity.” Instead, we must always be willing to make space, not just “somewhere else” but in our very homes, even in our very identities, for real relationship with the stranger. This is what the open arms of welcoming embrace signify—an offer to renegotiate the space that we ourselves occupy in order to make room in love for the proximity of the other.
This relativization of identities will also mean a relativization of our own claims to stable and secure knowledge. Nations and cultures typically have preferred ways of looking at the world, preferred values, and preferred ways of evaluating or proving claims to true belief. We can all think of various ‘British values' or 'American values’, for example. Importantly, we don’t usually experience these things (freedom, say) as only valuable for us, but as valuable in general, for everyone. Nationalism is then in danger of becoming cultural imperialism: our values are better than yours, and we will share them with you.
The prohibition of idolatry again chastens us. Idolatry is not just the worship of a graven image of God instead of the real God, but also worshiping our own preferred ideas of God instead of God as God really is. God’s transcendence means that our ideas of God can never fully contain God, and therefore there will always be more to God than we can understand. This, in turn, means always being willing to let our visions of the world be challenged, even—and especially—by those we might consider outsiders to truth.
This is not to say we must always try to get above or behind” our national idiosyncrasies. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere; neither would it be desirable, even if it were possible. Just as to be human is to be in relationship with a particular set of proximate neighbors, so it is also to have our perspectives on God’s truth shaped by our cultural surroundings. The solution is not to try to strip off these identities, to try to be “neutral” by standing further back from the loves that tie us to particular relationships. Rather, it is to always push ourselves into productive dialogue with those who may see things differently from us.
For example, during the Cold War, Soviet propaganda highlighted the problem of race relationships in the US as the failure of capitalism. This critique was certainly not made in good faith—but it was still the case that a foreign and hostile power was able to see certain aspects of justice more clearly than some of us in the West were able to do at the time. Similarly, a refusal of idolatry means being willing to learn more about God’s goodness from other nations and cultures. This is an especially important attitude to maintain as regards those nations and cultures that might seem opposed to those good things we love about our own.
Questions of identity and the stranger will only continue to grow in importance in our increasingly global age. It is important to remember that populist nationalism is responding — and responding wrongly — to real problems with market-driven globalization. However, the concern to acknowledge human finitude and to serve God concretely where God has placed us must not lead us to idolize these particular commitments. Followers of Jesus must be those who love both their enemies and citizens of their own nations.
The sketches offered here are invitations to act prudentially, in concrete ethical commitments, in prayerful reliance on God who gives wisdom generously to those who ask. They cut across political stances and party affiliation, representing a genuine and distinct way Christians can contribute out of their faith and to the common good. They are countercultural suggestions in an age marked by nationalistic and identitarian fervor. Most importantly, however, they are ways we can follow the God who is unconstrained by human limitations and who has made space in the divine life for sinners like us.