W R. Collier Jr. What is a nation? This is a basic question. Of course to ask the question it is necessary to believe that you do not know the answer. But if you think you know the answer, you won’t ask the question- and therein lies the heart of the problem. Most people already think they know the answer.
The truth is that our modern understanding of nations is rooted in militarism and racism, it combines the magisterial dominion of governments over territories with the regency of Peoples within their homelands, it mixes blood with ideals and presumes the latter springs from the former, and it assigns classes and standing on the basis of such political and racial factors.
“The United States of America” means the land, the government, and the people in the territory of the separate states or other lands under that government’s jurisdiction. If you imagine, as many do, that a country or a political state is itself a nation then you are a classic 20th century nationalist. A nationalist is someone who believe that every national people, or at least their own national people, ought to have its own territory and its own political state. Nationalism means that the political state is the highest expression and the prime engine of the progress and life of a national people.
The problem with nationalism is that it is essentially a utopian pipe-dream. Those cases where we find a national people with a unitary political state that only includes them are the exception and not the rule. Japan is a rare case of a unitary nationalist political state. But in many other cases the nationalist political state is simply designed to benefit only one favored national people group while reducing others to second class or worse- South Africa under apartheid was such a state.
How we actually encounter nations of people, for nations are people not THINGS, is not at all like the nationalist wishes us to encounter them. We encounter nations in their thousands: it has been estimated that there are over 9900 distinct national peoples in this world today but there are only 198 recognized political states. How sad that an organization such as the “United Nations” gives expression and the power of participation to 198 member states while giving no real expression or power to the 9900 plus nations on this earth!
A nation is not a political state. It is possible to see a nation obtain its own unitary national state, and it has happened in history, but having a state is most definitely not a prerequisite for being a nation.
The Common Traits Of Nations
If we want to define something we have to essentially describe the traits which are common to everything within that class of things. For instance, a vehicle moves along the surface of the earth transporting people or things from one location to the another location. Its traits include mobility and the capacity of carrying people or things.
At its most basic, then, what are the traits of a nation?
Whatever these traits are they cannot be so loose as to include everything or too narrow as to only include a subset of the whole. But as with even the traits I described for a vehicle, there will always be someone who disagrees and yet most every human being will be able to point to any vehicle and agree that it is a vehicle. And so language is just imprecise enough to prevent us from claiming with absolute authority a set of traits that everyone will agree to regarding nations.
But we know that nations are something. We know they exist. Ethnologists and sociologists have long studied nations as people, but ideologists have tried to redefine nationhood as something political when, in reality, a political state is almost never one of the traits nations own.
The Law of Proximity and Nations
Here is one universal trait all nations share: those who are part of a nation believe they are related to and exist within that nation. In short, they believe they and people like themselves are part of a national people.
But nationality, often expressed in history through tribal or clan identity, is not something shallow. For members of a nation of people, national identity requires close proximity to other members of that national people. I am not just talking about physical proximity- people can live in the same house and not share the same national identity!
The law of proximity means that the closer in intimacy a person is to others the greater the proximity of the things they hold in common must be. For instance, a husband and a wife must have very close proximity in all things to make their marriage work and it can be argued that one major and unresearched factor in high divorce rates may be ignorance of the law of proximity!
For nations the proximity between members is such that they might regard their first duty to God, then their spouse and immediate blood kin, and then their nation. Often people who have a big socio-cultural hole where a national identity ought to be fill it with the love and reverence for a political state.
The Universal Traits of Nations
What makes a nation? All nations must have a few universal traits, or they are nott really nations.
When sociologists consider a national people for study they often begin with some basic characteristics among which such things as their practices regarding marriage, familial relations, child-raising, religious beliefs and practices, holidays and festivals (and other obersvances and rites of passage), language, common history or origin myths, sense of shared purpose or destiny, forms or systems of governance and conflict resolution, allocation of resources, division of labor, educational concepts and practices, their view of the meaning of life and existence, and many other characteristics.
If one considered the top 100 socio-cultural and economic characteristics of every nation it should be obvious that there will be similarities. For instances, different nations may share the same mother tongue. Religion is often common among many nations, in the broadest sense, but consider the Russian and Greek Orthodx Churches, which are virtually “national religions.” Each nation has sufficient closeness of proximity in enough of these characteristics to make it a nation that people identify with.
For many “nations”, tribes, in parts of Africa religion is not something that identifies their tribe: it is said that “the tribe comes before religion” in those cases. But for some national people, such as the Armenians, it is difficult to gain acceptance as a “national” without adopting their shared religion.
The key thing here regarding nations is that they have enough unique and distinct shared characteristics as to make each member feel in close proximity to every other member to a degree that is equal to or only slightly below their immediate family. This is the one trait that is common to all nations. But the characteristics they share, out of a spectrum of hundreds of possible characteristics, will certainly vary. And yet, and this is also important, of all the characteristics one might consider, they will hold most or most all in common.
This is yet another trait. National identity tends to touch upon and influence most or all aspects of one’s life. Nations are not narrow in scope! This results from proximity, actually. Because members have most characteristics in common and because those characteristics relate to every area of life, from your day to day routine to your business dealings and your view of God, then it stands to reason that, aside from your family, the biggest influence on most of your behavior is your national identity IF you are part of a nation.
So I would argue that the most common traits of all nations are close proximity in all the key characteristics of a socio-cultural and economic nature (which speaks to the depth of a feeling of proximity) and influence over most all aspects of every part of your life (which speaks to the breadth of a feeling of proximity). We can look at a group of bakers and see that they have great depth of proximity in a narrow range of characteristics- they hardly constitute a “nation.”
There is another trait common to all nations, in fact if you consider Acts 17:26-27 you might see it acknolwedged in Scripture: they all have a homeland. Now, that homeland may have been lost, as it was to the Jewish nation and as it remains for many indigenous peoples around the world, but it is very much a part of their consciousness.
So then a nation is a body of people with a shared homeland (even if is dispossessed or not yet obtained) who have close proximity in most all socio-cultural and economic characteristics which governs most of their life in a manner equal to or slightly less than the influence of their immediate family. Statehood is among the range of possible characteristics and yet we know that, of all characteristics, this is one of the least common among nations. Such characteristics as religion, marriage, family, child-raising, allocation of resources, and division of labor generally tend to be among the most common shared characteristics held in close proximity among fellow nationals.