Imagined Communities

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By Chris Chatteris SJ

‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus answered that perennially disturbing question with the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus radically reframing it way beyond the categories of his legalistic questioner’s narrow mind. He demands a vast leap of the imagination – that a Samaritan, a Samaritan! might be capable of being a neighbour to a Jew and that therefore it is possible to imagine that Jews could be neighbours to, well, anyone.

‘Imagined communities’ is the memorable phrase coined by the Anglo-Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson, to explain the basis of the modern nation-state, how it holds together and to explain the mystery of why its citizens are prepared even to die for it. In the past, citizens would die for ‘God, King and Country’, but in a Godless secular era in which monarchs were being overthrown, what would keep people loyal to the country?

We use our imagination, according to Anderson, and the modern imagination has been stimulated and directed by ‘print capitalism’ in which popular works produced in the vernacular rather than in the specialist languages such as Latin. This really took off with Luther who insisted that Germans and all Europeans should be able to read the Bible in their vernacular languages. Anderson theorises that the first European nation states arose from their ‘national print languages’ which he also calls ‘languages of power’.

We may actually be witnessing the emergence of such an imagined political community in Ukraine, where people are dying for a relatively new modern state, having gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. And those of us who were around in the 1960s will have seen the emergence of the ‘imagined communities’ of the newly independent states of Africa, in which a mixture of ethnicities coalesced around a new national identity as a result of a common colonial history and the solidarity of the liberation struggle against the colonial masters.

It is extraordinary that people are willing to die for this philosophically very shaky social construct. But it’s quite a challenge to Christians who are supposed to be willing to die for something far more glorious and enduring. How might it help us deepen our own sense of Christian solidarity and belonging in the Body of Christ?

First there is the aspect of the imagination. It’s a powerful human asset and the Lord challenges the lawyer to use his imagination more generously. I believe that Christians, especially Catholics, as members of a universal body, try to do this all the time but perhaps rather routinely. We cannot know all the one billion plus members of the RC personally, so we use our imagination to remind us of them and of our place among them in our imagination in intercessory prayer.

As for Anderson’s reference to the power of the printed word, it strikes me that if a community can be created by secular words, how much more power can the Word of God possess to move our Christian imaginations to see ourselves as part of a universal body at the service of the universal common good?


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