Place and Process: History, Geonarratives and Patriotism in Tension

Process, Geonarratives and Constitutional Fundamentalism

The world as we know it has not always been so, and the world as it is will not always be as it is. The earth is a vast, complex – and beautiful – system of recycling and self-renewal. Plants scrub the air clean of carbon dioxide and create oxygen. Mountains rise, fall and are swept out to sea – only to rise again as shifts in tectonic plates force minerals and materials to form into mountains and islands. Rivers move slowly through the landscape, cutting and recutting their path. Disruptions in the system can force imbalances – but also new levels of complexity and diversity through evolution and adaptation.

All of which gives rise to a powerful insight – there are no places, only processes.

The earth as it is and the spaces we inhabit are only in their current moment of becoming. The process is ongoing with the state of becoming always going on before us, unending. This is even more powerful in the current age where jingoism and unhealthy levels of patriotism run rampant. The history of civilization – a minor bump in global, world history – is itself the history of change and process: nations come and go while population groups shift and migrate, religious demographics change and languages evolve, develop or are replaced.

The recent moves among conservatives – the Arizona immigration law and the laughable suggestion of rethinking the 14th Amendment – are both rooted in a sense of place as fixed and stable, namely America or more precisely the American Dream. What has developed is a geonarrative of place and idea – America the place and America the idea/ideal – as stable and unchanging entities. The position assumes a sort of fundamentalist interpretation of America’s founding documents.

A geonarrative is a powerful thing – it is the story we tell of ourselves, our identity and the land we inhabit. On the one hand a geonarrative insists that there are no such things as borders – only frontiers. Borders are rigid lines in which we define this side and that side. We do this in religious ideology and national identity. But anyone who lives near so-called borders can tell you that they are, instead, frontiers. Frontiers are nebulous zones where languages co-mingle and identities are multi-tiered.


Geonarratives have other implications as well, namely that the land and space we inhabit consist not only of bodies and objects in space but lives in time, dynamic interactions of life story set in the a cultural backdrop framed by the local. There is the legendary story of the Native American groups who sold Manhattan to the English thinking that the whole process was a joke. How can you sell land – to do so means to sell your history, your stories, your religion and your identity? It’s laughable because it’s not possible.

Unfortunately we are not dealing with these more positive implications of place and process. To insist on the existence of actual places separate from the processes that shaped them – and are being shaped by them – is to insist on a geonarrative story that insists that what we call a Nation exists as a place in space and time. If this is so then we can – as many in the Arizona/14th Amendment debate do – insist that there is such a thing as ‘true Americans’ and the true ‘American way’.

A certain geonarrative persists in the American Dream – namely one of the colonization of a foreign land, the bringing of civilization to the ignorant natives and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in the form of capitalism and democracy. If these ideas are determined to be ‘truly’ American and if the complex relationships, debates, conflicts and warring ideologies of the founders are taken and flattened into a simplistic gospel then place emerges as the defining geonarrative of our time. We are American. We must defend what it means to be American, at all cost.

For example: While I was a student at Jerry Farwell’s Liberty University the head of the government department – Kevin Clauson – said that one of America’s failures was in accepting immigrants from Europe during the Ellis Island stage of American immigration. Dr. Clauson – who went on to start his own college, Christ College, because Liberty University was not conservative or Reformed enough, justified his position in that these immigrants brought with them dangerous non-American ideas. This echoes the position many are taking in the Arizona case and the 14th Amendment conversation. Dr. Caluson, of course, failed to consider himself as the descendent European immigrants and that when the earlier colonists came here they were invading a land of many nations and they were themselves, non-Turtle Island (traditional Native American designation for North America) immigrants.

When this sort of fundamentalism of place emerges we can begin to demonize ethnic groups, religions or even political ideologies as being dangerous or ‘un-American’. This is obviously true – from a geonarrative of place – when we take the immigration of foreign ideas, non-white or western peoples and the introduction of new languages and religions that come from the encounter and lure – and complex relationship – the American Dream may have in other contexts and cultures as an invasion.

Let us instead turn to American as not a place – which it also consists of – or even an ideal or idea. Let us instead address American and the American Dream as a process. As a process we can view America as having arisen in a certain context of human history and subject to certain cultural and ideological forces. America is a process. In this way America becomes host to a series of conversations on the American dream much different from what the founders intended but which their vision allowed space for.

American becomes a contextual experience, one which consists not of rigid boundaries of what it means to be American but instead of complex conversations rooted in the question of being presented by the US constitution and the question of democracy arising from colonial France and ancient Greece. Processes are fluid and complex, bringing change and chaos. But from an evolutionary perspective change can cause new forms of diversity and complexity to emerge.

History as Process

History then becomes not the static definition of which we were – and thus are always moving from or toward being truly American – but dynamic relationship of which we are a part. Most frightening in when this definition of America becomes present in a political idea, party or ideology / as being un-American simply because it comes from an opposing point-of-view. Most frightening of this position is the way in which it mirrors the fall/redemption story of contemporary Christian thought. The fall/redemption story tends to position the past as the source of revelation or goodness – Eden for instance, or the founding of America – and all history since then being a move from that goodness or a move towards preserving that goodness. If we have fallen – from grace perhaps, or from the intention of the founders and framers of the American Dream – then the only answer is redemption, a renewal or move back towards the ‘good old days’ or to a time or space when our values inspired greatness. Becoming wrapped up in the theological mindset of salvic violence – God requiring death on the cross etc – the language becomes about ‘fighting for America’ or encouraging voters to ‘take aim’ at opposing political perspectives.

Jerry Farwell’s Liberty University was a school known for its strict moral codes and conservative politics. Among its practices were the rules of dress and conduct, For instance students were expected to wear dress-shirts and ties to class and hold to a strict curfew. The women students were expected to wear skirts and dresses to class. These rules have been loosened a bit in recent years.

During my time at Liberty the excuse was given that the school wanted to encourage students to dress in a professional manner. In hindsight it is easy to recognize that many of these rules, as well as the school’s position on major social issues and conservative politics, had less to do with any spiritual, religious or biblical position. The values students were expected to emulate closely mirror the values and ideals of the 1950’s, a time where, for many, the Christian church in North America was at its peak.

This valuing of the good-old-days is a maintenance of the fall/redemption story, and it plays itself our in multiple sites from the religious to the political. At its core fall/redemption allows no room for plurality, multiplicity or grey areas, as there must be the time of sin/redemption and the time of falling and failing from that position, and a possibility of redemption to the true way. .

Brian McAllen – evangelical pastor, author and an important voice in the Emerging stream of Christianity – places the problem of the fall/redemption story (which he sees primarily as a Greco/Roman story and not a biblical story) on its tendency to make a statement of the human condition. Statements tend to move us to new states, new absolutes and new positions from which to argue. On the other hand questions put us on new quests, send us in new directions and move us along a spectrum of positions from which to encounter the world. Again we are at place and process, or emergence.

Likewise history is less a statement about what is and what must be but is instead a question of who we have been and who we want to be in the future. In every historical moment – which is, honestly, every moment – we must negotiate the question of who we are and we will be, while at the same time being pushed and shaped by larger cultural concerns that we have no control over, which we must make a space for in our lives. This does not disregard the lessons of the values of the past but asks that we let them become super-saturated in our lives. The past has blessed the present moment and provides an array of gifts to us, but does not require an outcome of the future.

This is history as process! This is history as an unfolding dynamic of relationships that are under constant pressure from larger cultural concerns but which are always emerging in the next negotiable moment. The negotiable now is the moment of history we live in, where we engage the conversation and integrate the paradoxes of our culture and identity into our being and communities.

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