Symposium: Citizen, Community, and Welcoming the Stranger

By Bruce Frohnen

We all share the same God-given nature. Along with that nature comes the right to be treated accordingly—that is, in accordance with our being, and our inherent, God-given dignity. Among the fundamental aspects of that nature, however, is our innate sociality. We are by nature social beings, whose character is formed in concrete, natural and local communities. We are not mere abstractions, and our duties are not owed to mere abstractions.

We are born into, reared within, and live in communities, from the family to the village, the city, and the state. We are immersed throughout our lives in the institutions, beliefs, and practices—as well as the personalities—that shape who we are. One cannot gain virtue by repeating universalist platitudes. Even or perhaps especially mercy must be learned through engagement with particular persons in particular circumstances. We have free will, of course. It is up to us to respond to our traditions and our fellows properly or improperly and, within each of these categories, as we see fit given our circumstances. But it would be merely ridiculous were it not so damaging to our self-awareness for us to think of ourselves as “citizens of the world.” “Citizen” refers to a resident of a particular city or other specific locale. One is not a citizen in the abstract, but of Athens, or Ohio, or the United States.

It takes no deep reflection to recognize that our characters and the characters of our communities are shaped by circumstances ranging from geographical location to religious tradition to historically rooted tendencies toward certain economic practices. It is no less clear that our universal rights and duties are made real only when they are made concrete, through experience with the particular. We share “one world,” but not as mere atomized, singular units. We share lives in communities, which share interests with other communities, which themselves today generally cluster in particular nation-states.

None of this is to say that the modern nation-state is in any sense inevitable or even essential. The modern, sovereign nation is a relatively new invention that has brought with it many costs as well as benefits and that has never lived up to the extreme claims made on its behalf. But states may be quite small, encompassing, say, a city. The humble and rational notion of a state, in which there might be overlapping authorities, captures something necessary for human flourishing, namely order. The essential order of a state is as a community of communities. That is, it provides for the common good (thus often being termed a “commonwealth”) by defending those goods a set of communities holds in common. It is a political construct intended to promote peace and fellowship among more fundamental, natural associations. As such, each state has a duty to protect the well-being of its member communities. It has other duties as well. But to prioritize an abstract duty of welcoming others above the concrete duty to protect one’s own is to denigrate the real relationships that make us fully human in favor of a political ideal that cannot be fulfilled; no state or society can survive if its people do not share common norms and the mutual trust that grows from them.

It is no insult to any particular person or community to note that they are not all alike, and that they have their own character, identity, and integrity. But this means that not all communities are capable of living together in the full sense of becoming one and the same community. Sometimes political and/or geographical distance is an aid to friendship and understanding because it keeps certain fundamental issues (e.g. monogamy vs. polygamy) from becoming relevant to everyday interaction.

Among the essential goods of any community is its identity. States, even states made up of persons and communities that are, in historical terms, relative newcomers, have a character derived from the characters of their people. As important, states have a duty to help their people maintain their own character. One often hears that America is a land of immigrants and that there is no particular “American” character beyond adherence to principles of freedom and equality—and perhaps a certain wealth of independence. Yet America was settled at least as much by communities (some of which immigrated wholesale to the New World) as by individuals. And the cultural origins of American society lie clearly and deeply in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the towns and villages of Great Britain, and the commercial habits of “the middling sort” who made up the bulk of its first elites.

None of these cultural facts justify an immigration policy that excludes on the basis of false genetic assumptions. Nor does it justify closing America’s doors to those fleeing oppression. Our traditions and humanity itself dictate generosity in dealing with the refugee. But they do not dictate, indeed they argue against, policies that would disparage and eliminate the character of the communities that make up the United States. Our personal duty to extend mercy to the refugee must be exercised within a state that has primary duties of maintaining the safety and integrity of the communities that constitute it. As to immigration, there is no inherent right to settle wherever one wishes, only the desire to relocate and the need for both the would-be immigrant and the potential host society to determine in good faith whether a particular person’s immigration will serve the interests of everyone involved, but most especially the interests of the host society’s preexisting communities. To claim otherwise is to privilege abstraction over the real interests and dignity of actual persons.  

Bruce Frohnen is a professor of law at Ohio Northern University School of Law.