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April 11, 2005

Identity's Currency-

This just in from our Theologian in Residence, Jed, aka, Enkidu:
April 8, 2005

By Enkidu

Catholic Church tradition dictates that, when a pope is laid to rest, a bag of coins is placed in the coffin with him.  Perhaps this custom ultimately stems from the Greek practice of placing a coin for Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, in the mouth of the deceased.

Whatever the tradition's source, the bag of coins used in the current pontifical funeral contained a problem for organizers: should the currency therein be Lira or Euros? 

Thousands of mourners waited in 24-hour lines to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II's body.  Many of them were from Italy.  Odds are these Italians self-identified as "Italians" (and Catholics), rather than as "Europeans."  Still, they purchased their bottled water with euros, and stood in line with French, German and other EU citizens who needed no passports to cross into the sovereign Nation State of Italy. 

Newspapers all over Europe expressed astonishment at the number of these pilgrims, especially at the number of young pilgrims, who journeyed to Rome.  Why did they come?  The obvious answer (for most of the pilgrims, at least) is that they came because they were Catholic.  As Catholics (Catholic Italians, Catholic French, Catholic Germans, etc.), they came to mourn their spiritual leader.  As Europeans, they came with euros, but no passports.

When the next pope passes, will a greater percentage of his mourners see themselves as European, first?  Catholic, first?  Will nationality (e.g. "Italian") even make the top two? 

Far to the south, in the country of Nigeria, riots pitting Christians against Muslims have overtaken tribal strife as the most common axis of intra-state conflict.  To the west, in the USA, yet another form of non-National identity conflict had been recently on full display in the 2004 elections.  Here Evangelical Christians, who prioritize "family, church, and everything else after that," won the ground war for Bush, despite a valiant effort by those whose American identity is rooted in Western, Enlightenment values.

What do these ideologically-identified factions, who for now reside in sovereign States, have in common with the million Catholics sleeping in open Roman stadia to participate in the formal mourning of their pontiff?  For how much longer can the State remain the primary unit of global organization, when the identities of their citizens are increasingly defined by non-National loyalties? At what point will global religions - sharing the world with multinational corporations, NGOs, and non-state-sponsored terrorist groups - pose a more attractive lure than the State as the primary identity-source for individuals?

Ultimately, funerary organizers decided to bury John Paul II with a bag of medallions, thus dodging this question.  As for the rest of us, we can take this Rome-centered occasion to look back to the ancient Empire, when coins buried with the dead were still intended for pagan ferrymen.  Things changed in the 3rd century, of course, when the Roman State was under barbarian siege, and could no longer provide for its citizens as it had in previous times.  It was then that the bishops took over as shepherds of the urban flock, and Christian membership boomed.  Like Hamas in today's Palestine or Evangelical super-churches in US suburbs, the 3rd-century Roman Church provided adherents with the human services they sorely needed, and which the State could no longer provide.   

Thus did Romans become Christians.  The Dark Ages followed.


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I'd argue that the Internet, by creating tightly linked communities across large geographical distances has ushered in a new level of identity. I read science bloggers and progressive/liberal bloggers regardless of where they live or what they look ... [Read More]


It's hard for me to imagine that the French would see themselves as anything other than French. Same for the Germans. But, I'm so certain about the rest of Europe. Time will tell.

same line like Roxanne: Idenitity in European countries is by country, not primarily by being European and IMO this is going to last at least for the following decades. (On reasons being the different public spheres, language barriers etc.).


Considering how much "light" the Romans borrowed from the Greeks (the Romans were great engineers, but they were hardly scientifically curious humantiarians), and how much of education and philosophy was preserved by the Church (or the Muslims, who returned Aristotle to us, among others), I'm not sure the conclusion really holds that: "Rome fell. The Church took over. And darkness was upon the face of the land."

Cute. Appealing to historical ignorance. But not much beyond that. I mean, Augustine dealt with that meme at the time, didn't he?

How independent are national and religious conflicts in Nigeria? I mean, there are a few Christian Hausas and Muslim Yorubas and Igbos and such, but generally it seems like Islamism and Hausa nationalism are pretty closely linked.

Religion is just one convenient vehicle for the masses to describe their own identity, but identity formed along ethnic and nationalist boundaries is still on the rise. In Nigeria, for example, many people are of Christian and Animistic religion, but they would rather classify themselves as Ogoni, I[g]bo, Yoruba or whatever the ethnic "tribe" might be called. If you ask them who they are, they say, "Ogoni," and hopefully today with much pride.
In eastern Europe, many land disputes remain unsettled because of identity battles based on ethnicity.
Identity in America is one of the most fragmented cases in the world due to its diverse status. Only in America, people try to identify themselves typically as a united country: Who are you? I am an American.
People don't typically want to go in to detail: Well, I am a quarter Jewish, a quarter Blackfoot Indian, and a half German. (What a nice mix)
People just want to assimilate into their surrounding environment, peoples and all.
Just think if identity-based boundary lines were drawn in American based on ethnic origin (well, wait, that's already been done-it's called the hood)!
This is NOT to say that all Americans are homogenous, just as one can be sure that there is no purely homogenous region on the planet!
I hope I am not rambling too far beyond the scope of your point.

First of all, it's lire, in the plural, I think. But what about złoty, the Polish currency?

Great blog. I don't remember how I came across it, but I'm glad I did.

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