Personhood as “Glocal Citizenship”: Its Christian Roots and the Challenge of the Immigrant Crisis

by Nikolaos Asproulis | български | ქართული | Ελληνικά | Русский | Српски

Interconnectedness of the world

In the midst of the dominant globalization process, as experienced in various areas of life (economy, politics, new modes of communication, technology, or common dangers such as terrorism, environmental catastrophes, continuous fragmentation of the world), an ongoing debate is taking place around the meaning and content of the concept of “global citizenship.” Although a concept deeply rooted in the history of philosophy (e.g., Diogenes of Sinope, Stoicism) with various cognates or synonyms (“world citizen,” “cosmopolitan,” etc.) that give nuances to its meaning, the definition of global citizenship is still under discussion and is quite often met with suspicion or skepticism, considered thus as a sort of “metaphor” that does not account for real life. Furthermore, while it is conceived as almost incoherent because it requires a somehow homogeneous universal political order, globalization, by modifying the very context of political action and the conditions and parameters of human life overall, leads to a new understanding of citizenship that seeks to go beyond particular, national, or cultural bonds. Based on its inherent tendency to voluntarily or involuntarily de-territorialize and de-historize the citizen’s ties, globalization provides the modern citizen with freedom from a specific place, highlighting the primary need for interdependence between people all around the world, without, however, necessarily denouncing altogether the importance of local, national identities. The concept of global citizenship then naturally emerges as a striving, initially at least, for a proper balance between the global community and a particular nation, between global and local, between the universal and the particular, between humanity in general and human beings in particular–albeit not always evidently, since it often gives a second place to the particular identity.

Given this perception, what does Eastern Orthodox Christianity have to contribute?

It is widely recognized by historians of ideas and theologians that the concept of “personhood” is historically and existentially the most important contribution of the Orthodox tradition to contemporary thought. By virtue of and through their Eucharistic experience—where a spirit of mutuality, interdependence, solidarity, evolving love, and personal relationship was evidenced—the Greek Church Fathers described the very being of God as relational being par excellence. This experience, far from being a sterile propositional and authoritarian understanding of the self-revelation of God in history, led them to working out a new perception and transformation of the classic ontology, by ascribing communion to the very core of being, previously unthinkable. In this vein, a new concept, that of personhood, gradually emerged, encapsulated in the following three points: personhood is otherness in communion and vice versa; personhood is closely linked to the freedom of being other, of simply being oneself; personhood is simultaneously an hypostatic and ecstatic identity.

By attempting to simultaneously reconcile communion and otherness, individuality and catholicity, personhood emerges as an important opportunity, seeking to overcome the tension or conflict between the local and global. Insofar as one of the most interesting characteristics of globalization is that the world is being both internationalized and localized, personhood seems to provide the desired solution to a tension that dominates the debates between sociologists and political theorists. In its theological understanding, personhood is perceived as a concept that mediates between the local and the global, expressing in a more nuanced way what I would call “glocal citizenship.”

When the Christian perception of personhood is politically translated as glocal citizenship, it could provide a conceptual tool for successfully addressing on the one hand the tension between local and global as indicated in the contested concept of “global citizenship,” and on the other the gradually increasing problem of the immigrant crisis that south-European countries especially still face today. Indeed, it appears that the concept of personhood, with the necessary constraints and adjustments, can be coupled with “global citizenship,” suggesting a necessary re-definition of the latter in the light of the former.

Moreover, one could suggest a new understanding of the “globally oriented citizen” in terms of the less theological and more political or philosophical neologism “glocal citizenship.” Although personhood as such constitutes the very locus, where locality and catholicity, or locality and globality are met, without “confusion” or “division,” glocality can be suggested for the sake of our discussion as the secular equivalent of Christian personhood. Incorporating the global and local at the same time, glocality represents a nuanced re-definition of globality, where without giving up with the local aspects of citizenship with its national, cultural, and racial features, it simultaneously strives towards its global dimension, towards communion. At the same time, without denouncing the relevance of the global interdependence between human beings, the local is opened within its framework, as freedom for the other and not from the other. In this case, glocality mediates the “inherent continuity” and mutual dependence between locality and globality, between communion and otherness.

But what personhood or glocal citizenship has to do with migrant crisis?

As is well known, the European migrant and refugee crisis began in 2015, when a rising number of refugees and migrants made the journey to European Union to seek asylum, traveling across the Mediterranean Sea or through Southeast Europe and especially through Greece. It has been rightly argued that migrants, especially as involuntary “stateless” and homeless persons, ought to be the candidates par excellence for the status of global citizenship. Due to mainly unexpected turmoil and war conditions, these people were obliged to permanently leave their homeland, looking for a more sustainable future in the European continent.

Despite the difficulties that the countries of arrival face, I argue from a theological point of view that these people, in spite of their homelessness or statelessness, still belong to the human race, meaning that they share all the basic rights attributed to humanity itself (freedom, etc.). Even though the reception policies in arrival countries, in terms of the rights ascribed to migrants, might vary, Christian theology views any human being as a unique person despite one’s origin, race, gender, religion, etc. Based initially on a deep migrant experience rooted in the very history of Abraham or Jesus Christ himself, the Church conceives the migration experience as a core aspect of the Gospel, to the extent that Christians are considered not as closely tied to local identities or political and state orders but mainly as homeless people that are on their way to the Kingdom of God, where any longing of personhood is finally fulfilled. In this understanding, migrants, though a great challenge especially to culturally or ethnically homogeneous nation states such as Greece, emerge as a real opportunity for the Church and the faithful to re-consider their Christian identity, to re-envision their close ties with national, cultural, and generally natural bonds, finally to re-lecture the very core narrative of their faith towards the realization of personhood as communion and otherness, as freedom and love, even momentarily and proleptically from the present eon.

Despite the often political or ideological maneuvers, Orthodox Christianity possesses all the necessary means to inspire a new moral understanding and ethical duty towards migrants, who while homeless and stateless still share the common existential concern of life and death that unite all humanity under the rubric of the glocal citizenship. Even though a nation state might not recognize any rights to migrants, once their rights and human dignity are recognized by God himself, it accounts as the necessary precondition that guarantees their personal otherness.

 In summary, I have argued that the concept of personhood, as it was conceptualized and developed by the early Church Fathers seems to provide a substantial corrective to the current understanding of “global citizenship” by preserving the necessary balance between locality and globality, between universality and particularity, a balance that is properly expressed by the suggested here neologism of “glocal citizenship” which could successfully address the migrant and refugee crisis.  

Nikolaos Asproulis is Deputy Director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Volos, Greece.