A complicated patriotism

Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.

Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote about my resistance to patriotism and the glorification of military culture. I re-read these pieces recently, and felt a bit embarrassed (it’s a bit too preachy and full of rant for my current tastes, and oh my word, why didn’t I capitalize my titles in those days?! Also, apparently, these themes were on my mind a lot in 2011.)

loving Jesus, not the nation (May 30, 2011)
some non-patriotic flag day thoughts (June 14, 2011)
This land is whose land? (July 4, 2011)

I felt reluctant about resurfacing these old posts here and now, because some of my views have changed and I don’t like writing and sharing things that may be divisive anymore (there’s enough of that being published now.) I don’t want to disrespect veterans who have risked their lives for others and continue to need healing, prayerful support. I definitely don’t want to dishonor anyone who has died, especially on behalf of others.

Yet I decided that it might still be worthwhile for me to share those old posts and to write about this topic again, because the general sentiment still remains true: my love of God and the cross will always be greater than my love for the United States and as long as this nation’s policies and practices continue to hurt the poor, perpetuate violence and increase the wealth gap, I am not likely proud to be an American. I don’t believe any of us should blindly love our nation without question, struggle or critique; I am concerned about how easily our country can become idolized if we are not careful.

I really like what Fr. James Martin S.J. wrote in this reflection from last year about the ways that the celebration of any nation should not be elevated above the worship of God and all that God has done for us:

Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).

Photo credit: Freeimages.com

The truth is, patriotism is very complicated for me; it is not a black and white matter. I am certainly benefiting from our nation’s complicated and violent history; I enjoy many comforts of being a citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations, and I am not ungrateful for the privileges. I want to share the riches. Every day I enjoy and appreciate my freedoms of religion and press, freedoms others have sacrificed greatly to maintain.

I appreciate how Christopher R. Altieri put it in his recent piece for America “We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day–but without despair”:

… many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America — not least by their example — I eschew the cup as well.

In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.

Years ago, when I still was very short and had buck teeth, I sang “God Bless the USA-I am Proud to be an American” with gusto in a gymnasium with my young classmates, loud and proud, with props and hand motions; I think we were in fourth grade. I still know the song quite welland frequently catch myself humming it this time of year around Independence Day.

But now, if I find myself making any patriotic musiceven half-heartedlyI assure you that deep down the song is more lament than celebration, more prayer than pride.

I am a citizen in God’s kingdom more than I am citizen of the United States. My loyalty is to Christ and the Gospel mission. While many Americans will be celebrating their freedoms, I don’t believe I am free while many of my brothers and sisters in Christ suffer from the experiences of being detained and shackled by the bonds of poverty and violence. Their experiences of injustice eats at any freedom offered to me.

Let us pray and labor for the day when Jesus’ words can be true for all of us, no matter what nation we are part of; let us follow Jesus and create a society where this is what we see:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

-Luke 4:18-19

 

This land is whose land?

It’s the 4th of July. Throughout the land folks will parade around with flags and explode fireworks, all because the USA gained some independence back in 1776.  I suspect that they’ll be some good old-fashioned patriotic pride and we wouldn’t have to listen to carefully to hear someone proclaim that the USA is the best country in the world.

But, is the USA really that great?

It is  ancient and modern wisdom that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.  Jesus taught us to put the littlest first, to make the vulnerable our priority. Yet, the USA has the greatest gap between the rich and poor of any industrialized Western nation.  The rich keep getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and more people are becoming poor.  For a nation wanting to boogie down to patriotic party music, it’s not exactly good news.  We’re not really that great, after all.

As I’ve told you before, I am not a fan of patriotism. Even so, I’ll be singing a song about our country today.

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie is one of my favorite songs.  I used to sing it as a traveling song. But the meaning and power of the song changed for me a few years ago, after I spent a year working with some of the most vulnerable in our nation: homeless and parenting youth.   At the end of my year as a Jesuit Volunteer in California I was introduced to the last verses of the song and the words sent chills down my spine.  I never learned these words when I studied the song in elementary school, probably because I would have asked the music teacher too many tough questions:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Which land? Whose land?  What’s going on? What are we doing?

Questions, questions. I have so many!

As we work for real greatness- as we work to build the Kingdom of God-  what are the questions we need to be asking?

How many people are lined up in invisible bread lines?  What is wrong with how we operate as a society that poverty is getting worse?  Why does this wealth gap grow?

What does our faith have to do with it?  What are our churches doing? Are we praying for the poor and working for justice?   Are the poor getting relief in our churches and from our faith communities?  What will it take for us all to work together so that our country is so great that we can teach other lands how to justly treat the poor?  How are we we to build the Kingdom of God?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Maybe the answers all have to do with Love.