As I thought about this disturbing piece of mail, I couldn't help thinking about how the very same issues and tensions crop up every time our nation is faced with a sense of being under attack. Political and social "sides" begin to form and some folks, like the letter writer, start pointing accusing fingers at anyone who isn't absolutely red-white-and-blue patriotic. On the other side there are those who rise up in righteous indignation at any suggestion that military action could ever be justified. Again and again we see our nation divided into the historic extremes represented by Samuel Johnson's pronouncement that "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" and all the way over to Stephen Decatur's famous toast, "Our country...may she always be in the right; but, right or wrong, our country."
Do we really have to go through this tired old argument yet again? Isn't it possible to be a good citizen and still reserve the right to be objectively critical, not just a knee-jerk militant? Isn't it possible to stand for a strong national defense policy without be labeled a Warmonger?
Both those views, I know, are held by loyal Americans who think of themselves as true Patriots. So who's right? Well, while we're still relatively close the Fourth of July, perhaps we need to spend some time asking ourselves what it really means to be a "Patriot." Where does a Christian stand? Must we, in rejecting the easy extremism of the national chauvinist always wind up being suspected of siding with the enemy? Must we be considered suspect because we merely express concern that unquestioned nationalism might be a dangerous idolatry? On the other hand, is it fanaticism if you happen to love the stars and stripes and feel a tingle in your spine when they play the national anthem before a Redbirds game? Where does a Christian line up in all this?
Patriotism, I would submit to you, from a Christian point of view, comes down to three things: First, it is appreciation of the past. Note well please, my carefully chosen word: appreciation. It is not a worship of the past. We're not talking about a desire to turn back the clock to The Good Old Days. It is not yearning for the past. It is, rather, a realistic appreciation of the past as a record of all of the gifts and grace that we have experienced as individuals and a nation because of being touched by the hand of God.
Our distinctive Christian view of history is that the past is HIS-story, the mighty acts of God to show us and all people, that God is at work to bring unity and harmony to a world desperately divided by human selfishness. Christians are called to evaluate objectively the movement of races and nations (including our own United States of America) to identify mistakes that we cannot afford to repeat--and also achievements, so that they may be strengthened and built upon. Christians, in other words, are called to seek a Christian view of human history, reminding ourselves that there's a lot more to it than just the Tennessee story or the American story. History is HIS-story. God has blessed and led the peoples of many nations, creeds, and political systems and all of us have benefited by all sorts of contributions down through the ages. Christian Patriotism, first of all, involves a broad and comprehensive appreciation of the past.
But, we can't just stop with an appreciation of the past. Christian Patriotism moves beyond the past and is characterized by a solid realism about the present. Again, please note the key word: realism. We're not talking about a worship of the status quo--no passive acceptance of things as they are but, at the same time, not an iconoclastic stance that detests and seeks to destroy everything that exists. The Christian will realistically recognize the present moment to be exactly what it is: a patchwork collection of all sorts of diverse human groupings. This means that God has placed individuals fairly randomly in groups. Working from the smallest, there is our family, then our neighborhood, our community, our State, the Nation, and the world--a family of families, a family of communities, a family of nations. Whether we like it or not, whether it works or not, whether we would have arranged it this way or not that's not the question. We didn't choose to be American or Jordanians or Iraqis or Guatemalans. The important thing is the realistic recognition that this root structure of human families is somehow God's plan.
In the family structure of all human history and society God has made it clear that His will is that we, in spite of all out difference of language and custom, are inescapably linked, with attendant responsibilities to try to understand, share, and work together--to show to one another love, forgiveness, service, understanding, and compassion. This is the nature of the world that God has created and given us to live in-together. In such a world there will always be family quarrels. There will always be renegade personalities who strike out to harm innocent people. We have to have a system of justice to prevent and punish such crimes--but the pursuit of justice must always be tempered with reason. We cannot overreact, labeling all "aliens, outsiders, and foreigners" as targets of reprisal every time we have a disagreement or someone of a particular race or religion decides to attack and massacre others. Surely other peoples around the world are much more than a collection of dangerous enemies to be slaughtered at our convenience. Christians are called to rise above that simplistic view--to embrace a solid realism about the present.
Now it's evident that Christian Patriotism doesn't stop there--- with appreciation of the past and realism regarding the present. Christian Patriotism is, thirdly, devotion to what must be. We're not talking about some starry-eyed vision of Utopia--not some man-made solution to all earthly problems, but the recognition--the constant reminder--the rededication to that reality we voice every Sunday when we repeat the words of the Nicene Creed. It is the unmistakable fact that, as Christians, our PRIMARY citizenship as followers of Jesus Christ is not to any earthly nation but, rather, to being a responsible member of the Kingdom of God. As loyal Americans we certainly want to be committed to all the best values that we know to underlie this wonderful land of ours--its freedoms and commitment to nurturing the full potential of every child born within these borders, it still remains true that no earthly institution can claim our ultimate devotion.
Our prayer, as Christians, is that this world and all its nations might become the Kingdom of our Lord, and we believe wholeheartedly that God's Kingdom includes every single soul that dwells upon this planet. God's Kingdom, we hold, is not reserved for white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, mid-South Americans only. God has had from the very beginning until this very day a plan and purpose by which the divisions of geography and race will be overcome and, while the success of that plan may well be slowed-down by small men with lesser vision, in the end God will prevail. Christians want their life to hasten, not delay, the coming of God's Kingdom. That goal is precisely what I mean by a devotion to what must be---the third dimension of Christian Patriotism.
Christian Patriotism--an appreciation of what was, a realism about what is, and a devotion to what must be: all three at once. If we stop short at the first we deserve the charge of being anachronists, ancestor worshippers, reactionaries. If we try to base everything on the second it's too easy to fall into the trap of parochialism, sectionalism, nationalism. And, of course, if we ignore the past and the present--putting all our eggs into only the basket of the future, we end up hopelessly out-of-touch idealists and utopians. What a Christian view does for Patriotism is to provide balance--protecting us from falling for fast, but simplistic answers--jumping on trends and bandwagons of extremism. All other brands of patriotism are partial.
three dimensions are in balance, we're looking at a higher patriotism,
one that is firmly rooted in a regard for the rich lessons of the past,
one that enables us to take seriously our present day responsibility to
work constructively within all the various family groupings of today's
world, and a patriotism that looks beyond today's limited and temporary
goals to envision a world made
The sacrament of Holy Communion that we celebrate here this morning is perhaps the best illustration of past, present, and future balanced together that we will ever find. We come to the altar formed by the past: the cultural achievement of those who preceded Christ-Egyptian, Hebrew, African, Roman, Chinese, Greek-peoples and nations that have moved human existence from cave dwelling to cultural legacies. Beyond all that, we come here with realistic humility about today's world, appreciating all that this great nation of ours has done to bring freedom and security to so many democratic peoples and also being aware of those things that we have done that we ought not to have done. We come this morning rich and poor, black and white, old and young, carrying with us eons of history behind us but bearing also dreams still unfulfilled. Perhaps the communion rail is the most realistic venue in the whole world. And, finally, the main reason we're here at all is in response to Christ's invitation to experience a foretaste of the Messianic banquet in heaven where, one day, all divisions will cease and all people will be One.
This morning, at this table, we will kneel together as citizens of the Kingdom of God-appreciating the past, being realistic about the present, and devoted to the future--all three inseparable dimensions of what it means to look at reality in all its fullness. These are the dimensions of true Christian Patriotism. It is a loyalty that has the power to unite us; never divide us. My prayer for you and for this nation is that we embrace and always hold it fast--today and forever. Amen.
Copyright 2002 Calvary Episcopal Church