As a child growing up, my sense of patriotism came from my father’s involvement in the volunteer fire department. I was proud of my dad. When he came home from fires smelling like burnt wood (or worse) I knew he had made personal sacrifice in order to help the community. I, too, had made sacrifices because of my dad’s commitment … on more than one occasion a family outing to the drive-in theater or the beach had to be postponed or cancelled because my dad was called to a fire. On Memorial Day we gathered at the fire house and remembered all the former firefighters who had died over the years … some in the line of duty.
Patriotism at its best is just that … giving of ourselves for the betterment of the community. I experienced that kind of patriotism first-hand last year as hurricane Katrina hit southern Louisiana and we, the residents of southeast Texas opened our homes, lives, workplaces, churches and schools to those displaced. Giving of ourselves for others is the heart of Christian values, too. It is good.
Patriotism, though, can go bad … very bad. I am concerned when people talk about patriotism but are really being nationalistic. We have been in the middle of a nationalistic upsurge in this country since 9/11/2001. Wikipedia and their footnote to Words@Random helped me determine the difference between these two words. The differences between the two are slight, but the connotations are very different. To the best of my understanding, patriotism is the emotional love and loyal support of our country, while nationalism adds the political agenda of being “for” the national agenda and fellow citizens over and against other countries and their citizens.
I love patriotism in its purest sense … the love of community and our willingness to make individual sacrifices for the sake of our neighbors. I hate what it’s become. I think the nationalism that became especially apparent when we waged war on Iraq is sinful. When we count only American casualties, when we degrade and insult our own people for criticizing our involvement in the war, when we disregard the opinions of other leaders and nations who were allies and friends … and in the midst of it, encourage people to placard their cars and homes with American flags and “God Bless America” magnetic ribbons. It was a tactic to manipulate a fearful public. And it is sinful.
Anytime we raise our own and degrade the other … just because they, by accident of birth, were not lucky enough to be born within our territory, we are immoral and very un-Christ-like. Whether it’s in time of war or in deciding immigration policies, whether it’s mistreatment of prisoners in an illegal camp in Cuba or the harassment of non-Americans at border crossings or check-points, this is not patriotic; it’s nationalistic and evil.
So on this Fourth of July … I am focusing on what makes our country strong … the values that we want to hold dear … freedom to speak our minds, to worship as we choose … and for the people who are giving and loving, even willing to sacrifice their own well-being for their neighbors … that’s good. But I implore us, too, to let go of idolatrous nationalistic values and trends. Set them free … as we celebrate our values … let’s also celebrate the rights and privileges of all people. In Birmingham last week, I visited the Civil Rights Museum, and saw a wonderfully animated presentation on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
These are good. These are what our patriotism needs to be put to work for — the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” For this is the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” That’s my prayer on this July 4th. God help America.