Wednesday, July 16, 2008

God and Country

Every so often, when I am around my friends and loved ones, I tend to quietly roll my eyes on a certain issue.

That issue is patriotism.

Being that I live in one of the more liberal areas of the country (Minneapolis) and I am part of mainline Protestantism and most of my friends are of the said liberal persuasion, it's not a big surprise that I tend to hear a lot of comments that see America in a different way than I might.

It's not that I am some right-wing nutcase that talks about the United States in the same league with Jesus, but the fact is, I do like the country that I happen to live in. Lord knows, it's not perfect, I am a black gay man after all, but it does have some good things that I think should be celebrated when Independence Day rolls around.

I am also not saying that the United States or its government should never been criticized. Of course, injustice needs to be brought to the attention of our nations leaders when it fails to do right.

What I am getting at is the almost constant negative comments I hear from fellow mainline pastors about the United States. The criticism is justified at times: I mean, we have to remember that this nation treated my ancestors as nothing more than property and was trying to get rid of another group of people. I don't have a problem with talking about some of the darker aspects of American history. What I have a problem with is when those on the Christian Left tend to speak in a way that all that gets talked about is the dark side. I think that was the problem I had personally with Jeremiah Wright; it wasn't that he criticized America, it was that he painted a nation that was basically evil with no capacity for redemption.

In doing some research on this topic of faith and patriotism, I stumbled accross this article from the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. David Gushee sees love of country as a form of piety:

Philosopher Jeffrey Stout says that piety is the virtue associated with gratitude toward the sources of one's existence. Love of country can, in this sense, be seen as a form of piety. We wave the flag in gratitude for the nation in which we live and move and have our being, the geographic source and arena of our existence. Asking someone to avoid patriotism because it compromises Christian faith is like asking them to avoid demonstrating affection to their parents because that, too, can compromise their Christian faith.

Abandoning patriotism can be a rejection of our embodiment as particular human beings in a particular context. It can mark a dismissal of the kinds of natural ties that root us to family, place, and time. I am here, not there; from these parents, not those parents; living in this era, not another one. I am not a free-floating spirit but an embodied person, rooted somewhere rather than nowhere. Patriotism simply says "thank you" for, and to, the particular national community in which our bodies have been placed.

I think Gushee has a point here. Being patriotic can be a way of saying thanks. He does give a nod to those on the Left that see how patriotism can morph into something more dangerous- th e last century has had its share of brown shirts who wreaked havoc in our world. I would agree with the sentiment as well. In a sinful world, something like love a country can change into something pretty dreadful.

But I don't think that means we should not be patriotic, it means that we need to be on guard when an expression of thanks becomes something more sinister.

I have to say thanks that I do live in a country that inspite of what it did to my ancestors, what it did to my father who grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana, it was able to rise above its racist beginnings. I am thankful as a gay man that even though living in the United States isn't easy, I am able to live in relative safety, whereas in other countries people are still facing death for simply loving another person of the same sex.

I have to say thanks that in spite of that same racist past, we very well may see a black man assume the nation's highest office.

I am not trying to gloss over all the bad things that have happened in our nation or have been caused by our land. But I also know there is a lot of good as well, and for that, I am thankful and I want to work to better the lives of others in other parts of the world, so that they too can be thankful.

Gushee ends his essay by stating that for the Christian living in the United States in 2008, patriotism has to be expressed as a "yes, but:"

We need to be able to say "yes, but" to patriotism. Yes, we love our country, but we do not fully belong here or in any earthly land. Yes, we want our nation to flourish, but every human being and human community is equally precious in God's sight. Yes, we value our nation's ideals, but they are not the same thing as the message of the kingdom. Yes, God blesses America, but he blesses other nations, too.
Of course, we can't put God above nation or even equal to the nation, which I believe is the sin of the Christian Right. But we can still love our nation, as long as those of us who are followers of Christ know that we have a higher love than that of the the US of A.

So, I will be a patriot. I will love this country, imperfect as it is, because it has some good values. I will let it know when I think it has done wrong. But it's not my main love: that belongs to Jesus.

But I will still say the Pledge of Allegiance (even without the reference to God , which wasn't there in the first place), I will still take my hat off during the singing of the national anthem and all that stuff. I still like America, warts and all.

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