Fred Craddock tells of being on an airplane flight during which he visited with a woman who was returning from vacation. She had been to Switzerland, that small country of breath-taking mountainous beauty. She spoke of her marvelous experience and the delightful things she had seen. But time had come from her to return home to western Oklahoma. Once the terrain of the state became visible, she peered out the window intently and lovingly, craning her neck as she gazed down. Though she had just left a land that was fabulously lovelier than her own state by just about any measure, it lacked one attraction Oklahoma had for this woman: the beauty of home.
That attraction, that perception of beauty is the essence of patriotism at its best. This sort of patriotism doesn’t swagger with pride or in any way seek to diminish anyone else’s home. It is noncompetitive. When it moves us to say, “My land is the greatest in the world,” this claim is not mistaken for an objective truth. It is a truth of the heart, much like saying, “My Mom is the best in the world.” It is not as though I have actually had an opportunity to compare her qualities to those of every other mother. The statement is a hyperbole of love. There is no serious expectation that others will agree or even should agree. Healthy patriotism is like that. It is the simple attachment to and love for home. I can find nothing in it that conflicts with Christian devotion.
The sentiment of this kind of patriotism is expresses in the words of the hymn, “A Song of Peace,” often sung to Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. The words of the first two verses are by Lloyd Stone, the third by Georgia Harkness.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country —
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.
Unfortunately, most of what is celebrated as patriotism is not so pure and simple. It is, I believe, much more akin to idolatry. This patriotism is not satisfied with simply loving home. It eagerly offers obeisance to the symbols and slogans of the nation-state and expects others to do the same. Adoration of the American flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the National Anthem while standing with standing with hand over heart are all seen as indispensible expressions. Conformity to the rituals of patriotism is viewed as a mark of common decency, not just a matter of personal preference. Those
who won’t cooperatively go along are regarded as kooks, disloyal or both. When this sort of patriotism moves someone to say, “My nation is the greatest on earth,” it is not spoken as a hyperbole of love but as a statement of fact. And let those who disagree be damned. This sort of patriotism suggests that no sacrifice for the nation is too great to ask or to offer and it bestows the highest honor for those who kill and die to advance the interests of the nation, interests which are supposedly universal in scope. Hence, it is saturated with militarism. This type of patriotism assumes national innocence and treats this assumption as an article of faith, not to be questioned. Overweening pride is characteristic of this patriotism.
I am not at
all convinced that this second kind of patriotism is compatible with a genuinely biblical Christianity. Rather it is a competitor that steals glory from the Lord and offers to the nation loyalty that God alone deserves. Though the devotees of
this patriotism decorate rituals and slogans of their devotion with the word “God,” this does not truly give honor to God in the least. Rather it elevates the nation and it leads people to identify a less worthy object of loyalty with the divine, a kind of sacredness by association. A patriotism that is infused with God-talk tends to diminish the ability of Christians to distinguish between genuine, active loyalty to the Lord of all and allegiance to America. The junctures where there must be a choice between God and nation grows clouded. Consequently, it becomes far too easy for Christians to assume that supporting and advancing the interests of the nation fit together quite cozily with serving God. Yet scripture offers not one word of support for such patriotism. Those who imagine this form of patriotism is just a matter of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” are deluded. In fact it renders unto Caesar that which is God’s alone.
Surely, we are told in scripture to pray for governmental leaders, obey laws, pay taxes and “honor the emperor” just as we honor all people (1 Pet 2:17). Sometimes citizenship is affirmed and its benefits claimed, as they were by the apostle Paul. But national identity is never celebrated. There is no call for a special love for the nation, much less encouragement to act out pride-promoting patriotic rituals. Rather, if any particularistic affection is urged in the passage just cited, we find it in the words “love your fellow believers,” And such a love has no respect for national boundaries. If we are to affirm patriotism at all it should be the simple, humble sort. Only a patriotism such as this can recognize what is declared by scripture:
“Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales…Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Psalm 40:15, 25).
Rev. Craig Watts is the Senior Minister of Royal Palms Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a member of the DPF Executive Committee and the author of Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State.