Our church had a 4th of July themed service this weekend. The singing included “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “God Bless America,” and the grand climax was a fervent delivery of “Proud to be an American,” which the Texas congregation sang with more gusto than I’ve ever heard them give to any of the usual worship songs. An usher was wearing a shirt that was printed like an American flag. We watched a flashy video featuring flags, eagles, soldiers, and Mount Rushmore that told us how much God favored our country and how we are one Nation Under God. The pastor offered what I’m sure were sincere prayers for our leaders. It felt a bit like we were bumping up against a violation of the first commandment, but I digress on that point for now.
The service was soaked in patriotism, but it struck me as a shallow patriotism. The sort that praises things like freedom and liberty without actually having a sense of what those words, or their opposites, actually mean. It’s an arrogant patriotism that ignores our faults as a nation, and enthrones us as God’s chosen ones. It’s the sort of patriotism that we trot out to make ourselves feel bigger and better than others. Others who are not so ‘blessed’ as we are in their nationality.
This sort of patriotism reminds me of a little kid who is genuinely convinced that his dad is the biggest and strongest and smartest and best person in the world, and who goes around telling all the other kids that his dad is better than theirs. Most of us felt this way about our parents when we were little kids, and reasonably so. We love and admire our parents deeply, so our young minds cause us to view them through rose colored glasses. They can do no wrong. But we grow up, and the glasses don’t fit quite the same way. We start to understand that our parents (like all parents) are far from perfect. They have flaws and weaknesses. They make mistakes. And those mistakes, especially in our teenage years, tick us off.
So it has been with me and America. I grew up watching the fireworks on the 4th of July, viewing George Washington as a superman like figure, watching the original Dream Team kick butt in the 1992 Olympics, and generally knowing that America was the greatest country on earth. Period.
But as I grew I began to read, and explore, and travel. I learned of the millions of slaves who worked and died to generate this country’s early wealth. I learned of the countless Native People groups who were driven from their homes at the point of a gun. The immigrants who were forced to labor long hours in sweatshops. The women and minorities who for so long were denied the rights promised them in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
I also became aware of injustices that still plague our country. I learned that my black and Latino friends experience America much differently than I do. I learned that we are quick to trash our environment if it means saving a few bucks at the pump. I learned that being born into a poor community basically scuttles your chances of rising up economically. America didn’t seem so wonderful to me anymore. And I was ticked, just like a teenager who discovers that his parents are flawed people.
But most of those teenagers, as they mature, choose to love their parents anyway. It’s not the blindly loyal admiration of a young child, but a choice based on shared experiences and an appreciation for who those parents are despite their flaws.
So also has it been with me and America. While I found much to criticize I have also found much to admire. Each injustice of the past and present has called forth a legion of heroes to stand up and demand what is right. I love that my country has given the world figures like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Chief Joseph, John Muir, Jane Addams, John Steinbeck, Martin Luther King, and so many others who used and use their God given talents to make the world a bit better for the rest of us.
I admire the American salad bowl of cultures, and how everything from our speech to our music to our food has been shaped and colored by the different groups who have made a home here. I love the American landscape, from the tall cacti and deep canyons of the Southwest to the rugged lake shore and ancient pines of Northern Michigan. Though none of it is quite as beautiful to me as the rolling countryside and creek carved valleys of Southern Wisconsin.
I love our American way of government; our firmly held belief that the people decide who govern them, and that transitions of power, even dramatic ones, transpire without blood being shed. I love that the buildings where the work of government takes place, from the U.S. Capitol down to the public library in Milwaukee, used to be built with a certain grandeur, letting visitors know that the work done in this building, the people’s work, matters.
Milwaukee Public Library
I love that so many men and women I’ve known, community organizers, elected officials, members of the armed services, Foreign Service Officers, citizens, are willing to give time and sacrifice income to serve their neighbors.
I love singing the National anthem at the beginning of the ballgame. I love coming home after a long trip abroad. I agree with Garrison Keillor who says that there is no pleasure quite as great as that which comes from expressing your patriotism in a foreign language. I count it an honor to represent my country abroad, despite her warts and flaws.
What bothers me so much about the half-baked shallow patriotism that is so often on display at this time of year is the way we use superlatives when expressing it. “America is the GREATEST nation on earth.” “America is uniquely favored by God.” “America is #1.” The (usually) unspoken message there is that other countries are not quite as worthy of the love of their citizens. That the love that other people feel for their countries is not quite as genuine as what we feel. That we are better than them. It’s the arrogance of a five year old child telling the other kids on the playground that his dad is better than theirs. We come across as jerks. And I don’t have time for it.
The thrill I feel at the playing of “Stars and Stripes Forever” is the same thrill felt by others who shout “Viva Mexico!,” or “Pakistan Zindabad!” or at the playing of “Oh, Canada,” and “God Save the Queen.” It’s a big, beautiful world, and every nation, like every family, has much to be proud of. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I think that’s why I like the Olympic opening ceremonies so much. To see just about every nation in the world standing tall, showing their pride, and not doing so at one another’s expense is just wonderful. It reminds me of the picture we see in Revelation 7, when at the end of time there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” It’s a picture of unity and diversity co-existing. That’s how the world is meant to be.
So this year I will proudly go to the 4th of July parties. I will spend moments reflecting on the brave ideas expressed in articulate calligraphy by Jefferson and company from that Philadelphia state house some 241 years. I will eat a hot dog. I will quietly pray repentance for our sins as a nation, and pray for wisdom going forward. I love my country. But I will try to stay far away from arrogance, recognizing that patriotism is a great thing when we aren’t jerks about it. Happy 4th, everyone!