The importance of patriotism (and its limits)

I am an American and grateful to be one. I have visited more than 20 countries and have lived for five years in Canada.

Living outside of my home country and traveling widely around the world has both weakened my attachment to the United States and strengthened it. Being exposed to the beauty of others places around the world has made me realize that we don’t corner the market on beauty. Seeing the architectural history of other countries has made me realize how young (and immature) my country is. Having experienced the poverty of other countries has made me realize the wealth that we have and take for granted and squander on frivolous nothings. Having experienced the lawlessness (especially on the roads) of other countries has made me appreciate the legal sanity of America.

It’s been a mixed bag. In some ways, my patriotism has been bolstered. In some ways, it has been eroded. Part of me cringes at the flag-waving patriotism of conservative America which looks down on other countries. And part of me cringes at the the snobby self-loathing of liberal America which looks down on its own country. Neither perspective lures me.

What makes me patriotic is the requirement of particularity. Love is always particular.

If I don’t love those I know, I can’t love anyone else. Loving all people equally is a myth. It simply doesn’t happen (unless you’re Jesus and you’re not). But if I am ever to get on with loving as many people as possible, I’ve got to start with loving those right in front of me. And that means seeing my homeland with the generous eyes of love — not with blind eyes that ignore our flaws, but with generous eyes that see with fondness despite our flaws.

There are three basic commitments that make patriotism important to living a life of love among the people I’m neighbors with. Without these commitments in any context we find ourselves in, there can be no real love.

1. These are my people. Unless I am committed to and identify myself with the people around me, I cannot love them. But once I claim them as my own and myself as one of them, then I have attached myself and my future with them and can get on with the business of loving them. Maintaining any kind of emotional distance from others always kills love.

2. This is my place. I can’t just love the people, I must also come to love the place where I live. The dirt has to become part of me. The flora and fauna have to make a claim on me.

When I became a pastor, I was told that I don’t need to love the place I pastored. I just needed to love the people. But that was nonsense. As I quickly discovered, the people change, but the place stays the same. Loving a place is essential to loving the people who live in that place, because the land shapes the people.

3. This is my story. Even though I lived five years in Canada, the Canadian story isn’t mine. The American story is mine. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., are my forefathers, even though I share no blood with them. The shameful ways we’ve treated those of different ethnicities (including but not limited to those stolen from Africa to become slaves) and our amazing ability to gather all nations and be a melting pot in ways that other countries can’t are very much a part of me. The history of injustice for the sake of making a buck and the history of generous aid at great cost to ourselves are my story.

Because of these three commitments — these are my people, this is my place, this is my story — I am moved when the stars and stripes is raised, when Team USA wins in the Women’s World Cup, when I summit one of our glorious mountains.

But there are limits to patriotism. We question and limit the power our government and our military, while thanking both of the peace and prosperity we enjoy. We say No to corporate greed, while going to work and paying our bills. Not just our past, but our present is too checkered for us to give approval to all things American.

I like the balance to the lines in Wendell Berry’s poem:

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.

It doesn’t matter which country we live in, we’ll always have to deal with a mixed bag.

May we never give up on the struggle of identifying with the people, place, and story of our country while rejecting the sins and injustices we so easily get caught up in.