On the Evils of "Patriotism"

My friend Paul is an extremely straight shooter, so it's no wonder that the oldest of his many children would have told me, at the sagacious age of five, one of the wisest bits of wiseness that I ever did hear.

Paul, my brother and I were in the basement of his house in Hamilton, Ontario, discussing what was to be a fun-filled work week planting fourteen thousand trees on the estate of one David Wildenstein, heir to the mighty Wildenstein Art Empire. None of us was particularly experienced at managing ourselves in the company of people who could easily afford to have us killed and made into compost for their very sizable orchards, so a certain amount of pre-ponderation seemed a good idea.

"You know what, Paul," I said, thinking to wax eloquent on the subject of bottomless pits of money, "the most important thing in this situation is to remember that, deep down, he's a guy like us. You see..."

I meant to go on, but was interrupted by Marcus-the-five-year-old, who firmly said, "No, no, no. That's not the most important thing, is it daddy?"

"No it isn't," Paul answered with a knowing smile, "Marcus, why don't you tell Uncle Josh what the most important thing is?"

"It's love, Uncle Josh. The most important thing is love."

For a brief second I wasn't really sure how to feel about being absolutely schooled by a five year old who obviously spent waaaay too little time watching television, but after that second I broke into a big old smile, followed by a guffaw. Because there you had it - that was just about all you needed, right there. Well that, a good sharp hatchet, and some people to practice on (With the Love, that is... I'd prefer you practice with the hatchet on a rotting stump. Just remember: eyes on the target and when you release, your index finger should be pointing straight at old stumpy).

The Marcus story came to mind this week, right after I'd antagonized some of my students by informing them that I thought "patriotism" and "nationalism" were evil, un-Christian concepts. I was skating on a thin layer of grits when I said that because - as one of my students was quick to inform me - that's the sort of thing that can get you hurt down here in the South. I had to ask myself, would Marcus have approved? Is it all right to annoy people just to make a point?

I'm going to have to say... I think so. One of the definitions that the interwebs gives for patriotism is "devotion to the welfare of one's country," and our good buddy Webster tells us that nationalism is, "advocacy of the utmost political advancement of one's nation or people." Those descriptions are, perhaps, a bit too ambiguous, so when faced with the possibility of an angry mob of southern boys who wanted to know just what, exactly, I meant, I told them that patriotism and nationalism were just tools used by the powerful to manipulate the average person into doing things that they would otherwise have had the good sense not to do. Because, you see, at this point I was most definitely trying to annoy them. 

"Oh, come on," One of them shot back, "that's like saying that commitment to your friends is unchristian." 

I just grinned. 

First of all, because I knew better than to argue with these young men when there were stars and stripes coming out their ears, and second because, yes, commitment to your friends is unchristian... if by "commitment to your friends" you mean that you stand aggressively for whatever you think your friends are standing for, regardless of whether or not they are remembering Marcus's "most important thing." 

Christ was a disturber of poop. He bore no allegiance to king or country or even democratically-crafted Constitution (blasphemy!). Instead, he advocated an entirely different kingdom in which last are made first and strength is found not in might of arms, but in humility, service, and self-sacrifice. This is the sort of kingdom that belongs to the losers, the weak, the children, the poor, the marginalized and the disaffected. If you want to be a part of this kingdom, Jesus very clearly said, you have to give up power and wealth and spend your life giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, and companionship to the lonely and beaten-down. But absolutely most importantly of all, you need to give love to everyone, even and especially your enemies and the people who aren't fortunate enough to live in what is, of course, the bestest country ever (obviously... right?). 

This, of course, looks nothing like the supposed Jesus-followers cruising in their luxury vehicles around the streets of America today, demanding the political overthrow of those who disagree with them and above all else the re-creation of an economic system that will allow them to forget that they were ever threatened by this pesky, inconvenient recession. Self-sacrifice? Hah! Self-sacrifice is for wimps and commies, they say, and it's MY COUNTRY, RIGHT OR WRONG. So Jesus said to treat foreigners with compassion? Well, screw that... those Mexicans aren't foreigners, they're criminals. So Jesus said that if we ignored the hungry we were ignoring him? Well, screw that, too. Back in Jesus' day they didn't have television and the internet, and there's no way he was talking to us in a time when we can very easily see the sunken cheeks and worm-bloated stomachs of the millions and millions of under-nourished people worldwide. It's just not practical.

After all, when Jesus said to love my neighbor, surely he had to mean the people who live in the little ticky-tacky houses next to mine... I mean, that's what a neighbor is by definition, right? So looking out for my fellow middle-and-upper-middle class Americans, well that's practically Christian, isn't it? And if that's the case, then dedication to the political interests of those most powerful of Americans on a larger scale, well... I can't think of anything that would make Jesus more happy. And making Jesus happy has got to be what we're here for - our most important thing. Nice. Well, I'm glad we got that sorted. Hey, you wanna go to Panera? They've got wi-fi and I've been dying to show you all the cool stuff I can do with my new i-pad. 

Okay. Breathe, Josh, breathe. Count to ten.

I know, I know. I do tend to get a little heated up and to go over the top of a mountain that some people will say I've fabricated out of a molehill. While nationalism is, I think, always evil, "patriotism" can also be defined as love of the place where you happen to live, or love of the good things about the culture where you happen to live. Love is the most important thing, after all, so loving the land that sustains you (without trashing it) and the culture that grounds you (without idolizing it) can only be a good thing. 

But this is not what most people mean when they talk about patriotism. While most people do have nuanced and often deeply compassionate positions on a variety of issues within their culture, when it comes to the word "patriotism," it seems that these nuances go flying out the window. Slow, wise deliberation becomes tantamount to treason as pride and power become the throbbing mantra drowning out the still, small voice of Jesus. 

Over the past month, I have been reading and commenting on the Book of Matthew to my first period art class, and what has struck me again and again as I have tried wrestle honestly with who that Jesus guy it describes seems to have actually been is that he tended to talk about two different types of things.

First of all there were the Weird Things - mysterious and wondrous stuff like Grace and Truth and Justice and Mercy. Jesus tended to speak about these things cryptically, and he used a lot of stories and sometimes even jokes in order to explore them in a way that allowed his listeners to enter into the questions and emerge with even greater wonder than before. Almost without fail, these are the things upon which the contemporary "christian" church seems to focus the majority of its energy, exerting monumental efforts to take them and strip-mine them of their wonder, so that they can trash-compact parodies of them into tiny-little boxes that can be easily stacked into something called "doctrinal statements."

The second type of things that Jesus talked about were the Straightforward Things the likes of which I mentioned earlier, stuff like "not judging other people" and "taking care of the poor." It is these things, conversely, that the contemporary "christian" church goes to phenomenal lengths to avoid talking about. It skips over them, lies about them, and re-invents them... but most of all it just ignores them. This is, I think, because if we were to take Jesus at all seriously, we would have to begin to be very, very ashamed of ourselves. 

So let me pause and say that I am, indeed, very, very ashamed of myself. And let me pause a little longer and say that I am also okay with that, because I don't try to fit concepts like Grace and Truth and Justice and Mercy into tiny little boxes and you know what... they blow my freakin' mind! I may be a selfish, proud, idiotic nincompoop, but in the elegant, gorgeous mystery of Christ I find the freedom to look past that and see the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful person I am as well. 

It is this mystery that makes me think that perhaps I don't have to listen to the throbbing of the war drums. Perhaps I don't have to believe that the only way to get anything done is to rally, screaming, under a flag as I demand the best for me and mine, others be durned. Maybe, just maybe, Marcus is right.


  1. Marcus is right, loving those people that hate is the best way to change the world....isn't that what Jesus did anyway's?

  2. *Standing ovation* Hear hear!!1


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