Sunday, July 3, 2016

Citizens, Not Patriots

I am not a patriot.

Yes, I’ll be celebrating July 4th with family and friends.

And yes, I respect and support those I know in the armed forces.

And yes, I have a deep love of this amazing country: the beautiful land of mountains, rivers, lakes, plains. The vibrant, energizing, multidimensional cities. The troubling, inspiring history. The complex, carefully crafted institutions.

But I am not a patriot.

I winced as a kid at the “love it or leave it” slogan that confronted critics of war in Vietnam and shouted down civil rights advocates.

And I cringe at the suggestion that “making America great again” involves building walls, gathering guns, and shutting out anyone not like me.

"Patriot"'s Greek root, “patris,” points to love of the fatherland, yet patriotism too often moves far beyond love of the place where one was born. By definition, a patriot is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.”

Historically, patriots have been easily led into violence at real or supposed threats to their nation.

Leo Tolstoy, alarmed at the patriotic fervor of his own fatherland, Russia, wrote: 
The feeling of patriotism . . .is an immoral feeling because, instead of confessing himself a son of God . . . or even a free man guided by his own reason, each man under the influence of patriotism confesses himself the son of his fatherland and the slave of his government, and commits actions contrary to his reason and conscience. 
Tolstoy died before seeing the wreckage in Europe caused by misguided patriots. Hitler prided himself on his patriotic fervor; Mussolini was called “the high priest of patriotism.” Their  followers,  patriots all, went far past reason or conscience in their tragic attempts to uphold national pride and purity.

Here in my own beloved country, patriots led the American Revolution, grabbing guns to assert their rights rather than look for political methods to achieve the same desired goals. Anyone who questions the wisdom of that approach is by definition unpatriotic, yet it’s hard not to notice that dozens of countries found independence from the British Empire through less aggressive means.

Our history lessons celebrate the daring patriots, ignoring completely the voices of Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians and others who cried out for wisdom, patience, prayer and an end to the promotion of war.

I live near Valley Forge, drive through it often. I sometimes pause to look again at the miserable log huts where so many died in the winter of 1777-8. Too often we glorify war and forget the horrible loss of life. We imagine war was inevitable, without sifting back to see what alternatives were missed.

Google “American patriot” images and you’ll see lots of pictures of flags and guns.

The second Amendment is the part of the Constitution of most interest to modern patriots.

But we’ve always had patriots.

In the Revolution, patriots conscripted pacifists, fined and imprisoned them, condemned them as traitors. Scrubbed them from the historical record.

Later, patriots burned Catholic churches and Irish homes in Philadelphia in the nativist riots of the 1840s.

Patriots lynched Italian immigrants in the 1890s, put Japanese, German and Italian Americans in internment camps during World War II.

Today, patriots, many of them grandchildren of immigrants themselves, cheer at the idea of deporting millions of refugees back to the hazards that drove them from their loved but fractured fatherlands.

Einstein lamented “heroism on command, senseless violence and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism.”

Alduous Huxley, writing in the shadow of two world wars, warned: 
One of the great attractions of patriotism—it fulfils our worst wishes. In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous. 
I don’t like bullies, whatever their cause, whatever their seeming virtue.

I don’t believe in simple solutions.

And although I sometimes dream of shooting the deer and groundhogs eating my backyard shrubs, I think we’re in danger if our answer to every problem is a gun.

As I said, I’m not a patriot.

Instead, I’m a citizen.

The idea, though not the word, dates back to the Greeks.

In Athens, I spent time in the forums where citizens gathered to talk, share concerns and solutions, create polity for the common good.

The Greek philosophers talked and wrote much about citizens: free men able to both rule and be ruled, willing to sacrifice for the common good, moderate, generous, committed to justice.

Looking back, we can see their justice fell short: women and slaves had no place in their arrangement.

But the idea of citizen has been carried forward and strengthened, not least by the Christian heritage that set aside nationalist identity and invited all, men, women, slave, free, to be citizens of a new kingdom distinctive in its insistence on justice, freedom, and provision for all.

Jesus initiated that kingdom with his first public words: 
The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 
Paul, himself a citizen of Rome and visitor throughout the Greek cities where democracy was formed, spoke of a new identity shaped not by country or class and of a new form of citizenship, not in a nation, but in the kingdom announced by Jesus himself.

In Philippians 3:20, he wrote “But our citizenship is in heaven.”

The word he used, translated for us as “citizenship,” is a rich one: politeuma.

A polis was the place where people lived, a Greek city-state held together by commitment to the common good, governed by the ideals of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. 

Many English words come from that one root: police, politics, polite.

It carried an idea of order, commitment, proper behavior, interwoven benefit. The idea of commonwealth is also carried in that word: a political society that exists for the common good and mutual support of all.

As Paul made clear in letters to citizens and non-citizens throughout the Greek world, followers of Christ were to set aside allegiance to their particular place or polis and live instead as visible examples of the new kingdom or commonwealth to come. 

I’m hungry for that kingdom. That same hunger drove many of those who first traveled to what became the USA.

Committed to freedom of worship for all.

Insistent that all learn to read and think as an avenue to vibrant faith, fruitful work, reasoned involvement in political discourse.

Eager to provide equal opportunity, regardless of ancestry.

Passionate about the Biblical ideals of justice and shalom for all - not just freeborn landowning men.

Those goals have never been perfectly realized.

Our founders fell short, as do we.

As will our children.

But at their best, our founders envisioned a polis that made visible those ideals articulated by Christ and his followers.

Our constitution posits a “we the people” determined 
to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
Those are the aspirations of citizens, not patriots.

And those aspirations will never be met by building walls or deporting refugees.

In many ways, being a patriot is easy: grab a gun, shout some slogans, find an enemy.

Being a citizen is far, far harder.  Understand the issues. Consider conflicting points of view. Balance priorities. Look for consensus. Put the well-being of others above your own rights or interests. Persevere in hope. Pray for wisdom.

The problems that confront us are complex, systemic, deeply embedded. Placing blame, scapegoating others, waving flags and guns will only make them worse.

Our democracy, our country, our world are in desperate need of citizens.

Citizens not just of our own nations, but of the kingdom whose compassionate ideals shaped the Constitution we honor.