June 10, 2015 10:08 am admin
by The Rev. J. Gary Brinn
We are in the throes of what I like to call the “Patriotic High Holy Days,” that stretch from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July, and including Flag Day, a period when the Stars and Stripes are everywhere, graves have flags and wreaths, the grass is cut away from the town monuments.
Now, I have nothing against patriotism. After all, three of the four branches of my family tree stretch back to before there was a nation, and the fourth is uncertain. These were folks who landed in Jamestown and New Amsterdam. Men have served in every generation, including me, though I was blessed that there was no combat at the tail-end of the Cold War, when I served in the 5th Infantry Division, preparing for Soviet tanks to pour across the East German border.
I am proud of parts of that heritage, as I am proud of many things about America. I am proud of the New England Congregationalists, founders of a religious tradition I still serve, for their leadership on the issue of slavery, and for the Republicans that took up the cause. I am proud of the Democrats who, with a clear understanding of the common good, established Social Security and Medicare, government programs to protect the vulnerable elderly. I am proud that when the world was in crisis, American troops crossed the seas, facing the aggressors in Europe and Asia. I am especially proud of the “can-do” spirit and restlessness that has driven innovation and benefited all of humankind.
But patriotism risks falling off into a nasty nationalism not so far from that which swept Germany in the 1930’s if it does not maintain a critical self-awareness. Indeed, both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions pair their seasons of great celebration with moments of repentance and humility.
As a patriot, I must admit that the economic might of this nation was built on stolen land with stolen labor, both north and south, and that my family participated in slavery, from the plantation to the manufacture and trade in good dependent on that evil institution. That the myth of those streaming across the sea for “liberty” is exactly that, as most immigrants sought economic opportunity they would never find in Europe, where the powerful controlled the land and the armies, where your future was determined at the moment of birth. I must confess that the great military we celebrate was also responsible for massacres at Sand Creek and My Lai, that we have used it again and again to interfere in the affairs of other nations to enrich companies like United Fruit and Halliburton, throwing young lives into the bloody maws of war to enrich our own oligarchs. I must admit that most of those who set the hounds against civil rights protesters, who destroyed lives in McCarthy’s witch hunt, were those very same veterans who fought so bravely a decade earlier. I must admit that not every soldier and sailor is motivated by zeal and devotion. Many, like my own father, were simply looking for a way out, willing to risk their lives to escape poverty.
I must admit that the rugged individualism and “can-do” spirit we celebrate has been perverted into an ugly selfishness, a culture of constant nastiness and critique, that we no longer value the common good, the social fabric that created this very nation.
I must admit that the French and the Japanese, the Pakistani and the Nigerian, all love their nations in their own way, all have national strengths and national sins. That no nation is any more chosen by God than any other, and that the one “chosen” nation in the Hebrew-Christian religious trajectory went out of existence more than two thousand years ago, as Judah fell to the Romans.
True patriotism admits our faults, celebrates our strengths, for only then can we have a vision for our future, only then can we passionately seek a better tomorrow, for ourselves, for our children, for the world. May you take a moment, in this long patriotic celebration, to reflect honestly on our past, to dream dreams for tomorrow. Then, with true repentance and fiery hope, we can ask that “God Bless America.”