Monday, July 5, 2010

Doesn’t the flag belong to all of us?

“I hate patriotic hymns,” one of my Facebook friends wrote after I had posted some verses from my favorite national hymn, “America the Beautiful.”

I get this kind of stuff more than I like from some of my fellow liberal and progressive colleagues, and it bothers me a lot. While I don’t start my days singing “My country ‘tis of thee” or fly the flag on a front yard flagpole, I do hang one of my three flags out on major national holidays, and my wife will tell you I can get misty-eyed singing a great many patriotic songs. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am an American patriot — a left-of-center, internationally-oriented, multi-culture-loving patriot, as ready to promote my country’s highest ideals as I am to challenge us all about its failures and mistakes.

So it bothers me a lot when somebody like this FB friend—whom I know as a Christian concerned about social justice and such things—”hates” patriotic hymns. Does she really think her sense of “all are created equal” and her desire for “liberty and justice for all” just sprang naturally into her brain out of nowhere, or is solely derived from her reading of the Bible? Or has she, like too many others, let the Right steal the Flag and all those songs?

Who flies the Flag?

To give another example: at a neighborhood block party a couple of years back, a gaggle of my fellow Democrat-voting neighbors were hashing over the coming election when our lone, and very vocal, right-wing neighbor overheard the conversation. “Well,” she huffed, “you can tell who the real patriots are in this neighborhood. Just look at who does and doesn’t show the Flag.” She stalked off, and they all harrumphed. Fly the Flag? “I wouldn’t ‘fly the Flag,’” one of them said. “I don’t like what it stands for.”

At that point I couldn’t keep silent. “Do you really mean that you’re going to let one political opinion own the American flag?”

“Well,” came the defensive response, “I don’t like that kind of patriotism.”

“So the Flag only stands for ‘that kind of patriotism‘ does it?” I countered. “I thought it stood for the nation and its values—that it belonged to all of us. Aren’t liberal values as ‘American’ as conservative ones? Do you really want the Flag and all it stands for to become the property of an increasingly mind-shackled Right?”

To my leftist-leaning neighbor’s credit, he went home, ordered a flag (even bigger than his conservative neighbor’s) and hung it proudly on his front porch. A symbolic gesture, but an important one; and, I hope, the sign of a change of heart.

A Confession

Full disclosure: I am a repentant Europhile. In my youth, I was swept up in an idealistic longing for something better than “plain-folks,” no-nonsense Midwestern and Southern roots of my family and community. Something more cultivated, cultured, civilized, more communitarian and just.....more....European (as I saw it). While I thrilled at the emergent civil rights movement, and did what I could to support it, as well as the anti-war movement that followed it, my focus was on all that was unfair, unjust and unrefined in American life. I relished the language of the Hebrew prophets as they thundered against the sins of ancient Israel, and easily translated that language into my own dark judgments about my own country.

And then one day, reading Jeremiah, my favorite Denouncer, I had an epiphany: Jeremiah was in such agony over his country because he loved it. He cared about ancient Israel and its people. He cared about the self-injury they were suffering by not living into a fuller realization of God’s call to make their land a haven of justice, compassion and peace. And I realized that as a citizen, a teacher and (by then) a priest and public leader, I could not presume to be “prophetic” if it did not come from a heart of love for the country I wanted to challenge to live up to its stated ideals.

So I renounced my “grass is greener on the other side” Europhilia and embraced my own national heritage. I re-read American history, became newly acquainted with the Founders, learned, over the years, more and more about all that is good, as well as sorrow-making, in this nation’s history. All that the Flag stands for.

Patriotism doesn't have to be prejudice

Patriotism, to me, doesn’t mean “my nation right or wrong.” It doesn't mean refusing to criticize your nation when it fails its own ideals (as in the wholesale internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII). It doesn’t even mean “We’re number One” or “the Best.” It doesn't mean childishly looking down on others to bolster our national ego.

But we are what we are, and love of country means embracing what we are, the good as well as the bad. We are the first nation on earth to be founded, from Day One, on a national creed that aspires to treat everyone equally before the law, to be a haven of “liberty and justice for all.” We were founded, constitutionally, to allow and encourage freedom of religion and the pursuit of personal dreams and ambitions. And, again and again, leaders and movements have stretched and expanded our understanding of what the original Creed means. And that progress goes on, steps forward and back, but still persists in a gradually forward direction.

And progressives, most of all, shouldn't let patriotic loyalty be co-opted solely by the folks who think America is God's current chosen vehicle to impose our version of life on the rest of the world. The Flag, and all (well, most) of those patriotic songs belong to all U.S. citizens.

In our own day, it’s vitally important for this nation, with all its resources and values, to take its place as an important partner with other nations—one among many—in dealing with the daunting challenges facing the human race as we enter fully into what must be a truly global and planetary era. But we’ll never do that by denying the best of what we have to offer as a partner—or refusing to demand that we work toward implementing our vision of justice and fairness, most especially on our own shores.

So, no, I don’t hate patriotic songs, which belong to all of us, especially not ones that soar like this:

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

The 4th of July, with its fireworks and patriotic songs is past. Back to the task of living into the best of what it means to be Americans.

P.S. Please remember to vote for what you care about in the mid-term elections. Congressional elections matter, and patriotism is about more than songs.