I have a 6x10 foot American flag hanging in my room. It is sixty square feet of red, white, and blue glory.
I’m actually not remarkably patriotic; in fact, the initial impetus behind hanging the flag was the massive blank space on the wall. My roommate and I felt this was a great way to fill the space.
That flag is significant, though, because, contrary to my colossal room décor, I’d become disenchanted with patriotism.
This wasn’t always the case. Part of my disenchantment came with growing up. At home we watched Fox News, and I believed conservatism to be good and liberalism bad. And growing up in South Carolina, I knew that conservatives were patriotic.
However, as I grew up I became aware of the world outside my circle of people and list of Facebook friends. I learned that Fox News got made fun of a lot (they also make fun, by the way), and I didn’t want to be lumped with those who got made fun of. To be completely honest, patriotism that got equated with an unquestioning embrace of conservative values just didn’t seem cool or sophisticated.
Twentieth century liberal critiques of American activity, domestic and abroad, (colonialism and civil rights are two examples) offered a narrative in which the United States no longer shone from sea to sea. Instead, we looked a little rusty.
There came a time when America’s virtue was no longer self-evident. It wasn’t apparent to everyone the truth that I had believed my whole life: we were the good guys. People didn’t like the way the American majority treated the American minority; people didn’t like our tactics abroad; people didn’t even view the American Church with approval.
Here I felt that the awareness of sins America may have committed was incompatible with love of my country, with patriotism. It seemed nigh on rebellious to question the moral actions of the place I called home. Was it even Christian to question America? However, I didn’t really know what to do with what I had learned of our corporate, national sin.
There was a fork in the road; to go left was to be a cynic, endlessly critiquing, and to go right was to be naïve, endlessly embracing. Neither option offered a solution I find compatible with Christian love. To be fair, of course it would be foolish and immature of me to think that conservatives are ever-thoughtless and liberals always fair in their critiques. The generalization is but short-hand for the competing narratives in my head.
My fork in the road dichotomy, though, is clearly false and the Covenant College-endorsed dialectical both/and requires the consideration of the merit of both poles. The solution is not a happy medium, though. To find the balance is not to simply to say half of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Instead, I think the solution is a truer patriotism. This truer, deeper patriotism lies in both humble group identification with and graceful embrace of an imperfect country. (It is, after all my home!) The thing is, we were never the good guys in the sense that “good” means “infallible.” Our awareness of our corporate national sin leads to an ability to repent of our sins and also to seek reconciliation and justice.
Our individualism necessarily resists group identification, and when we realize our country isn’t perfect, this offers easy justification for jumping ship, being cynical. This is harmful, however, and frankly un-Christian. This truer patriotism is best illustrated by thinking about family.
To be a part of a family is to be identified with a group independent of either your preference or even their actions. Whatever the joy or sorrow-filled familial circumstances you are used to, only a member of a family is able to simultaneously critique and love the family they are in. If we didn’t critique our family, we wouldn’t be loving; but if we didn’t love, our critique would be far less meaningful.
In Kathryn Stockett’s words about her home state, “Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too.” This is where we should find ourselves with regards to our own country, (and states and even halls).
There is a patriotism that is naïve and somewhat unable to see systemic problems. However, there is a patriotism that is better and even deeper than that. This third way can handle both the sins and glories of their country. It’s not that we don’t judge right and wrong anymore. We’re not looking for a patriotism so nuanced it can’t make an evaluative judgment; we’re looking for a commitment so strong that it can reckon with sin and remain committed to its home.
Is it possible to be patriotic and still question your country? Yes, and in fact, I think you can only be patriotic if you critique your country, but always with a commitment to its betterment.