Patriotism as a Form of Love: Reflections from a Beginner
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | June 27, 2019Hi friends, like many of you, I grow weary with much of our public discourse these days. And like many of you, I am saddened by much of what I see in the news, most recently along our southern border. I don’t have solutions for us in that regard, only heartbreak. What has surprised me, however, is that despite our public anxieties and through the heartbreak of current events, God has opened within me a new depth of what feels like real patriotism. I am somewhat insecure even using the word (and we should be skeptical when our clergy use it!), but I have to say it feels like the right one. Patriotism: a love that is proportional to the finite, creaturely good that a country is; a love that is deeper than any crude nationalism and wider than the more caustic kinds of partisanship to which we’re exposed and tempted.
I think I am a beginner in this. I say that I am a beginner because I am realizing that I have an entrenched skepticism towards ‘patriotism.’ I’m not sure where I habituated it, but in my own life, I think it likely began in the 90s when I learned at a formative age that presidents lie. Without going into the details, nothing since then has really rid me of a basically skeptical posture.
The point is that I find myself in the midst of something like patriotic rehabilitation. The short version is that, rather than expecting my country or her leaders to convince me not to be skeptical, I’ve allowed God to take over and direct whatever patriotic love He would have me give to the United States.
Imagine that. A preacher ‘allowing’ God to direct the flow of love in his life. I feel like an idiot even having to say it out loud. Take what follows for what you will.
What do we love when we love a country? It seems to me that, at the very least, we love a community of people (hundreds of millions of them); we love a certain physical landscape; and, as citizens of the United States, we love what we might call an ideal, or a certain collection of values, laws, and principles which makes our common life possible.
A diverse group of people, a particular patch of land, and an ideal—when we say we love our country, we are loving a combination of (at least) those three things. Each of us might give different weight to those three, and there would certainly be some nuance in regard to how each of us would articulate what America’s ideals are, but on the whole, I think we could mostly agree on those.
That’s a bit about the object of patriotic love. So, what does it mean to love those things? For Christians, the only love there is is the love of God. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16). Our smaller, creaturely loves—for each other, for our country—are always only a participation in the love of God. So: how do Christians understand love?
1 Corinthians is a good place to start: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (13:4-6).
For me, this is where patriotic love gets difficult. I’m supposed to love these hundreds of millions of people, this landscape, and our ideals like that? When the public official I most like scores a point in a social media spat with one I dislike, or when I am filled with disdain for that group of people over there who believe X about Y...okay, 1 Corinthians 13 is a bit harder to come by. The truth is that I do find within myself arrogance, the desire to boast, a persistent irritability towards those people over there who surely can’t mean the same thing I mean when I say, “I am an American.”
Loving the ideal(s) for which the United States stands is rarely any easier, though for different reasons. “[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth,” writes St. Paul. In a country that values free speech and the rule of law, we find ourselves in an era of fake news and in a season of our country’s history in which basic human decency seems up for grabs. It’s hard for love to rejoice in the truth when the truth rarely seems to be obvious or agreed upon as such. As for not rejoicing in wrongdoing, again and again and again we are confronted with the reality that so many who have been successful in the United States have histories of repeated and grievous wrongdoing. This creates an environment of public mistrust. We pursue investigations, but then aren’t sure if we should trust the investigators or want the results we get. It’s hard to love an ideal when the evidence so often points away from it.
I wish I could say that at the very least we’re all united in our love for the physical landscapes of our country, but debates about climate change, energy sources, and the use of public lands continue. Clearly, we’re not all of a mind there, either, and these disagreements are further fuel for already long-burning fires.
So, where does this leave us? What does love of country look like through this? For me, the phrases in 1 Corinthians 13 that stick out are “love is patient; love is kind” and “love does not insist on its own way…love is not resentful.”
Of all of these, that love should be “patient” is perhaps the hardest to swallow, particularly when so much is so urgent. The urgency—on the border and elsewhere—is real; real lives are changing by the day. Patient love for our country, then, does not necessarily mean patience with particular issues or crises. Rather, it must be the quality of our deepest posture towards our country’s future, something analogous to the patience of God’s love towards all of human history. In a word, patriotic love must be patient because the United States is incomplete. We are not finished yet; we cannot rest on our laurels; we can never assume that the ideals we espouse are always and everywhere real and active for every member of our communities. Just as you and I as individuals are incomplete and still being formed into the individuals God is calling us to be, so too is our country incomplete. When I keep this in mind, I find that my love for these United States and all my millions of fellow citizens flows more easily, even in times as bitter as our own. When my love is patient, the kindness follows.
That “love does not insist on its own way” is also a hard pill to swallow. For me, this also follows from patience. We vote; we (hopefully) show up to conversations open to the possibility that our minds might be changed, or at least expanded; we practice virtue; we contribute to the common good as we’re able; when decisions are made through the appropriate channels, we agree to be bound by them (though it must be said that Christian people can never forget that legality and morality are not synonymous).
In the midst of all this, sometimes we are confronted with the fact that our own experience of the United States isn’t representative of the whole. This doesn’t negate the validity of our own experience. If patriotic love would not to insist on its own way, however, it does mean that we must make space for the experiences of others to influence how we order our common life. This flows from patience because it means that my love must to some extent detach itself from results, or at least detach itself from results which are obviously beneficial to me in the short run. Love does not insist on its own way because love perseveres into the future in which I am able to receive my neighbor’s flourishing as my own. We persevere in love, but we can never be entirely sure what it is we’re loving our country into.
“Love is not resentful.” Resentment is easy. I pay my taxes, so why should that person over there get a check from the government? I worked my tail off to get good grades, and that guy over there skipped every class and just sailed into a good job on daddy’s coattails! We all know these feelings. It’s not wrong to have them; indeed, so long as we remain unfinished as a country, it is necessary that we do have them. We must guard against resentment, however, which we might say is something like allowing these feelings to calcify. When our hearts are stony, we tend not to see our neighbors as people but as caricatures to be trolled. The flow of love keeps our hearts open and malleable, and when this is true, we see the truth. The truth—and at least on my best days I believe this—is that everyone is doing the best of which they believe themselves capable with the resources (spiritual, mental, emotional, material) at their disposal. Some really are lazy; some really are charlatans; some really were born on third and think they hit a triple. But do they believe that it is possible to live otherwise? They, too, are unfinished people living in an unfinished country. If we would be patriots, at least as I am trying to use the word, then the country we love must not only have room for them, but we must endeavor not to resent them for taking up the room they occupy.
As I said above, I am a beginner in this. I confess I simply have never tried to understand love of country as any form of Christian love before. Thus far in my adult life, I think my own habituated skepticism has largely blinded me to the possibility that the overlap of patriotism and Christian love might be not only possible and comforting, but exactly what we need as a nation. Again, imagine that: a preacher arriving at the shocking conclusion that what his country needs is Christians living as conduits of the love of God.
There is much systemic sin and tragedy, both in America’s history and the Church’s, that has resulted from equating patriotism with a participation in the life of God. We should remain skeptical when preachers talk about patriotic love, but we must also remember that skepticism can calcify, too. Mine did. I’m still scraping it off my soul’s edge.
Happy Independence Day, my friends. I am grateful to be your priest.
And as your fellow citizen, I am trying to do better.