Category: Pondering Peace

Love of Country

Once again with the coming of the Fourth of July, we are celebrating the birth of our nation and the independence gained from outside rule.  I would suggest that in addition to fireworks, family gatherings, and delicious food right off the grill, this is a good time to pause for reflection on what love of country means for us as Christian people of faith.

Patriotism can be defined as “love for or devotion to one’s country.”  We can love and appreciate the beauty of this land in which we live.  From Florida’s sandy beaches to Alaska’s glaciers to Hawaii’s palm trees waving by the ocean to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the little lake I enjoying living on in Kansas – there is so much wonder and beauty in this country.  And it is natural to love the place that we call home and where we feel we belong.  Such love of country can demonstrate itself in strengthening our commitment to steward well the marvelous natural resources of this country and to work to renew and preserve them for future generations, not only of our human descendants, but also of the nonhuman beings with whom we share it.

We can also love and appreciate the many freedoms we enjoy as Americans, including the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and peaceable assembly.  These are all important to the protection of democracy, which we can celebrate and commit ourselves to preserve.  I believe a democratic form of government is one that has the greatest capacity to affirm the equal value of every person and protect their rights and voice.  This accords with a faith perspective that views every person as created in the image of God, each life having sacred worth.

But love and devotion to country cannot be our ultimate loyalty and love.  Jesus never told us to love our country, but he clearly stated that we are to love God and love others.  By going further in telling us to love our enemies, he clarified that loving others extends far beyond the boundaries of our own nation.  Love of country also does not mean we must insist on our nation being the greatest and the best country.  That sentiment moves us into nationalism, a perspective that too easily leads us into violence and war.

Nationalism too often means that we affirm our nation’s greatness and rightness without adequate critique.  But people of faith and the church are to be the conscience of the nation.  They are to provide a moral compass and refuse to be swept along in nationalistic fervor.  Love of country does not mean we must say our nation is always right.  It does not mean covering over moral failings and rewriting our history to eliminate its dark and unjust elements.  We are by no means a perfect nation.  The horrendous genocide of Native America peoples and brutal enslavement of African Americans, along with the lingering conditions of inequality, need to be acknowledged, mourned, repented of, and rectified, to the best of our national ability.  Great effort needs to be put into whatever policies and resources are needed to bring millions of people who are their descendants into places of equal opportunity and wellbeing.  Love of country and the desire that it live out its highest ideals call us to do this.

Love of country also encourages us to strive to make our nation a better democracy, where everyone’s vote has equal weight and every voice is valuable.  This means making voting more easily accessible to every qualified voter. It means restraining political parties from the temptation to gain more political power through unjust gerrymandering. It means working to make our electoral system more just. Many people would argue that although the Electoral College was perhaps the best of compromises in 1787 when it was devised, it is now an outdated system that does not embody the ideal of everybody’s vote counting equally.  For example, a vote for the president in Wyoming has an impact equal to four votes in California. Due to how the Electoral College works, individual votes that do not reflect the political majority of that state basically don’t count, and many consider the seven swing states as actually determining the presidential election.  Since the year 2000 there have been two instances when the presidential candidate who won the electoral college and became president did not win the popular vote.

In addition, the enormous role of money in politics, especially since the Citizens United decision, has so magnified the power of those with money that some now wonder if the United States is more an oligarchy than a democracy.  A political election process that requires the use of billions of dollars is very problematic. Furthermore, the use of misinformation, demeaning political opponents, and stoking greater political divisiveness is leading to greater civil discord.  Not all democracies function in these ways, and there is room for significant improvement.  As difficult as change is in such arenas, love of country calls us to affirm the ideal of equality and work toward its greater embodiment in the electoral processes of our nation.

Leading political candidates talk a lot about American greatness.  One presidential candidate speaks repeatedly about how America is the greatest country in the world.  Another repeatedly claims that he will make American great again.  Such words have significant emotional appeal, but we must stop and question what they understand American greatness to be and if such a vision of national greatness accords with Christian values.

So, what does make a nation great?  It seems to me that currently American greatness is focused on military and economic dominance, which gives the United States a position of global influence.  There is no doubt that the United States is a dominant military power.  It spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined, including Russia and China. It has military bases scattered over 80 countries and territories throughout the world. It is the largest exporter of major arms in the world.  It created the atom bomb and then went on to develop much more powerful weapons, thus starting the nuclear arms race.

There’s also no question that the United States is one of the wealthiest nations on earth.  It has been innovative and is technologically advanced, with a strong economy.  But in the process, the United States has also used far more of the earth’s resources and emitted far more greenhouse gases than is our fair share.  If everyone on earth consumed as much as the average American, it is estimated that we would need five more earths to sustain us. Although the United States has just 4% of the world’s population, it has cumulatively emitted 25% of total greenhouse gases. If military might and economic prosperity are the two primary foundations of our American greatness, there is grounds for much concern from a faith perspective for we follow a Jesus who taught nonviolence and warned against the spiritual dangers of pursuing wealth.

We also need to ask: how do we as Americans use our global dominance?  If it is to build a world where everyone has enough, where human rights are respected, where peace is sustained, and where the earth flourishes, that would be good.  But historically, too often America has used its dominance to promote its own national self-interests in putting America first.

And why do we need to be the greatest nation in the world?  Why can we not strive to be one responsible nation among many working for the welfare of all in our global community?  Does not our continual struggle to be the greatest military and economic power in the world simply stoke both a sense of threat and responding competition from other powerful nations?  Is not our world too small, too interconnected, and facing global threats that are too great to continue on this nationalistic path of having to be the greatest country of all?

From a faith perspective, the greatness of a nation would be defined differently.  I would understand national greatness to be measured by such values as the level of justice, compassion, hospitality, lack of violence, wellbeing of all, and good stewardship of the land.  The degree of justice in a nation is shown by the how it treats its most vulnerable people. The wellbeing of all means that all people have a decent quality of life in which their basic needs are met.

Recognizing that other nations may be better than the United States in these areas should lead us to a place of humility.  We can love our country even if it’s not the greatest.  We can be honest about its faults and each of us do our small part to make it a good home for all who reside here. We can affirm that there are many other wonderful countries and peoples around the world, while still loving this land. We can be grateful for all the goodness we do experience in this nation that is our home.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash