5 Questions about Patriotism

For the past couple weeks, I’ve had an article in the works about the great kneeling debate that has been swirling around the sports world. But then this weekend happened and everyone went bananas, so I scratched that article and decided to go in a different direction altogether.

Yesterday as NFL players protested and the general public lost their minds on social media, it became clear to me that we’re truly at an impasse in this country. And nothing about our current way of arguing is going to resolve it. We can’t dig out of this hole with a persuasive article or a few pithy tweets. We’re well past that point. What we need is to reframe the discussion entirely and start exploring new depths of conversation that we haven’t yet explored. We need to start wrestling with tough questions. Questions that might challenge our preconceived notions. Questions that might rattle our cages. Questions that might feel threatening. But questions that will hopefully help us eventually get to real, meaningful answers.

You see, what bothers me the most about the current debate is not the fact that we disagree. I’m pretty used to that by now. What bothers me is the lack of hope I see in how we disagree. Sure, there are plenty of viral memes and tweetable one-liners. But there’s a noticeable lack of constructive dialog between us. We don’t seem to be moving anywhere. And so rather than sounding off and pronouncing my personal judgments on what professional athletes should and shouldn’t be doing, I’ve decided instead to propose a few questions that I think would help advance our national conversation.

Let it be noted up front, however, that I’m nothing more than a clueless citizen trying to find his way. I’m trying to figure these things out just like everyone else. My intention is not to stir up more controversy or cast judgment on people I disagree with. I’m simply throwing some thoughts out there that are intended to help us move the conversation in a more productive and helpful direction. Maybe these questions are useful, maybe they’re not. But at this point I can’t see any harm in trying to ask them.

1. Is it possible to define patriotism broadly enough to include protest and criticism?

Based on what I’ve been seeing during the course of this debate, I find this to be the key question. The football players who have decided to take a knee insist that they’re not disrespecting the country. The critics who denounce them insist that this is precisely what they’re doing. So who’s right?

In order to answer that question, we need to have a better grasp of what it means to honor one’s country. And in order to do that, we need to have a careful and intentional conversation about what patriotism actually means. Unfortunately, we’re not doing a good job of talking about that. Both sides are operating with vastly different definitions of true patriotism, and very few are taking the time to pause and understand the comparative merits of these foundational convictions.

Consider this analogy. Suppose you have a young child who finds sharing to be a particularly difficult task. After an outburst in which he has ripped away his favorite toy from his sister’s grasp and topped it off with a resounding slap on her face, you intervene to discipline this child (whatever that might look like). But in the midst of that discipline, your child angrily cries out to you, “Why are you being so mean? You’re supposed to love me!”

At this point, I suppose you could just fire back at your child, “Of course I love you! Don’t question my love!” But the wise parent knows that there’s a better way. This is an opportunity. It’s an open invitation to talk about what love actually means. The child is operating with a notion of love that leaves no room for uncomfortable things like discipline. But as a parent, you’re operating with a fuller, more complex view of love. You know that love doesn’t give a free pass to destructive and harmful behavior; on the contrary, it corrects, trains, and even disciplines. Given this difference of understanding, what you really need is not to argue with your child about whether or not you love him, but rather to get on the same page with your child about what the word “love” actually means.

In the same way, our national conversation needs to adopt the patience necessary for all of us to slow down and explore the many divergent ways of understanding patriotism that are giving rise to our present disagreements. Is it ever acceptable for a true patriot to lament the state of certain things in his country? To express indignation over injustices? To protest practices that undermine the integrity of the nation? To take a knee in a public setting?

Social media outrage won’t answer these questions. We need a conversation that makes room for nuance, reason, and critique. And we need cool enough heads to engage such a conversation honestly.

2. Does patriotism require the belief that one’s country is the greatest on earth?

One of the responses I’ve seen at multiple times in the course of this debate has been one that more or less fits into this mold: “America is the greatest nation that has ever existed, and it’s a privilege to live here. We should honor and respect it as such.”

Overlooking for the moment the fact that it is objectively impossible to prove that any country is the greatest on earth (and the fact that even if you could, it would be highly improbable that ours would come out on top), my main concern with this statement is that it assumes patriotism has to be connected to a recognition of the supremacy of one’s own country. It appears to suggest that we can only love a nation if we judge it to be the best nation in the world.

When it comes to baseball, I was raised to be a St. Louis Cardinals fan. During the course of my life, I’ve had plenty to cheer about, not the least of which has been a pair of recent World Series championships in 2006 and 2011. Being a Cardinals fan has been consistently fun for me.

But many of my friends are Chicago Cubs fans, and their experiences have been quite different. Up until last year, they’ve not had much to cheer about at all. Just a long and distinguished history of losing. And yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any fans more loyal than Cubs fans. Even before the big breakthrough last year, these folks loved their team. They endured 108 years of never winning a World Series, they witnessed all kinds of disappointments and let-downs, and yet they stayed loyal.

In sports, we can love a team, cheer for a team, and celebrate a team—all while living in the reality that our team isn’t the best. So my question is this: Can we do the same with our country?

When Colin Kaepernick first sat out the national anthem, he did so to bring attention to instances of police brutality in our country. He was effectively saying, “Our nation has a flaw, and it needs to be addressed.” But whether you agree with Kaepernick or not, the reality is that you undoubtedly see national flaws of your own. Maybe it’s abortion. Or education. Or healthcare. Or climate change. Or government spending. Colin Kaepernick isn’t the only person suggesting that our country is flawed.

So unless we want to be brainwashed and walk around wearing government-issued glasses that make us see our country in a rose-colored hue, we need to figure out what patriotism looks like in a country that is far from perfect. Because that’s where we live. All of us.

Is it possible to be loyal to a country—and even love a country—whose flaws are evident and whose supremacy is in doubt? I’d like to see more people talking about that and exploring whether or not there’s a better foundation for our patriotism than a blind belief in American exceptionalism. I’d like to discuss the possibility of someone being able to say, “My country is squarely in the middle of the pack, but I love her all the same and want to see her flourish.”

3. Do the sacrifices of soldiers demand allegiance to the nation they have served?

In the middle of the day Sunday, with NFL games in full swing and coverage of the various protests at a fever pitch, President Trump tweeted, “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it!  MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

This sort of rhetoric is hardly rare. In fact, one of the most common objections to the kneelers is the fact that they’re failing to honor the very flag for which many heroic men and women have given their lives. It’s a powerful emotional argument. Especially if you or your loved ones have served in the military.

But is it a good argument? I think we need to discuss that question.

There’s a famous old picture you’ve probably seen that shows a crowd of Germans enthusiastically giving the Nazi salute. In the middle of the crowd stands one defiant man with arms crossed, looking a bit peeved with what’s going on around him. Looking back from our vantage point in history, most of us see that guy as a hero—and rightly so. But as I’ve thought about that man recently, the statement that keeps coming to my mind is this: People died for his flag, too.

The point is that brave people have fought and died for every country. American citizens are not unique in that we have been the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of others. But what matters is not that people have sacrificed. What matters is why. Did those men and women give their lives for a country that has faithfully been a place of equality, justice, dignity, and freedom? Or did they give their lives for a country that has lost sight of true virtue and become an agent of oppression?

These are tough questions, and no doubt we’ll disagree about how to answer them. But surely attempting to do so will advance our national dialog much more effectively than statements like the President’s, which effectively serve as blanket condemnations of anyone who refuses to “fall in line” with the expected demonstrations of nationalistic reverence—including the German gentlemen in the old photo. Once again, true progress in this discussion demands much more care and precision than we’ve collectively been giving it.

4. Can patriotism be expressed outside the easily recognizable, public contexts?

So long as we reduce one’s patriotism to a physical posture taken while on live television during the national anthem, it’s easy to discern who’s “in” and who’s “out.” If you kneel, you’re a bad guy; if you stand, you’re a good guy. But can we really reduce patriotism to a physical posture? Is the true litmus test of national loyalty to be administered when a flag is flying or a song is playing? Or is there more to what it means to be patriotic?

Back to Colin Kaepernick for a moment. One of the underappreciated aspects of this entire storyline is the way that he’s followed up his act of public protest with a commitment to charitable giving. In fact, just a few days ago he was recognized by the NFLPA for his contributions, despite the fact that he’s currently unsigned by a team. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities near and far. He has sought true, lasting change in the places that most need it. Does any of that qualify as patriotic? Does it show a love and concern for his nation? Or are we to assume that his investments into various organizations and communities around the country are less meaningful than someone who stands during the national anthem?

I wonder at times if those of us who enjoy the privileges of majority culture (i.e. white middle-class Americans) can unfairly force our fellow citizens to express patriotism on our terms. We understand gigantic flags stretched across football fields and fighter jet fly-overs and red-white-and-blue bro tanks. These are our love languages, and we speak them well. But are there other languages that we need to learn, too? Can true patriotism be expressed in other contexts?

When you look at the history of minorities in this country—particularly the history of people of color—it’s remarkable that they didn’t give up long ago. Many people of color have endured generations of oppression and injustice and inequality. Yet they have remained loyal to this country, they have invested into its well-being, they have made countless contributions in all sectors of its culture, they have served the good of their communities, and many of them have even given their very lives for a nation that hasn’t always honored their dignity. Do any of these things register on the patriotism scale? Can the everyday shape of one’s life as a citizen impact the way we think about his or her love of country?

If it were up to me, I’d rather we not feel the need to assess one another’s patriotism in the first place. But if for some reason we decide we need to, let’s at least make sure that we’re open to the diverse ways such patriotism can be expressed. Let’s not answer the question before we ask it by opting for unnecessarily reductionistic standards of judgment.

5. How do we know when patriotism becomes an unhealthy idolatry of country?

This question is one particularly important for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and live as citizens of his kingdom. And as a pastor, this is what weighs on me the most. Yes, I care about my country and how its citizens come to understand patriotism and national loyalty. But even more so, as a Christian, I care about how my life and the lives of my brothers and sisters are shaped in conformity to Christ. This is a question that people in every culture need to wrestle with. When do we cross a line from appreciating our country to worshiping our country? And how do we know when we’ve crossed it?

We can (and will) disagree about the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem. But regardless of what we think about such things, it should worry us when our reaction to an issue like this reveals a level of emotional investment and passionate allegiance that is lacking when it comes to our citizenship in the kingdom of Jesus. A kingdom that, lest we forget, consists of every nation, tribe, and tongue.

At some point during this cultural moment, I hope the church in America will do some serious introspection. I hope we’ll embrace the bravery and vulnerability necessary to step into redemptive conversations about the true loyalties of our hearts. We are called to have our loves properly ordered such that the City of God takes precedence over all else. And yet, I know how easy it is to get this wrong. Many of us in the church have often slipped dangerously close to the line of placing our hopes and ambitions and trust squarely within the City of Man. And when we do that, we find that much more than politics and patriotism is at stake.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here for Christians to lead the way. Perhaps in the midst of (yet another) contentious public debate, we can set an example of humility, self-awareness, and repentance. Perhaps we can make use of this occasion to remind ourselves and those around us that there is a far better kingdom than any of the ones we can see. And once that kingdom arrives in its fullness, we’ll all take a knee.

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