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What Does Patriotism Mean?

US Flag

This is the week in which Americans celebrate the Fourth of July.

I hope that this is a safe space for me to come out as one who is really ambivalent about both Memorial Day and Independence Day.

I look up and down the street and see that in front of almost every house, an American flag flies. Then there’s my house: on one corner of the front porch a Tibetan prayer flag flaps its petitions for peace; on the other corner, I have a wind chime patterned after a Zen temple bell. I have to say that my neighbors are pretty tolerant: but on a windy night that has been the occasion for the bell to ring incessantly, I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t raising their eyebrows with an “oh really?” kind of look.

I don’t think of myself as unpatriotic. I’m a veteran; I come from a family with a long history of veterans. My mother’s brother-in-law served in World War I; my dad had two brothers and a sister who served in World War II. A cousin served with the Marines in the late fifties. Men I went to high school with served in Vietnam, and came home to tell stories that make one’s hair stand on end. When I became part of the post-Vietnam-war Army I was taking my turn in service. The family tradition has continued: a niece’s son has just graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and has a commission as an officer with the Marine Corps. I think I speak for the entire family when I say, “We’re proud of him.”

And yet: I’m flummoxed by what seems to be an uncritical expectation of loyal support of the American military that seems more and more to have become an ideal of American patriotism. At my 50th high school class reunion last summer this ideal resonated through conversations that went from Vietnam to current military interventions. But I was doing graduate work in Montreal when the first Gulf War broke out, and a colleague, himself an avid subject of Her Majesty, the Queen of the British Commonwealth, looked at me and said, “How does it feel to be a citizen of the most hated nation on earth?” When I responded with a drop-jawed deer-in-the-headlights look, he said, “That’s OK. That was how the world saw England a hundred years ago.”

I grew up in a Lutheran congregation in which two flags, the American flag and the Christian flag, stood at the edges of the chancel. An early memory is of my parents taking me to a public forum at the local high school at which someone from out of town tried to convince us “to our horror” that there were Christian churches within fifty miles of my home town with pastors who refused to allow the US flag to be on display at the front of the church. I suspect now that that individual was promoting McCarthyism; and I learned much later that there were theological and constitutional reasons why flags were not necessarily displayed in any number of Lutheran churches. Meanwhile, at the last General Assembly of The American Lutheran Church, to which I was a delegate, preachers for assembly worship included the Chiefs of Chaplains of the US Army and the US Air Force, and the Deputy Chief of Chaplains of the US Coast Guard, all of them, Lutheran pastors. I had been served by one of them when he was a younger post chaplain; we shared the same Norwegian Lutheran DNA. He remains for me a model, not only as a chaplain or as an officer, but as a pastor.

But the question is still there: what does patriotism mean? To serve? To serve proudly? To wave the flag, proudly? If one is critical of the policies of the country of which one is a citizen, is that to be unpatriotic?

In the current issue of Sojourners magazine, Editor-in-Chief Jim Wallis writes that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” I am reminded of a book that was first published in 1976, that has been on my shelves since 1991, and that I still keep close at hand: Against the World, for the World. Its subject is different than my worrying about Christian faith and patriotism, but the title fits.

I think I’ll go down to the hardware store and see if I can find an American flag to fly from my porch.

Along with the Tibetan prayer flag and the Zen temple bell.

The Rev. Bruce Heggen

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