At last Sunday’s U2 concert, one moment struck me awkwardly. Bono was talking about America and its place in the world, as he often does. He said, “not only is America a beautiful place; it’s a beautiful idea.”
I winced because I thought of Stanley Hauerwas’s suggestion that genuine patriotism is commitment to a particular people and a particular place. Patriotism goes wrong when it becomes commitment to abstracted notions like freedom and justice. When we value abstracted ideals over actual people we can be manipulated by our passions to do violence to people in the name of those ideals.
But I think I know what Bono meant and I do love when he speaks prophetically to America. He often appeals to Americans take their proper place in the world, using our resources to do good and to bring relief from suffering and liberation from injustice. And I do realize that the ideas of freedom and self-determination are indeed beautiful to the millions around the world who suffer under oppressive and thuggish rulers.
We had a family discussion over the weekend about our ambivalence. We love this country and have no time for anti-Americanism. But we’re suspicious of unquestioning patriotic zeal. Some thoughts, then, this Fourth of July.
I love America, the place and the people. I love baseball, pizza, the countryside dotted with patchwork farms and varieties of old barns. I love our optimism and our cities and the design of the American flag. I love the national anthem before games and flyovers and fireworks on the Fourth of July. I love Memorial Day and honoring veterans and Thanksgiving and family and football games for an entire day.
I recognize that I live like royalty compared to most of the rest of the world. I am grateful for clean water, access to education, food and shelter, health and safety, public libraries and the freedom to move about, go where I want, and speak my mind. I have it ridiculously good and I know that many have sacrificed profoundly so that this is my life, and I’m grateful.
But I can’t forget that America has displaced and forever disturbed tribes and nations who were here before us. Other people loved their land and were driven from it.
I can’t forget that people were enslaved, bought and sold here, and only reluctantly given freedoms.
And I know that our patriotism can become a sense of national exceptionalism. We easily imagine that we have the right to do as we please because of who we are and that God is on our side.
I saw this quote from William Sloane Coffin, Jr. yesterday and it captures well how I feel:
There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.
I love who we are and will celebrate that today. But I just want us to remember who we are.
14 thoughts on “Bono, Hauerwas, & Ambivalence on the 4th of July”
Well said…and by your definitions Bono is a better American patriot than most Americans. We could use more of that in this world.
I guess naturally for a Pauline scholar like you is what would have Paul said on this matter?
It seems that Paul had the same lover’s quarrel with his own heritage in Judaism, reaching back to Israel as God’s chosen people. This shows up in, at least, Gal. 1, Rom. 1-3, 9-11. Seems that he both loved his people passionately but lamented the nationalism in which they had become hardened. They could not, in that condition, fulfill what it meant for them to be the people of God.
Please allow me to push this further, Tim. Paul’s Jewish heritage is unique in the sense that God has a covenant relationship with Israel. I tend to think that Rom 9-11, for example, deals with the question regarding whether God – in light of the fact that the good news of the Messiah is about the inclusion of Gentiles as God’s people – is still faithful to his covenant with Israel.
This, to me, is somewhat different from our type of (non-Jewish) nationalism.
I guess the question I ask is what would Paul have said to members of his Gentile audience if they hold a strong sense of nationalism for their own people? I am aware that this is a hypothetical situation, for I am not sure whether we have clear evidence of nationalistic sentiment in non-Jewish ethnic groups in, for example, ancient Rome. But of course we do know that there are many ethnic groups in Rome when Paul wrote to them.
Another, but somewhat related, question is whether Paul would suggest his highly multicultural audience to keep any sense of nationalism towards their own people at all. To what extent does his vision of a love-inspired and Christ-centred eschatological Jew-Gentile community transcends ethnic boundaries?
I’m still chewing on this, S. Great question! Seems that the “in Christ” situation relativizes all other identities. At the same time, however, we truly become ourselves and we can truly inhabit our identities when we are in Christ. We don’t diminish, nor do our earthly identities, and it seems that Paul’s thought runs along this line. While there’s no longer Jew nor Greek, neither has to leave his identity to become Christian. They finally become Jewish and Greek when in Christ, turning to the other to receive him as a gift.
In our Christian community we have many members who are refugees from other countries. They would love to go back to their homeland, but it is likely that they will stay in the Western world for the rest of their lives. And indeed it is likely that their children will lose a significant part of their original ethnic identities. (It is hard, for example, to keep up with their parents’ language.) I am a migrant myself. Cultural identity is something I have been thinking of a lot. If I were not a follower of Jesus, it would have been very difficult, because I don’t feel a sense of belonging in either culture (my original and new culture). But the identify in Christ is my true identity. That’s why I asked those questions above. Interesting – and quite significantly, I think – there were plenty of migration within the Greco-Roman world, including plenty of forced relocation as a result of Roman conquests. This is precisely the experience of a lot of people today. Perhaps in the wisdom of God the gospel was birthed in such an era of turmoil, so that many today (and in history) can call on the name of the Lord and receive the good news of Christ.
Thanks for this, S. Your comments call to mind how important it is to remind ourselves that an essential component of the gospel is the announcement that we can join a new people, a new family, and receive the gift(s) of new siblings and family members. This also highlights the importance of the church as a new people who must learn to function as a family.
Have you read The Lost Letters of Pergamum? It’s a brilliant book in which a few dislocated characters experience the gospel in just this way. It’s a beautiful depiction of the gospel’s holistic work.
No, I haven’t read The Lost Letters of Pergamum. I think I have heard it somewhere. Will look out for it. Thanks!
Thank you for your thoughtful response, by the way, Tim.
Great post Tim. I’m going to use the quote from Coffin,Jr. I hope you and your family have a great 4th.
Well said, friend. You articulated my feelings about the US and this holiday fairly well, too.
I also have been thinking about the words “idea” and “ideal” and how they are used incorrectly and interchangeably in our culture. While an idea is more of a suggestion or a thought, an ideal is an expression of perfection. Ideals are what our politicians and leaders think they need to use to motivate us, but human ideals are the very things that we are rightfully suspicious of as citizens of God’s kingdom. Ideals can do the very thing you speak of and become THE THING TO END ALL THINGS, instead of the thing that helps us love God and our neighbors. When we hear someone speaking prophetically to us, it is natural to assume they mean “ideal” instead of “idea” because of what we usually hear today. I think Bono probably used the word “idea” in its correct form, meaning a suggestion of a course of action, one that can be altered based upon its usefulness in serving the people it was intended to serve. At least I hope so…
I totally agree, Linda. Well said.
In the song Peace On Earth, Bono names some of those killed in the Omagh bombing in N. Ireland and then sings that “their lives are bigger than any big idea.” It’s a beautiful statement of the sentiment you expressed.