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.