The Common Good
January-February 2003

Patriotism is Not Enough

by Peter J. Gomes | January-February 2003

Christian conscience in a time of war.

This fall I was in a large suburban Presbyterian church in Kansas City. I found that almost everyone in that large congregation had our present war fever on his or her heart and mind. These were not by any means your garden-variety leftists or pacifists, who form the usual list of suspects, and these were not Cambridge crunchies, by any means. This was Kansas, for heaven's sake—Alf Landon and Bob Dole country—and these were Presbyterians. They love their country, and they love their God; and what do you do when your country is headed where you think your faith and your God don't want you to go?

How can we have an intelligent conversation on the most dangerous policy topic of the day without being branded traitors, self-loathing Americans, anti-patriotic, or soft on democracy? That's a good question, especially when even the president of the United States questions the patriotism of those few in the U.S. Senate who question his policy or challenge his authority to wage war at will. Must the first casualty of patriotism always be dissent, debate, and discussion?

This is a frightening time, and if one cannot speak out of Christian conscience and conviction now, come what may, then we are forever consigned to moral silence. We hear much talk of "moral clarity," but it sounds more to me like moral arrogance, and it must not be met with moral silence. Anthony Lewis, formerly of The New York Times, said recently that if the purpose of the terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, was to destroy our confidence in our own American values, then, he feared, they had succeeded. In the name of fighting terror both abroad and at home, our government—particularly through the attorney general, together with a culture of patriotic intimidation—has suspended our constitutional liberties, stifled dissent, and defined a good American as one who goes along with the powers-that-be, in a "my way or the highway" mentality. When patriotism is defined in this narrow, partisan, opportunistic, jingoistic way, then perhaps that old cynic Dr. Samuel Johnson was right when he defined patriotism as the "last refuge of a scoundrel."

Frankly, I prefer his contemporary, Edmund Burke, who said, "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely." Our country is lovely, which is why we love it and are willing to serve it and, if necessary, to die for it. It is because we love it that we dare to speak to affirm the goodness and righteousness in it, the virtue and the power of its core values, and to speak against the things that would do harm to it and to those core values. What is and has always been lovely about our country is our right and our duty to criticize those in power, to dissent from their policies if we think them to be wrong, and to hold our alternative vision to be as fully valid as theirs.

IN 1952, ADLAI STEVENSON was running for president against the patriotic and heroic Dwight D. Eisenhower. Charges of egg-headism, of intellectualism, of being soft on communism and soft on patriotism had been leveled on the intelligent and eloquent Stevenson. In a speech to the American Legion convention called "Patriotism in America," Stevenson said, "What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our time? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility, a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." How carefully, poignantly, and aptly chosen are those words in comparison with some of the language we hear flashed about in recent days.

How many of you have seen the white marble statue of a British nurse standing just above Trafalgar Square and beneath Leicester Square in London? It is the statue of Nurse Edith Cavell. One of her claims to fame is that in the early morning hours of October 12, 1915, she was tied to a stake in German-occupied Belgium and shot as a traitor for the "crime" of assisting soldiers in their flight to neutral Holland. Her last moments were described by an eyewitness: "After receiving the sacrament, and within minutes of being led out to her death, she said, ‘Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.'"

On the base of her London statue are carved the words, "Patriotism is not enough." This is an impressive message from one who lost her life in the name of somebody else's patriotism.

Edith Cavell, an English vicar's daughter, lived and died a Christian, but her last words are almost too enigmatic and too simple, and they compel us to ask now, in a time of war and of rumors of war, what ought to be the proper relationship between love of God and love of country. If mere patriotism is not enough, what is it that will help us to be both conscientious citizens and faithful Christians? Are the two mutually exclusive, or is it possible, somehow, to live responsibly in the tension between those two claims? That is always the business of any Christian who takes seriously his allegiance to Jesus Christ and his responsibility to his country and his society.

In the text from Jeremiah, wisdom, might, and riches are set in clear opposition to love, justice, and righteousness. That creates for us a self-conscious biblical tension not easily resolved or explained away. Jeremiah knows that we are inclined to boast of our wisdom, and that is what the Hebrew word that is translated as "glory" really means: boasting, and the thumping of our intellectual chests. We know how to boast about our might and our riches in this land of opportunity. Washington these days is full of rich, smart, and powerful people, many of them in the oil business: Jeremiah knows that it is our natural penchant to seize upon and celebrate our achievements, for they define who we are, what we have, and what we do. This is the way of the world, and when we are "number one" in the world, it is "our way or the highway."

The prophet does not deny the reality of these claims, but over and against them he sets God's claims of love, justice, and righteousness. That is not only intellectual symmetry; it is moral symmetry. He is unambiguously clear here. If we as God's people are to glory in anything, we must glory in the things that God values, that God loves, and that God blesses. Why should God bless America if America does not bless the things that God delights in? What are they? Here they are, right in front of us: "[B]ut let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight."

If we do not delight in the things that the Lord delights in, why should the Lord delight in us? Try that one on for size. This will not fit on a bumper sticker or on a T-shirt, but you might carry it around to ponder in your hearts and minds.

LISTEN TO how J.B. Phillips translates Romans 12; it is meant to grab us by our vitals: "With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him."

Note "With eyes wide open." Not in fake devotion or in pseudo-piety, but with eyes wide open as an act of intelligent, thoughtful worship. Your mind's engaged, and not on hold. That's what Paul says. He goes on: "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands, and moves toward the goal of true maturity" (Romans 12:1-3; Phillips).

Think about that call to nonconformity. Think about that call to transformation. Think of that in the context of a choice you have made and have to make. That tension simply will not go away; it will not easily be resolved, and we, like all faithful Christians and honest citizens throughout all time, will have to live with it and through it. If we are uncomfortable in this conflict of values, we are meant to be uncomfortable. The easy syllogism, that we go to war in order to keep the peace, ought not to comfort us or our Christian president. It is that same alleged "moral clarity" that led to the infamous Vietnam logic. Perhaps you will remember it, that we had to destroy the village in order to "save" it. If that is "moral clarity," then I am Peter Rabbit.

Yet, my beloved friends, we are not without guidance or hope. Many, and perhaps some of you, will argue: Who are we to challenge the moral clarity and vision of our government, of people who presumably know more than we do, and who have the awful duty not only to protect and to serve, but to anticipate and to initiate? Who are we to kibitz from the sidelines without access to secret briefings, intelligence, knowledge, and all of the apparatus of government? Well, who, indeed, are we?

We do not require degrees from the Kennedy School or the Wharton School to have an opinion about the moral future of our country. In fact, it has usually been the so-called experts who have managed to get us into wars in the first place. We have a duty to speak, to dissent, and to demand a better case for compromising our most fundamental principles as Christians and citizens than has thus far been made. As a citizen I demand a better excuse than revenge, or oil, for the prosecution of a war that is likely to do more harm than good, that will destabilize not only the region but the world for years to come, and that, worst of all, will confirm for all the world to see our country's reputation as an irrational and undisciplined bully who acts not because it ought, but because it can; we make up the rules, so it seems, as we please. I love my country too much to see it complicit in its own worst stereotype. Right after Sept. 11 a year ago, we asked, in some agonizing perplexity, "Why do they hate us?" Remember that question? Well, if we persist in making war the first rather than the last option, we will soon find out. The answer will be all too terribly manifest.

I know that in the mighty roar of wisdom, might, and riches, the sounds of love, justice, and righteousness—those things in which God delights, and in which God's people are meant to delight—sound thin, feeble, and anemic. Yet my Christian conscience tells me that these "soft" values should prevail every time over the "hard," even though they often do not. If I am compelled to compromise those Christian values in the service of the state, I had better be as certain as is humanly possible that such a compromise is worth sacrificing the things I hold most precious; and I certainly won't know that, nor will you, unless there is a great deal more thoughtful discussion, debate, and dissent than there has been so far.

It pleases me to join with other religious leaders who are beginning to speak and be heard on behalf of a thoughtful case for peace and to engage in a rigorous debate. Religious opinion is by no means unanimous: those evangelicals who have found little fault with anything that this administration has done or proposes to do, and who seldom met a war they didn't like, lined up to be counted on the president's side.

POLLS SHOW that most Americans, frustrated, alas, by the ephemeral character of the "war on terrorism" and still angry and confused about Sept. 11, 2001, want to do something. As we know, however, in angry, vengeful moments, the desire to do "something" is easily translated into the will to do "anything," and that "anything" may very well be the wrong thing. Bombing Iraq into oblivion as payback to those who have done us injury at this moment seems to me to be the wrong thing to do. Polls do not get at the truth. Thirty-five years ago, most polls showed significant majorities in favor of whatever it was we were doing in Vietnam, and eventually the majority in favor concluded that the minority opposed were, in fact, right. Polls simply tell us where we are, not where we ought to be.

The gospel, however, does tell us where we ought to be, tough, untenable, and difficult as that place may be. Love, justice, and righteousness are superior to wisdom, might, and riches. How often do we have to be told that? "And these are God's words," says Paul at the end of Romans 12: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head." Don't allow yourself to be overpowered with evil: Take the offensive and overpower evil with good. That is what Paul is saying: Take the offensive: Overpower evil with good! Now that is a radical foreign policy. That would scare the bejesus out of a lot of people, to know that with all of our power we decided that we were going to overpower evil with good—and what a topsy-turvy world this would be! That should give all the hawks in Washington something to think about, that if they want us to be noticed, the world would notice us if we took seriously the idea of overpowering evil with good.

Nurse Cavell was right: "Patriotism is not enough." If we wish to be on God's side rather than making God into our own ally of American realpolitik, then we would do well to remember our text from Jeremiah. God's values are clear; so too ought ours to be. If you love the Lord, you will love the things the Lord loves. There is no other way around it.

 

Rev. Peter Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at The Memorial Church of Harvard University. He is the author of seven volumes of sermons as well as The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart and, most recently, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need. This article is adapted from a sermon given on October 6, 2002.

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