The Common Good

Uncritical Patriotism Can Subvert the Core of Jesus' Message

The American naval hero Stephen Decatur raised a toast in 1816 after his victories over the Algerian Barbary pirates to, "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."

Decatur's enthusiastic patriotism trumped all other values — perhaps understandably in the precarious, early days of the American republic. But his sentiments should trouble Christians and all people of good will.

During this week when we joyfully celebrate American Independence Day, we need to also recognize that God — a power greater than patriotism and greater than our country — dwells among us.

God's "power" brings ultimate happiness. God's way, as expressed through the life and death of Jesus, is one of humility rather than arrogance, poverty rather than riches, reconciliation and forgiveness rather than revenge and aggression. Through Jesus, God revealed the fallacy of solving conflict through violence.

In his unpublished book "Following Jesus to a Peaceful World," my friend Gene Vanderzanden probes Jesus' approach to violence. In the passage John 8:1-11, the elders bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Jesus turns the tables on their violent hearts, saying: "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."

Jesus' paradoxical invitation causes them to drop their stones. He totally disarms the murderers. Jesus knew that violence begets violence. Eliminating the woman would do nothing to improve the life of the community.

Jesus believed that forgiveness is what redeems. Over and over, throughout the Gospels, he let his light shine on the value of individual life and made it his mission to reveal how the power of violence is only a myth. Ultimately, his way of peace led to his violent death at the hands of the Roman Empire.

The contradictions between the Gospel of Jesus and uncritical patriotism remain to this day. They are apparent, for instance, with regard to the war in Iraq. Almost all Protestant churches and the Catholic Church condemned the war of aggression initiated by the United States, but these Christian churches had little public effect on the chauvinistic rush to war.

Each Sunday Christians hear Gospels speaking peace, but they see political leaders and media pundits proposing violent solutions. They feel split in their allegiance.

As we celebrate American independence, it's fitting that we honor the valor of those who secured our freedom. It's fitting that we celebrate the generous, welcoming spirit of our country, but it's even more fitting that we honor our country and those who have died for it by ensuring that our deepest religious and humanistic values endure and flourish.

By doing so, we cherish our revolutionary beginnings. Historians recognize the early America was a secular embodiment of Christian hope. Our nation's first settlers migrated to avoid religious persecution, and many immigrants later fled poverty and other forms of moral persecution. America kept alive the Gospel recognition of the innate dignity of every human being.

Equally apparent, however, was the contradiction that some Christians often justified slavery by self-serving "Christian" principles. They also ruthlessly removed Native Americans from their lands or sought to "Christianize" them by force.

We will honor our origins by continuing to ask difficult questions. Have we, as Christians, become too comfortable, too habituated to the status quo? Are we so fragile that we are afraid of rocking the boat or of somehow appearing unpatriotic?

I don't know the answer. But until very recently, an unholy silence has left unchallenged the immorality of the war in Iraq. Fear has paralyzed our moral consciousness about our country. It has driven us to become the kind of people we are not.

Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, said at the Christian Peace Witness service in Washington, D.C., in March, "To cast out fear, we must act in faith, in prayer, in love, and in hope so that we might help to heal the fears that keep this war going."

It certainly seems fitting during this week of justified pride in our nation that we honor those who have given the last full measure of their devotion by raising these questions and by striving to live the dream of our forbearers of a nation built on justice and peace and by honoring God who labors with us for the healing of the planet.