Thursday, September 04, 2014

A Meditation on Patriotism in a Changing World

by John Shelby Spong

Patriotism is a powerful force that manifests itself in a variety of ways. One is extreme nationalism. We see that in the behavior of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is so eager to re-assert Russian hegemony over parts of what was once the Soviet Union that he is willing to destabilize peace by undermining the legitimate government of the country we call Ukraine. To supply pro-Russian rebel forces in Ukraine with surface-to-air, heat-seeking missiles that would be used to down a defenseless airliner from Malaysia is little more than an act of international murder.

Patriotism has also been on display this summer in the forms of legitimate national passion as we watched the World Cup Soccer (most of the world calls it football) that led eventually to the victory of Germany over Argentina. Before that championship game was played, however, a host of small nations, Ghana, Costa Rica, Belgium and the Netherlands wrapped themselves in glory by defeating countries much larger and more powerful economically and militarily. We watched citizens of these victorious countries waving their national flags and displaying faces painted with their national colors. We watched the tears of defeat on other faces as one after another of the nations of the world were eliminated.

We saw another positive experience of patriotism on display when Rafael Nadal of Spain won his fifth French Open championship. First, he dropped to his knees, threw his hands to the sky, accepted the congratulations of his co-finalist and then received the accolades of the packed galleries – all with great gusto. When he mounted the winner’s platform, however, and watched the flag of Spain being raised and listened to his national anthem being played, this great athlete dissolved into tears. He had brought honor to Spain. Patriotism is a powerful emotion; one that everyone recognizes; one that lies deep in the psyche of every human being. I wonder, however, if many of us have ever stopped to wonder about the origins of this universal emotion. What need in human life does patriotism meet? Out of what does it arise?

The first thing that a quest into the source of patriotism must acknowledge is that it is, in our minds, normally associated with the country of which we are citizens. That is, however, a relatively modern notion, since the emotion of patriotism is far older that nation states. What would the politicians’ phrase, “God Bless America” have meant before 1492 CE, when what we today call the United States was a land marked by tribal divisions, separated not by drawn boundaries, but by mountains and rivers? The inhabitants of what is now this nation, that called themselves the Hopi, the Shoshone, Cherokees, Apaches and Pueblos among others, had no national consciousness. What would patriotism have meant in Europe 1,500 years ago when that continent was populated by roaming bands of nomadic people, who called themselves things like Franks, Huns, Prussians, Angles, Saxons, Goths, Visigoths and Norsemen.

The Roman world was organized around a city, not a nation. The Peloponnesian Wars were fought not between nations, but between two Greek cities, Athens and Sparta. The citizens of Rome viewed Europe’s tribal people as uncivilized. They spoke, the Romans said, in nonsensical sounds that they called “Bar-Bar” from which we get our modern word “barbarian.” Tribal loyalty, the tap root of patriotism, was present, but it had not yet been attached to what we today call a nation-state. So patriotism is more ancient than the concept of nation to which it is so deeply attached today.

Psychologists now believe patriotism is rooted in the biological drive to survive which is in every living thing, including plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. That survival drive, however, only comes to self-awareness in self-conscious Homo sapiens. We human beings learned early in our evolution that our chances of survival were maximized by our loyalty to the larger entity to which we belonged. A lone individual has little chance of surviving the struggle in which all life is engaged, but loyalty to a nation state is just the latest development in this human reality. Earlier in our history, our ultimate loyalty was invested in our extended families. Then extended families gradually evolved into being a clan in which kinship was still acknowledged. Later, clans began to gather into cohesive tribes. Tribes then merged into city-states which dominated a region.

Nation states are historically still in their infancy. The United States is only 238 years old. Italy and Germany did not become nations until the 19th century. Today, relatively old states are still threatened with dissolving into their earlier tribal entities. The state of Catalonia with its capitol at Barcelona, for example, is today seeking its independence from Spain. So are the Basque people in Northern Spain. A few years ago, we watched the newly constructed nation of Yugoslavia fall apart in a civil war marked by genocide. Today in the Middle East, we are watching as the borders dividing Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran melt away, as these lands are engulfed in civil war.

Nations come and go; they rise and fall, but that deep personal sense of belonging to an entity larger than ourselves, which expresses itself as patriotism, never seems to diminish. It finds expression today in every nation’s fear of immigration, especially if the immigrant people are ethnically and religiously different. Politicians play to those fears by proposing to build fences on the borders of their country, as if any fence anywhere can actually stop the flow of the world’s people, who are seeking to survive along with their children. It is interesting that no anti-immigration American politician would dare suggest the repatriation of those illegal aliens, who arrived on these shores in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. They are only concerned with those illegal aliens who arrived in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Patriotism also causes citizens to glamorize their own nation’s history no matter how bloody it might have been. Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon recently observed that Americans talk a lot about “Irish violence,” but they talk very little, he continued, about the genocide that European settlers carried out against Native Americans, the violence of slavery that this country practiced against kidnapped Africans or the violence of our own Civil War, which tore this country apart as deeply as the Irish Civil War tore Ireland apart. Genocide, we say, is something that happens in Bosnia or Rwanda not in the United States. Slavery is something that occurs in the sweatshops of Southeast Asia, not in the United States. We cannot see ourselves as critically as we see others, because patriotism blinds us to reality. Patriotism is rooted in the human quest for survival and as such is a part of the DNA of our humanity.

Let me be fair and state that patriotism through most of history has served us human beings well. It is patriotism that causes us to honor those heroes, who sacrificed their lives for the safety and security of our nation. Patriotism gives birth to a sense of kinship-loyalty to our fellow citizens. Patriotism forces nations to build safety nets under the most vulnerable of its citizens, to develop social security to provide for its elderly, to recognize, sometimes begrudgingly, that all of its citizens have a right to health care when they are sick, to food when they are hungry and to shelter when they are homeless. Patriotism also, however, builds walls of prejudice against strangers, especially if they look or worship differently. Patriotism causes us to turn our hearts away from children who do not fit our ethnic stereotype. In our rapidly changing, ever smaller world, patriotism seeks to hold us apart from others. That is a strategy doomed to failure. Why? Because nation states are no longer competent to provide us with the security that enables us to survive.

Today no nation state alone can protect the environment or stop an epidemic. No nation state alone can impose its will on the rest of the world. No nation state can halt population explosion. Today individual nation states can no longer provide the security we seek to survive and so patriotism is now must seek to embrace a larger entity. That is why loyalty to a nation state must eventually give way to loyalty to the human race.

That is such a fearful idea that most of us are not yet ready to allow our minds to entertain that reality. We need to recognize, however, that we have done this before. In the past, we have transferred our deepest loyalty from family to clan, to tribe, to city, to nation, and always in the service of our survival. Now human survival depends on global solutions, on a growing sense of human oneness and on our inter-dependence with the entirety of the human population. That is an enormous step. It will not be easy. We shudder at the prospect, we build fences to keep the tide of humanity away from our enclaves and we gather around ancient divisions based on race and religion. Nothing and no one, however, can stop the pressure pushing us toward a world economy and the recognition of a single humanity.

Perhaps in that struggle, the Christian faith can be a resource. Christianity was born in the recognition that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, bond or free. It was a vision of universalism that led the first Christian to hear Jesus’ commandment to “go into all the world” and there to proclaim the love of God for all that God has made. It was the Christian vision of Pentecost that caused us to see that God had poured out the Holy Spirit on all people. It was the gospel of John that had Jesus say that his purpose was to enhance life for all people.

Without patriotism, we would probably not have survived as a human race, but if we do not expand patriotism from loyalty to a nation state to loyalty to the human enterprise, we may well not survive in the future. The seeds of the universalism we need are present in the heart of the Jesus story. Patriotism, as an emotion, will never die. It is part of our humanity. The entity, however, to which our deepest loyalty is pledged has always been growing and changing. The time has come to allow it to grow once more into a human universalism, for that alone will guarantee our survival in the future.


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