Choosing Patriotism

I spent some time at our town’s National Cemetery the other day. I have a family member or two buried there, and I realized something. In a direct line on my father’s side, I am the first man in several generations to not have given military service. Standing there in the midst of men and women who had sacrificed so much in order to preserve their idea of freedom from tyranny and oppression across the world weighed heavily on me. The area itself is a tribute to these men and women, and quite possibly one of the most peaceful and aesthetically lovely areas of our town. It struck me that in a place that solemnizes death, there is a celebration of life through the plush grasses and lush trees that surround these memorials. The tension held there is at once solemn and profoundly hopeful.

I have wrestled over the past several years with what it means to be patriotic in today’s America. It seems a confused mishmash of militarism, wearing the colors, and putting America first in all things.

I do appreciate the service of the men and women in our armed service, but I also think that the goal of a military is to one day not need one. Those that fought in the last World War, I’m sure, fought with the hope that wars would end and striving cease and the world would begin to work together. That hope was disappointed as countries began building their stockpiles of every more despairingly destructive weapons that left less and less hope for recovery after the simple metaphorical press of a button.

I wonder about our current trend of isolationism and how it may be a reaction against the past 70 years of interventionism. Maybe we’re burnt out trying to solve all of the world’s problems by ourselves. Perhaps we would like to see other countries step up and begin the hard work of securing peace and freedom for the oppressed parts of the world. We’re starting to see this in Europe and Asia, as America turns inward. We’re seeing Germany and China begin to grow as leaders on the world stage. Something within me, though, feels saddened as I watch this happen.

All things must come to an end, and maybe our leadership has run its course. I do still wonder, though, what do we stand for today? What do you think about when you think of America?

Do you think of wild celebrations that took place around the signing of the Declaration (both before and after?) Do you think of nearly every immigrant’s story (starting with those early colonists) which includes a flight from oppression into new opportunity? Do you think of France’s gift to America which had on it a welcome to the world’s sick, tired, poor, and unwelcome anywhere else? Do you think of the words of the Constitution which are designed to prevent oppression and tyranny? Do you think of a nation still clinging desperately to the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while dealing with the often disappointing present?

What would Walt Whitman write today if he were to re-write “I Hear America Singing?” Who would he include? What songs and sounds would he hear?

The words of the Declaration of Independence circulate around this time of year, but the last phrase, I almost never hear: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Sure, the American leaders declared their independence of British rule, but declared their dependence on God, and on one another.

Look around this weekend. Really notice the people who walk past you, who serve you, whom you serve, and who drive alongside you. See them as American, as someone on whom you depend, and who depends on you. This great democratic experiment only succeeds if we work together and recognize our fellow Americans as human, as God’s children, and as people who are in this together with us.

How do you celebrate this yearly holiday of Independence Day? What does patriotism mean to you? How does your America benefit everyone living in this nation? How do you instill the ancient American values of charity, hospitality, determination, and hope to your children?

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