`Patriotism Is Not Enough'; Christian Conscience in Time of War

By Gomes, Peter J. | Sojourners Magazine, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

`Patriotism Is Not Enough'; Christian Conscience in Time of War


Gomes, Peter J., Sojourners Magazine


Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but 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, says the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

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, antipatriotic, 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? …

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