Patriotism & Nationalism in a Post-9/11 World

Patriotism & Nationalism in a Post-9/11 World

By Rev. Jerry Stinson

At our justice luncheon, Mike Rapkin in a very poignant set of comments described why he refused to stand for the singing of “God Bless America” at Dodger games. He still sees himself as a American patriot but is deeply disappointed in what his nation has done in recent years.

Then at our last Friday morning gathering, Steve Rohde spoke about Independence Day and shared his feelings about what the 4th of July means in the context of 21st century America.

Today I want to continue with that same topic and what I want to do is distinguish between patriotism and nationalism in a post-9/11 world.

A huge wave of patriotic fervor has enveloped our nation since the tragedy of 9/11/2001. In the last almost thirteen years, overt displays of patriotism have dramatically increased. And as Mike Rapkin pointed out major League baseball provides a paradigm.

In 2013 on Memorial Day, at Dodger Stadium 50 Wounded Warriors entered from center field while on the scoreboard screen, a general greeted the crowd from Afghanistan. In Milwaukee, 40 members of the military, veterans and military dependents threw out a "mass first pitch.” In Washington DC, the first 20,000 people in attendance received small American flags. The Chicago White Sox had a pregame parade of military members and their families. At other ball parks, giant flags were unfurled, moments of silence were held, players wore special camouflage jerseys or Marine Corps caps.

Patriotism – a good thing, right? Maybe. But I think it very easy for patriotism to slide into a form of nationalism.

Using Webster’s definitions, patriotism is love for one’s country and nationalism is a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote about her daughter returning from kindergarten a few days after the 9/11/2001 event saying, “Tomorrow we must wear red, white and blue.” Kingsolver asked “Why?” “For all the people who died when the airplanes hit the building.”

Kingsolver was uncomfortable. She wrote, “I fear the sound of saber-rattling, dread that not just my taxes but even my children are being dragged to the cause of death in the wake of death.” Think about what has happened in the years since she wrote those words.

Kingsolver said, “I asked her quietly, ‘Why the colors of the flag, what does that mean?’” The child replied, “It means we’re a country – all people together.” Is that patriotism? A sense of oneness and standing together after a terrible tragedy? That’s a good thing.

So they sent her to school in red, white and blue, because it felt to her like something she should do to help people who are hurting. But Barbara Kingsolver was still troubled.

Patriotism. I grew up in a small Utah town in the 1950’s when it seemed almost everyone went to a Christian church and loved the flag. Flag and faith were intertwined. Everyone attended the Fourth of July parade – the high school band, the junior high band, the scouts and little league players all marched; both volunteer fire trucks and the town police car came with lights flashing. And later of course, fireworks. Patriotism right?

But as the years went by, I learned things about my nation that bothered me. In my teen years, a bomb in a Birmingham church killed four innocent children whose only crime was the color of their skin. On our family’s black-and-white TV, I saw George Wallace and Lester Maddox, state governors, spewing racist venom.

I went off to college in 1965, and helped take over the President’s office until there was a commitment to begin a black studies program. I protested the unequal treatment of women in the college dormitories. I marched with farm workers, picketed with the Congress of Racial Equality, and found myself in dozens of demonstrations against the War in Vietnam, one of which led to my expulsion from college. The patriotic visions of my childhood had gone sour. The Eagle Scout had joined the New Left.

Now ever since then, the tension between affection for and anger at my country has continued. I know there are few countries where I would be as free as I am here to criticize my nation. And that criticism often arises from a love for this nation and its heritage, coupled with a vision of what it could become.

When those planes went into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania, that changed America. It was a scene of terror beyond anything we could comprehend, and we saw it over and over.

We felt profound grief. But then the void left by that grief was partially filled for many by a new patriotic or nationalistic fervor. Flags appeared everywhere. On 9/12/2001, Wal-Mart sold 116,000 American flags; on that same day a year earlier, they sold 6,000. Flags appeared on cars, fire trucks and houses. People wore flag dresses, flag hats, flag tattoos.

So what might an interfaith perspective say about the patriotism or nationalism symbolized by those flags? What is the difference between patriotism as a good thing and nationalism as something dangerous. Let me make three distinctions.

First, I think patriotism, steeped in critical thinking, is built upon honest evaluation of the past and present, and is thus it is always a confessional and humble enterprise. Nationalism, on the other hand, rigidly rejects critical thinking, and is often marked by pompous self-righteousness – my country, right or wrong, love it or leave it.

I think true patriots look at American history and affirm our quest for values and virtues that are noble. We celebrate a heritage that has often tried at least to pursue liberty and equality. But we also confess that we often fall short of our noblest goals.

The essence of patriotism is a dream of what it is we aspire to be as a nation. In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a model patriot who knew and affirmed the dream, while recognizing we had often stumbled in our pursuit of it.

On 9/11/2001, we screamed and shook our fists at the barbarity of crashing hijacked planes into buildings full of innocent people; 3,000 deaths. That act of terrorism was evil. But we must also confess the barbarity of American nuclear bombs killing more than 200,000 innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Certainly some in Japan raised their fists to the sky asking how a civilized nation could have dropped those bombs.

In the nationalistic fervor of a post-9/11 world, many Americans wanted someone not only to blame but to beat-up. More than 250,000 people have died in warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to somehow pay for 3,000 American deaths with which they weren’t involved at all.

Genuine patriotism holds our own country accountable for times when we stray from our noble dreams and visions.

My second distinction between patriotism and nationalism: Patriotism celebrates the community that is our nation but always within the broader context of the global community. Nationalism so elevates our nation that other nations and people matter only for what they can do for us.

I would contend true patriots value genuine dialogue with global neighbors and want decisions made in a global context with the best interests of humanity in mind. Nationalists tend to define themselves over and against others – always needing an enemy whether it is communists, al Qaida or the fear of “one world government.” They make life into fierce competition between nations.

And the final distinction: Patriots are indeed concerned with stopping that which is evil; that which demeans human life. But they try to do so in ways that prevent us from becoming the evils we deplore – nationalists, on the other hand, get so caught up in hatred and vengeance that they are willing to stoop to the level of those they condemn.

True patriots – who resist becoming the evils they deplore – are disgusted by what Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning revealed our government has been doing throughout the world; true patriots are sickened by what our soldiers did at Abu Ghraib; true patriots are horrified that we, supposedly the good guys, used water boarding and desecrated Qur’ans; true patriots are furious at the Kafkaesque absurd cruelty that has dozens and dozens of prisoners declared innocent and cleared for release but still behind bars at Guantanamo.

True patriots are wise enough to know that you don’t stop killing by more killing; that wiping out villages of innocent people won’t convince folks that killing is wrong. You don’t go after a bully by being one yourself.

Patriots love their country and that’s why they won’t let fear push it to put aside its deepest values

Rabbi Michael Lerner suggested it would be hard for the Bin Ladens of the world to recruit people if we would commit ourselves to using our economic resources to ending world hunger and redistributing the wealth of the planet, so that everyone has enough. People wouldn’t resent us for hoarding wealth, for affluence built upon the sweatshops of the Third World.

Lerner said those who hate the United States would be marginalized if we were to become the leading voice championing an ethos of generosity, caring and social justice.

Nationalists would say that’s weak and absurd –not at all in line with the principles of capitalism. They would have us use military might and our deadly drones as we have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen Sudan and who knows how many other countries.

I started this reflection with Barbara Kingsolver’s discomfort with her child’s red, white and blue attire. A week after the 9/11 disaster, Kingsolver wrote: “I would like to stand up for my flag and wave it over a few of the things I believe in, including but not limited to, the protection of dissenting points of view. After 225 years, I vote,” she said, “to retire the rocket’s red glare and the bullet wound as obsolete symbols of Old Glory. We desperately need new iconography of patriotism. I propose,” she said, “we rip stripes of cloth from the uniforms of public servants who rescued the injured and panic-stricken, remaining at their post until it fell down on them. The red glare of candles held in vigils everywhere as a peace-loving people pray for the bereaved, and plead for compassion and restraint. The blood donated to the Red Cross. The small hands of children collecting pennies, teddy bears, toothpaste, anything they think might help kids who lost their moms and dads.” Words written one week after the 9/11 attack.

Her new iconography of patriotism holds meaning for me, and hers are the words of a patriot. We can love our country and still be global citizens. We can respond to horrific crimes of terrorism, and there have been many since 9/11, without becoming the evils we deplore. 

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