Unflagging patriotismby Ryan Ahlgrim
I sometimes fly a Welsh flag from the front porch of my house. It’s not because I’m Welsh; it’s because the flag has a dragon on it—and I think dragons are cool. When Memorial Day or the Fourth of July come around, I always remove the Welsh flag, but I don’t put up an American flag in its place. If I fly the flag of Wales, which is not my country, why don’t I fly the flag of the United States, which is my country?
I suppose it’s because of emotional and ethical baggage I carry. I’m turned off by the rampant rah-rah patriotism that brags that the United States is superior to every other country in every way—despite the rather obvious fact that we do not have the best healthcare system, education system, or justice system. (I concede, though, that we are indisputably superior in our capacity to destroy others; we spend about as much on our military as every other nation in the world combined.)
If we believe we are better than everyone else, we will not be able to learn from others, or see from their perspectives, or fully realize how our actions may be harming the world. That kind of chauvinism is harmless when it’s directed toward our favorite sports team, but it leads to arrogance, oppression and unjust war when given to a nation.
I want to keep a broad and sober perspective on global issues. I want to be a citizen of the world as well as a citizen of the United States. I want to be able to confront my nation when it embraces a popular—but ultimately unwise and immoral—course of action. So I hesitate to fly an American flag lest I seem to be giving support to jingoism.
But that’s my problem, because those are simply my emotional associations with the flag. For probably most Americans, our flag does not represent blinkered ideology; it represents everything about this country: its democratic form of government, civil rights, ethnic diversity, cultural pluralism, natural resources, incredible landscapes, innovation and invention, can-do optimism, many successes, as well as failures.
Despite my hesitation to fly the flag, the truth is I have deep and positive feelings for this country. There is no nation I would rather live in or have citizenship in. For all of its limitations and blunders, I trust it more than any other nation. I am no anarchist or traitor.
The more I ponder world history, the more impressed I am with this fragile American experiment. Democracy has not been successful very often in human history, but it has taken firm root here. Human rights often diminish when nations are in turmoil, but—for the most part—they continue to advance and expand here. And ever since Woodrow Wilson, after World War I, championed a new kind of foreign policy that supported the rights and self-determination of all people of other nations, the United States has often led the way with idealism—even sometimes against our own short-term national interest.
As the world’s lone superpower, the United States is unusually vulnerable to the temptation to use its power selfishly. So I am heartened when it sometimes chooses compromise and cooperation with weaker nations and the strengthening of international institutions; I want to help this country choose that option more often. I want to help it avoid the paranoia and narrow thinking that led it to unneeded and unjust wars (e.g. the Spanish-American War, Vietnam War, and Iraq War) and unjust and immoral treatment (e.g. forced internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the use of torture in recent years).
This nation is bound to make terrible mistakes, but it is our job to help limit the mistakes and maximize the good the government can do. Because the fact is: nations can do a lot of good—good that no other institution is in a position to provide.
I put more hope in the universal community of faith—the Body of Christ—than I do in nations; but I recognize that God uses many channels—including armed and ambitious nations—to also work toward God’s good will in this world. Without compromising my commitment to following Jesus’ way of nonviolent love, I can also help my nation live up to its own best ideals.
My emotional journey with patriotism continues. I want to find ways of demonstrating my respect and appreciation for my nation without compromising my conscience or jumping on a garish bandwagon. Perhaps an American flag hanging from my front porch is somewhere in my future.
Ryan Ahlgrim is the pastor of First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis.
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