Sunday, November 10, 2013

Coming to Terms with Patriotism

I watched The Mission for the first time this weekend. It is the tragic, but beautiful story about a Jesuit mission in South America, and how two men demonstrate their love for the Guarani people in the face of an imperialist military attack. One, viewing violence as a sin, leads his converts in one final Mass before they are massacred; the other breaks his vows of obedience in order to take up the sword in defense of the people. The film celebrates the heroism of both men, and condemns the imperialist politics that led to that massacre. The final scenes had me in tears (for both their cinematic beauty and their portrayal of a heart-wrenching tragedy).

It is a coincidence that I watched this movie on Veteran's Day weekend, but the film coincides interestingly with some of my thoughts and feelings about patriotism. Before I write anything else, I want to make it perfectly clear that I esteem and respect the veterans of all wars. While I recognize that some of these wars have been waged for less than holy purposes, I honor the sacrifice of the individuals who actually fought in the battlefield, and believe many of them to be heroic and consummately admirable. At the same time, I sometimes question the value of patriotism and its various manifestations (including war). Although I do feel loyal to the country of my birth, my allegiance is most importantly with God, and with the ideals and values associated with Him--ideals and values sometimes, but certainly not always reflected in the creeds and actions of our government. There was even a period of time when I did not feel comfortable repeating the pledge of allegiance because of my misgivings about binding myself to an at least occasionally corrupt institution like the federal government. I have since reconciled those feelings by viewing the flag to which I pledge allegiance as a symbol not of the country per se, but of the ideals of liberty and justice; and now I do repeat the pledge of allegiance with my students every day.

Still, I feel a bit like Father Gabriel in The Mission who, in a conversation with a papal representative about the complex political web that put pressure on the Vatican to close some of the colonial missions, said simply, "Is that to stand in our way [in doing the work of God]?" Doesn't the work of God transcend national borders and trump political agendas? In fact, aren't those very things often instruments of division when, instead, we should be laboring to unite the human family? We believe that we are, after all, children of the same Heavenly Father. What's more, although we believe in "being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12), we foresee a time when those political affiliations will be irrelevant, for Christ will reign on the Earth, and the only affiliation that will matter will be with the Kingdom of God. What then of patriotism?

I may be unusual within Mormonism for these struggles. In my experience, Mormons are a rather patriotic lot, preaching it from the pulpit, and celebrating it in Stadiums of Fire. While I am not always comfortable with patriotic rhetoric (outside or within church), I will conclude this post quoting verses from a patriotic hymn included in our hymnal. These verses give voice to the particular kind of patriotism I feel, and to my appreciation of veterans:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful thoughts. Appreciation is powerful and should be felt for all who sacrifice willingly for ideals that are good and true. Patriotism can be respected as much for when your ideals motivate you to challenge your own government's direction and rhetoric as when your ideals are in line with your government's actions and ideals. Some of the greatest patriots of our country were ones who fought for change, not accepting the status quo. Patriotism is not nationalism. (Lisa Sabey wrote on Daniel's wall)