Real Patriotism

The recent decision of NFL owners to require football players to stand while the national anthem is played before football games got me, along with many others, thinking again about the meaning of patriotism.

As I wrote before (God bless the whole world, no exceptions), I come to this issue as someone born in Zimbabwe to an American mother and a Canadian father (who much later became an American citizen). So I am predisposed by birth and my early years not to pledge blind loyalty to any one country, even the one in which I have now lived for more than 56 of my 70 years. In addition, as a Christian, I believe that we are citizens first of all of God’s kingdom before we are citizens of any particular country. Citizenship in God’s kingdom and its values demand my primary loyalty.

Therefore, pledging allegiance to the flag is difficult for me. I do have patriotic feelings toward the United States, such as love of country and gratitude for the kind of life I and my family enjoy, and those feelings are often stirred when the national anthem is sung or played. But I’m always a bit uncomfortable with its glorification of war (“the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”).

Despite my general discomfort with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, however, embedded in both of them are important values. The pledge ends with a commitment to “liberty and justice for all,” and the national anthem ends, “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Liberty/freedom, justice, bravery. These are important ideals, fundamental to what the United States is supposed to be. Which is why it is incomprehensible to me that some would banish to the locker room or otherwise condemn those who respectfully and silently protest the reality that these ideals are not equally available to all in this country and that many people are routinely denied basic justice. Standing with your hand over your heart while the anthem is played/sung and the flag is raised does not necessarily mean that the rest of your life is being lived in ways that advance freedom and justice.

In fact, it seems to me that the very person who lashes out at NFL players who protest, suggesting they should be fired or leave the country, is doing the exact opposite. He threatens basic tenets of democracy (like free speech and the free press), engages in overt and dog-whistle racist speech, assaults the basic rule of law that brings justice, allows cruelty toward children and their parents with his anti-immigrant threats,** and his administration adopts policies and loosens regulations that will make it less likely for everyone to be treated justly and fairly.

There are many ways to be patriotic. Pledging allegiance to the flag and standing for the national anthem, even though I understand how they are important symbols, are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Real patriotism ought to include nonviolent protest and resistance when one’s country is not living up to its highest values and best self, acting in ways that promote rather than restrict liberty and justice for all, and living one’s own life in keeping with those values.

**In the interest of fairness, I note that during the Obama administration’s attempt to crack down on illegal immigration, children and families (many of whom were seeking asylum) were also often held for months in detention camps under inhumane conditions. This was not right then and it’s not right now.