My wife and I went on a cruise this January to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary six months late. It was terrific. But this post isn’t about that.
One of our favorite people that we met on the ship was a middle-aged woman named Victoria. Victoria’s favorite thing about the ship was drinking too much and then singing loudly and quite awfully at the karaoke bar. She was so outrageously and unjustifiably confident that people would start gathering in the evenings just to hear her squawk out another Taylor Swift ballad. But this post isn’t about that.
One evening as we were walking towards the karaoke bar to listen to the evening’s entertainment we heard someone quite loudly and badly attempting to sing “Proud to be an American.” You know the song. It’s everywhere – particularly this time of the year. You can’t escape it. It is the “Jingle Bells” of Fourth of July carols. In fact, when it comes to Fourth of July carols, it’s pretty much just Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith at this point. They are the Nat King Cole and Mariah Caray of Fourth of July music. Anyway, this post isn’t really about that.
I’ll admit. I don’t like that song. It’s cheesy, over-the-top, and ubiquitous. So when I heard this song coming from the bar, I cynically smirked, grabbed my wife’s hand, and led her quickly there. I did NOT want to miss it. When we walked in, I was immediately ashamed of myself. I mean, not gradually. Immediately. Standing up front was an old man – 92 years old we learned. He was completely blind and wearing a Navy veteran’s hat. Standing next to him was his grand daughter – a woman that looked to be about my age. She was both holding him up and helping him to sing the words. But it didn’t seem like he needed much help. He was belting out every out-of-tune word to that song. His voice broke, and we all wept when he sang “and I won’t forget the men who died, and gave that right to me, and I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today…” Standing in the same space of this man – a man who would be roughly the same age as my grandpa who had fought in WWII – my cynicism just seemed…bratty and pathetic. This post is about that.
There is a growing number of Americans (particularly younger Americans) who find patriotism – especially this time of the year – to be problematic. There are so many things obviously wrong with this country. You’d have to be blind not to see all of the cracks. People on the political Right or the Left might have different lists of exactly what’s wrong, but I think we would all agree that things are broken and America is deeply flawed. Religious people, like myself, would have another list of things that are wrong in this country. The idol of nationalism crouches at the door of the Church – and has sometimes been let inside. Is it acceptable for a Christian to celebrate the birth of Babylon?
But the problem is that so many of us have allowed the obvious flaws and imperfections in our nation and other institutions to devolve into smug cynicism. Yes, our nation has not lived up to its high ideals, and Lord knows our politicians haven’t. Our churches, our schools, our employers – there is not a single institution that hasn’t failed us in some way. Heck, I’m old enough to remember when Cliff Huxtable wasn’t a serial rapist. But here’s the question: must the failures of our institutions lead us to cynicism?
Because cynicism is death. There is no life in cynicism. There is no hope in cynicism. Cynicism is gallows humor. There is also no grace in cynicism. Do we truly believe that the only things that are worth celebrating are those things without flaws? If that’s the case, then we will never truly celebrate or give ourselves over to anything or anyone. We will just be waiting to be disappointed and burned. We will keep all institutions and eventually even all people at a safe arm’s length. A society that finds virtually everything except for cynicism to be problematic is a society that has lost all contact with the concept of grace. A society that finds virtually any overt display of patriotism to be passe or embarrassing is just kind of…bratty.
Here’s the thing. We are capable of loving something even while understanding its flaws. We do this literally every day. Actually, the only true love is a love that knows about obvious and hidden flaws and chooses to love anyway. This is a love wrapped in grace. Do you think this 92 year old didn’t know about the flaws in this country? He’s seen more life and death, justice and injustice, than virtually all of us. We shouldn’t be so arrogant. Yet, he’s proud to be an American anyway. That’s a gracious patriotism.
And to Christians. Yes, nationalism is an ever present danger. But patriotism and nationalism need not be the same thing. Even those in Babylon were told to pray for the peace of their city. Is it too much to say that we have been blessed by living in this nation – that we enjoy freedoms and opportunities that most people around the world would literally die for? And if you don’t thank God for your nation, whom do you thank for it? Is it too much to recognize that America is not just about Washington D.C.? Actually, it’s very little about Washington. America is about your neighbor and your neighborhood – and clearly, asking God to bless your neighbor in all of his or her flaws is not idolatry.
Celebrating America doesn’t mean that we ignore or approve of America’s flaws, past or present. It doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to injustice or hate our international neighbors. It just means that with grace and gratitude we say, “Yes, I’m still proud to be an American.” And then we blow a bunch of crap up.