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Cheap Patriotism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously warned against “cheap grace” that substitutes itself for costly discipleship.  This 4th of July we might borrow his phrase and warn against cheap patriotism – patriotism the swells the heart but doesn’t demand sacrifice, that charms the electorate but doesn’t speak difficult truth, patriotism that turns flags into trinkets empty of deeper meaning and that outsources the nation’s wars to an army of volunteers and mercenaries euphemistically called “contractors,” patriotism that kills with drones and avoids the inconvenience of defending civil liberties.  It is, to paraphrase the German martyr, “patriotism without a price, without costs.”

In a conversation after worship on Sunday on the delicate question of flags in the sanctuary, an older member recalled her experience during the Second World War when “our men” were overseas and “all of us were part of it” –  rolling bandages, using ration coupons, sharing the experience of worrying, not knowing, hoping for safe returns.  “We were so lucky,” she said.  “They all came home.  So many of their names on the plaques in the sanctuary, and they all came home to us!”  I was struck by how immediate the experience, now seven decades removed, seemed to her, how the flag, in the church or not, connected her to that formative and deeply communal patriotic experience.  It had been a costly patriotism and even on Sunday, so many years later, it felt precious, almost sacred to her.

Her experience, however, feels very distant for most of us today.  The post-9/11 decade has been costly in ways that will be unfolding for years, but very few of us have been asked to pay any direct or immediate price.  The gushing patriotism in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks turned us into a nation of cheerleaders for the ideologically driven crusades of our leaders, but that’s about all.  Perhaps they recognized that these morally ambiguous adventures would not garner sustained support, that it would be better to hide the price tag and defer payment, that keeping most of us insulated from any direct involvement was the best way to avoid hard questions about “why?” and “for what?”

My son has been home from his deployment in Afghanistan for about three and a half years and last fall completed his National Guard duty without so much as a thank you let alone any kind of separation ceremony.  Turn in your stuff and that’s it.  Very occasionally I bump into someone else who had a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it’s rare.  We ask how our children have fared since coming back, whether they’re struggling in any way, and move on to other subjects.  David joined the National Guard hoping for some kind of formative experience after floundering a bit in his immediate post college years.  He wanted to serve.  And there was the signing bonus, the payment of college loans, etc.  What he got was mostly just a long disruption in his life and an experience so foreign to most of the population that he finds few people interested in hearing much about it.  He has a bum knee, takes some meds for moderate PTSD, and is basically ok, though I wonder – and worry – about that sometimes.  He relishes those occasions when he can talk with other veterans, but they are few and far between.

I’m not eager for us to reprise the World War II experience.  We don’t need to find a foreign enemy to galvanize a spirit of costly patriotism.  There are enough problems facing us to engender a sense of shared urgency and sacrifice.  But beyond platitudes, our leaders haven’t done much to call us beyond the individual pursuit of happiness, and the media offers mostly models of stunning narcissism.  How I wish my son had been offered a compelling opportunity to join in a bold national initiative to address the looming challenges facing our country.  Instead, he was encouraged to settle for a wasted year in a place that will probably be no different at the end of this war than it was at the beginning and which most Americans probably can’t even locate properly on a map.  His patriotism has been costly for him though, remarkably, he doesn’t seem particularly upset that so few others have anted up much of anything, particularly when the economy has offered him slim opportunity since getting home.  Even he seems forgiving of the cheap patriotism around him.

So forgive me my skepticism today when our leaders wrap themselves in the flag today as they chase campaign contributions and votes.  In the great race to lead this country the competition is all about who will ask the least of us.  Cheap patriotism is a winner in the short term.  But in the long run, I fear, it will prove very costly.

John H. Thomas
July 4, 2012

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