Several years ago I was sitting in a church in Middletown, OH on the 4th of July. It was Sunday and the cicadas were at the end of their 17-year cycle. In this particular year, 1 in 100, they said, there were more cicadas than seemed “polite,” at least to this west coast inhabitant. I kid you not, crunchy carcases of the 1-3 inch insects were EVERYwhere. I could hardly walk on the ground without crunching their ghostly shells – and God forbid that anyone should go barefoot.Even with the ground an essential graveyard, the remaining males were still looking for a mate and singing up a storm.
If you haven’t heard cicadas, I hope you get the chance some day. They sound a bit like crickets only louder, lower, and sharply rumbly. Together they make a sort of hollow rackety chorus that rises and falls like frogs in a summer pond. And, like frogs, they can be almost deafening when all together. But I love the sound. It is the sound of summer in the midwest.
Despite being able to be present for an historic cicada summer, the 4th of July that year was a mixed bag for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for “hot dogs, baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” I know I am privileged and I am grateful for the freedom we all enjoy and for the people who have offered and continue to offer their lives to serve and protect us. I cry when the Star Spangled Banner is played at football games, hard as I try not to. But, that isn’t patriotism. It is sentimentality, of which some day I may be the elected president.
That particular year, it was barely post 9-11 and it was the “W” Bush years. We had bombed the hell out of Afghanistan and fabricated a war in Iraq. We had announced a global war on terror, which gave blanket permission to go to war anywhere in the name of it. I wasn’t feeling particularly “proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.” (Sorry Lee Greenwood.) Because of this – and other reasons, I was nervous about going to church in this particular parish. I am a bit of a spiritual dabbler – and appreciate many different ways to be community, but this had never really been my cup of spiritual tea. Somehow I knew this was going to be a memorable day.
Picture this: 3 grown kids and their families sitting at church with Grandma and Grandpa like we are in some Normal Rockwell painting. We’re dressed nicely (they still do that back there) waiting for church to begin when The Battle Hymn of the Republic complete with trumpet, trombone, and tuba start belting across the pews. “O.K.,” I thought to myself, a bit alarmed. I love a good brass band. It is the song that made me uncomfortable. My in-laws are smiling and moving. The organ and the brass filled up all the empty space in that sanctuary. I am feeling squirmy and really hot. Finally, the song is over and I am relieved.
There is a pause, a key change and bang!: everyone stands to the National Anthem.
Whaaat??? I was so shocked and offended, I started to cry. My in-laws looked at me lovingly thinking I was moved to red white and blue tears. I was moved to tears alright, but not because of sentimental patriotism.
I felt nauseous. I needed OUT! For a few conflicted moments I stood there and then I grabbed my daughter and left.
I have never walked out on the Star Spangled Banner before. I hope I never do again. But the marriage of national war fervor and religious zeal leads to deep crevasses of pain and regret. They are pretty damn hard to climb out of. It led to Auschwitz, to the Palestinian occupation, to crusades of all sorts, and to the French wars, to name a few. And, recently it has played a significant role in our justification of two horrible wars.
A wise person once said, “all religion leans toward the flag.” Never was it more conspicuous to me than when “Oh say can you see..” was blurted through the pipe organ on the 4th of July as a call to worship presumably God. I suppose it didn’t help we were all white.
This separation of church and state thing is a problem for Americans, though we think we are the model for the world.
I suspect that part of our confusion is that the lines between religious and patriotic feelings blur into each other. And face it, we aren’t very nuanced. It is like we have two batches of jello ready to set in the same bowl. They meld into each other and turn an ugly shade of grey. Just try to separate that back out! Yes, jello is a silly analogy, but it is the 4th of July and I am thinking of my mom’s “special” foods. But like I said before, our ability to keep our commitments clear isn’t particularly impressive some days.
Fortunately, sentimentality, whether it be in faith or politics, is not patriotism. For me, patriotism is about loving my country and being willing to hold it up to a high or better standard.
Every war we wage is justified in religious jargon. We have used religious thought to champion racial segregation and to exclude GLBTQ people from the rights of heterosexuals. It’s dangerous territory because we have been known to make some horrible mistakes over the years. So part of me thinks people of faith ought to just stay out of politics. (At least if they disagree with me 🙂
At the same time, I feel the tension as a Christian who seeks to follow the path of Christ in all areas of her life. (With many failures, mind you.) If I believe that I am asked to live with spiritual integrity, which I do, it means calling into question nation-serving patriotism, to examine the path of equality for all humans, and to live into my political life with that in mind. Jesus didn’t avoid politics. If he had, he would have been mostly ineffective. Our socio-political status deeply impacts us. Jesus was concerned about justice. It is part of what I love about him. This is the part of me that thinks I can’t NOT work on these things.
It’s a tough call.
Fortunately, hypocrasy is not relegated to people of faith. It is a human condition. No one plans it. No one wants it. It’s just that we have holes in our logic, we change our minds, and we are broken. One of the keys is to be willing to embrace the tensions we face as gifts on the journey. Either that or we spend our lives bailing on the National Anthem. Although it may fill a need at the time, in the long run, that will do us little good.