I remember the 1976 Winter Olympics and walking into our TV room where my dad was watching the USA play hockey against the USSR. As an eight year old more interested in cheering for the winners than in Cold War politics, I announced that I was for the Soviet Union. My dad immediately roared at me, incredulously asking how I could be for the Soviet Union against my own country. It was frightening to me to see my dad’s anger over who I rooted for in a hockey game. So, like any eight year old boy who wanted to please my dad, I immediately back tracked and proclaimed my allegiance for my country’s hockey team. But I was left more than a little curious that cheering for another country in a sporting event against the one I happened to live in could cause such a hostile response from my dad.
That was the first of many, I am afraid, run-ins with something called patriotism. I have to admit I simply have never really understood patriotism, a seemingly unquestioned loyalty to one’s country of origin. I have been attracted to loyalty though and have cherished it as an important value in life. I have witnessed this loyalty by international friends in seminary and since who are quite proud of their country – and even more their culture, which are not always the same thing. Seeing their cultural pride, I have wondered why I do not have this same thing. I have felt as if at times I am somewhat cultureless, though I know that is an impossibility. I think I am part Scottish, part Irish, but no one knows for sure and I honestly have never really cared to ask. I grew up in suburbs, as detached and isolated as my family could afford. I have found much to critique and little to cherish in this context.
Growing up suburban, I have always felt a little adrift, somewhat cultureless, with very little loyalty to where I lived. In fact, where I lived implicitly carried little loyalty if loyalty is dependent on shared experiences with bonded relationships. Suburbs were built for the purposes of seclusion and unaccountable autonomy. Since my experience growing up in the Dallas suburb of Plano was one characterized by almost total exclusion and relationships which were mostly simplex (meaning missing multiple roles or opportunities for deeper social knowledge of one another) and which were utilitarian in nature, I have never felt a strong loyalty to place; neither Texas nor the United States. In fact, because I felt mostly ostracized from suburban Dallas society and I responded by marginalizing myself, any demands that others made on me based solely on geographical location never resonated with me. They still don’t.
I moved to Texas as a sixth grader just as the 80s were beginning, found this incredible emphasis on status, on what I wore, what I owned, and who I hung out with. It was what every teen deals with, but in north Dallas, it was peer pressure and materialism on steroids. So, when these same people who so easily acclimated to a system that degraded and marginalized so many people, demanded that I give my allegiance to this alternative reality called Texas, I thought they were nuts. It just did not register at all.
So, I come to days like Memorial Day with little understanding and what appears to most others, a complete lack of respect and patriotism. I have an appreciation for peoples’ passions whatever they are for. And I can certainly understand why others get angry with me when they feel that I am somewhat obtuse to having loyalty to this country, and even overly critical. I do not feel it necessary to offer apologies, but I can understand why some people have been angry with me.
But I also have to say that I remain baffled as to why some feel this intense loyalty to the country that they have continued to die in wars that have been shown to be unnecessary and misleading as to the cause. I respect the loyalties of others, especially following 9/11 when peoples’ patriotism led them to sign up to fight for their country. In fact, I have repeatedly challenged all of the armchair warriors who so strongly supported the mistaken invasions of Afghanistan and especially Iraq to show that support by signing up and going to fight (and no one took up this challenge seriously unfortunately).
However, I honestly cannot understand why people have continued to travel to Iraq in particular when they frame it as “fighting for their country,” when it has been so clearly shown that this war (and both wars in my opinion) had nothing whatsoever to do with national security or “preserving our freedom” as so many people so glibly say. This is where patriotism, difficult enough for me to understand anyways, becomes totally unintelligible to me. This is where patriotism seems more of a death wish than a respected value. This is where the most patriotic thing seems to be to walk away, to entirely refuse to fight at all; to lay down one’s arms and refuse any orders to continue the needless killing and destruction.
So, on this Memorial Day I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for those families whose loved ones have been killed while employed by the military. I will continue to advocate for our allegiances to be first and foremost devoted to God’s Kingdom; a Kingdom characterized by peace, love and justice. But when patriotism makes its demand upon us, when we are called to defend our country against its enemies, especially when those enemies are rightly named for who they really are – poverty, oppression, and injustice – I will join in that call anytime, any day. Sign me up.