The Reluctant Patriot

Ancient Testimony - Acts 16:25-26

July 04, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Paul and Silas were in jail.  They had been expressing their opinion about Jesus and how much they loved him.  The authorities were not amused.  While in jail, they were singing and praying into the wee hours.  A severe earthquake occurred, rocking the prison to its foundation.  All the doors flew open.  Everyone’s chains were pulled loose.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, they were free.  The jailor awoke and drew a sword on himself and was about to commit suicide.  Why?  He had failed as a jailor.  He was not the equal of the earthquake.  Then Paul shouted out and liberated him, saying some of the strangest words in all the Biblical literature: “Don’t harm yourself, we are all still here.”  Why didn’t they escape?  Were they nuts?  Did they not have good judgment?  Or at least normal judgment?  Most jailed people, given the chance to not be jailed, would walk away.  Paul was showing Christ-like kindness, even for his jailor.

There is a message here for us.  We also don’t need to walk away from our prisons.  We can stay here and liberate ourselves, our jails, and even our jailors.  You are right if you think this is just another version of nonviolent Christian love.  This version of love is one that loves even those who harm and disappoint us, even those who jail or jilt us.  No one ever said Christianity was a cake walk.

Many will argue that patriotism or love of country is the command of scripture.  I think not.  Love of country is no better and no worse than any other kind of love.  And Christians are specifically counseled not to put nation above JesusWe are not patriots because we have to be; we are patriots because we want to be in love with our country.  As people of faith, we also want to have a certain kind of love for our country, a nonviolent one.  At this particular moment, it is hard to be in love with this land and its people.  Many of us feel jilted, dumped, ditched by it.  Our best nation has walked out on us and itself—and our lesser angels are in charge.  Certainly the unemployed feel ditched.  The shrimpers in the Gulf feel ditched.  And Tea Party aficionados think they pay too many taxes and get too little.  I so wish they would take on the high cost of  Iraq and Afghanistan as part of their movement.  But I am not arguing that I am in love with America because we are smart.  We are in fact so benighted that we’d rather pay more to keep a man in jail than give him a college education.  Many of us enjoy being undressed at airports by people in uniforms.  We subscribe to the message put out by the national insecurity state.  We allowed Bush to become president even though he lost the election in Florida.  I don’t want to tell you how many of us believe in the Rapture or how addicted we are to the well-defended bargain of cheap oil.  I don’t want to face how addicted we are to the short-term and how that addiction drives us to hurt others around the world.  12% of us believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and three-fourths of us believe that Ben Franklin’s famous sentence about God helping those who help themselves is in the Bible—never try to tell another American that it is not, which it is not, because facts don’t really bother many of us.

Indeed, Christianity is a wonderful religion that fell into the wrong hands—in the same way that America is a great nation that has fallen into the wrong hands.  If Christians are the biggest obstacle to finding God, so Americans are our own best obstacle to finding ourselves.  I don’t need to argue our virtue to tell you that I am in love with my country.  I am in fact hopelessly in love with it and resemble nothing so much as a jilted lover who won’t give up the hope that her man (or woman) might return.  Or come to his senses.  What other country has hot dog eating contests?  Or fried pickles on the menu, which also features both empanadas and bratwurst?  What’s not to love?

So, one man met another on a bridge.  Maybe he was a jilted lover, too.  He was about to jump into the roiling water below.  The first man decided to help the second man.  What’s the matter, asked he.  I’ve had it, I can’t see my way to any desirable future.  The first man decided to try to connect to the second man.  Don’t you have any religious faith, asked he.  Of course, said the would-be jumper.  I am a Christian.  Ah, so am I.  And I am a Baptist.  Ah, so am I.  And I am an Independent Baptist.  Ah, so am I.  Connection was established.  Conversation had begun.  Are you a Southern Baptist or an American Baptist?  I am an American Baptist.  Ah, so am I.  And I am an Independent Millennialist Baptist.  Ah, so am I.  And I am a 1759 Millennial Convention Post-Rapture Baptist.  Ah, said the savior, oh, dear.  He breathed deeply.  Then he said, Die, heretic scum. 

One thing I love about Americans is that some of us like these kinds of jokes.  They express that simultaneous love and hate that we have for each other.  Jews say there always have to be two synagogues in any town, just to accommodate the differences among Jews.  You don’t have to be Baptist or Jewish to understand the vitality of religious differences among Americans.  We like differences.  Even more, we like the idea of personal expression.  There may be 300-million Americans, but we share one thing in common: we think we have the right to our opinions and a great majority of us think our opinions are right.  We also all think we are the little guy, even if we have a second home and don’t want to pay taxes on it.

I never felt so American as when I was in China.  I was there representing the United Church of Christ at the Beijing women’s meeting in 1995.  By the way, just so you don’t think I am picking on Baptists—or Jews—I have never understood why we call ourselves the United Church of Christ.  United, we are not.  Publishing a hymnal took us eight years.  Anyway, I got off the plane and when the officer with the gun asked me the purpose of my visit, I proudly told him I was there to cover the meeting for my church and to write about it.  He promptly detained me in a small room for forty-eight hours.  He was less impressed with my freedom than I was.  No, I was not like Paul that week.  I did not love my jailor.  On the other hand, I have come to love the way the Chinese lead with the group in the same way that I love the way Americans lead with the individual.  You don’t have to be imperialist in thought or deed to love America; in fact, the more you can see why that jailor locked me up, if ever so briefly, the more in love you can become with the world.  So many of us act “anti-American” when really we are just pro-world.

When I talk about being an American patriot, if ever so reluctantly, I am talking about loving this notion of self-expression.  I don’t need to hate China to love America; instead, I can love my land and love other lands, too.  I can’t imagine a world where joy about writing what you see would not be a joy to all.  I am imperial about that individualistic joy.  We Americans love ourselves and our opinions and we have been taught to love them by the land. 

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, on this day in 1855, Walt Whitman self-published a small volume of poems, which he called Leaves of Grass.  Ten years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written an essay called “The Poet,” which called for a new style of poetry that reflected the spirit of the United States. Emerson wrote: “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials . . .  Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, . . . our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.” And so Walt Whitman decided to become that genius.  He wrote later: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”  It is no accident that his famous book included the poem “Song of Myself.”  Nor is it an accident that some of our greatest poetry comes out of a quarrel between two writers.  Pugnacity is our middle name.

When I say I love America and am a patriot, I say so with some fear and trembling.  Many are quite depressed with this great land and great people right now.  We don’t see a positive future.  We don’t seem to be peacefully alone with ourselves.  We look in the mirror and wonder who it is that we are.  We are simultaneously so obnoxiously self-congratulatory and so afraid and insecure.  These are the kinds of things that happen when you love something very much and it doesn’t love you back.  You get all mixed up.  You don’t know what is going to happen next.  You don’t see your way forward.  These kinds of emotions, like clinical depression, are especially hard on Americans.  They feel so European, so old world to us.

Whether you think your relationship with your country is like that of a prisoner or one who has been jilted, rethink it.  Remember what you have learned by a lover disappearing on you: it is time to sing that great song of myself.  Notice how Paul treated even his jailor in refusing to hate him.  Move beyond the notion that love that is not returned is not love.  Love abides, even when it is not returned, even when someone has done you harm.  We are each and all in charge of our relationships with our jailors and our jilters.  Amen.

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