This weekend we celebrate again the birth of our country. We will fly our flags. We will watch and set off fireworks. We will remind one another of the great gift of freedom we have in living in these United States of America.
We will hear once again of the importance of patriotism.
But what does patriotism mean? The simple definition is perhaps the best one: “love of country.” We are called to love our country.
But what does it mean to love our country?
The difficulty is that we often twist the terms “patriotic” and “love of country” in such a way that justifies when we as a country have gotten it wrong. For some it seems that “patriotic” means that our country and our government is above any critique or criticism.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
Loving my country means that I want the best for my country. Loving my country means that I want my country to live up to the hope and freedom that it proclaims. Loving my country means that I will hold my country accountable when I see it go astray. Loving my country means that I will see what I and my fellow citizens can do to live up to our country’s potential.
Consider this: In the document that we celebrate this day – our Declaration of Independence – Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Yet, the reality is that this country has had to grow into this understanding.
When this country was first established, only male landowners had the right to vote. It was not until 1828 that non-property-owning citizens could vote.
When this country was first established, African-Americans were enslaved and even constitutionally considered less than a person. It took a civil war to free them, and another hundred years of struggle before they possessed full rights as citizens.
When this country was first established, Jefferson’s words effectively left out half the population by not even considering women. It took the efforts of a growing suffrage movement that protested and fought for women’s rights before women claimed the right to vote in 1920. And for some unknown reason, over the last 50 years we still cannot codify this language through the Equal Rights Amendment.
These are all examples of patriotism. Abolitionists were patriots. Civil rights protesters were patriots. Suffragists were patriots.
The movements of patriotism continue to this day. The Me-Too movement participated in the work of patriotism. Those that fight for LGBT rights are showing their love of country. Those that work to alleviate poverty, undo the violence in our streets, and struggle for peace in our world, all are participating in the work of patriotism. And especially now, as the protests rise up calling for justice and equality in the Black Lives Matter movement in light of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, we see a movement of patriotism.
Whenever we see the gap between the freedom we proclaim and the injustices we allow to continue, the patriotic response is to name the gap and do all that we can to rectify it.
Patriotism is not “Our Country – Right or Wrong!” Patriotism is “Our Country – Help Us Right our Wrongs!”
If we want guidance in this process, let us turn to the vision that Paul laid before us centuries before our country came into being: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
My prayer is that we may live into the one-ness and freedom we find in Jesus so that it might guide the one-ness and freedom we desire as a nation.
Only then can we truly claim the mantle of patriotism.