“My country, right or wrong.”
I don’t remember exactly when I first encountered these words, but I believe it was either in junior high or high school. I do remember staring at them in bemusement as a social studies teacher explained that this formulation expressed how many people throughout history had felt about their home countries. It had never even occurred to me that it was possible, much less desirable, to love one’s country—to love anything or anyone—that way.Love is not always a joyful or a celebratory thing. Sometimes, it simply must hold on in the face of discouragement and grief, hoping and praying that one day something will change for the better.
That might surprise you if you knew my background. I was brought up a true-blue, patriotic-as-they-come Army brat. Love of country for me wasn’t just an abstract idea; it was a way of life. It was the reason underlying my father’s job, his wartime service before I was born, and many of the values he taught me. On a more immediate level for my childhood self, it was the reason I had to change schools and make new friends every two or three years. It was as much a part of life as breathing.
But many people—even many of my Christian friends—seem to conflate that kind of love with unthinking jingoism. And I can understand that, as sad as it makes me to say it. There’s a lot of unthinking jingoism that passes for patriotism these days, making its presence felt via radio, TV, social media, and Internet memes. The malignant spirit of “my country, right or wrong” is very much alive and well. So many examples of shoddy thinking, self-righteous rage, and outright xenophobia are wrapped in the American flag; it’s no wonder that the mere sight of it has started to cause some to recoil.
In recent days, therefore, I’ve been thinking a lot about love of country, what it really means, and how it should be felt and expressed. The tumultuous presidential election—surely one of the most tumultuous in America’s history—has forced us to face some hard truths about trends and ideas at work in this country today. How, in the face of such divisiveness, rage, resentment, and hatred, does one go on loving the country where it’s all taking place?
It occurs to me to try using a different sort of model—the kind we use to teach us how to love wayward relatives or difficult friends. I’m talking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
“So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.”
Think about it. We know we are to love God, our families, our friends, our neighbors—and yet, except in the case of God, our faith never teaches us that the objects of our love are perfect. On the contrary, we are warned against such a view, which can lead to idolatry. Instead, we must love others as imperfect beings, knowing they will let us down and learning to forgive and to seek restoration of the relationship when they do. And they must do the same for us.
The father of the prodigal son has long been one of our primary examples of how to do this. We’ve learned from him to go on loving faithfully even when our love has been thrown back in our face—even when the beloved has willfully defaced his or her own image in our eyes.
“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion.”
It’s so easy, in this often-poisonous political atmosphere, to grow jaded and cynical about this country. But love doesn’t do that. Love doesn’t forget what it saw in the beloved. When I think about America, I don’t just see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton trading insults and seeing who can rack up the most ethical lapses. Instead, I see the country my great-grandparents came to in search of a better life; the country that helped their descendants thrive; the country my father fought for. I can’t dishonor them by forgetting what meant so much to them.
But I can mourn the things that have gone so wrong here. Because sometimes, as the prodigal son’s father shows us, love has to mourn.
Perhaps we don’t tend to think of loving America this way because we think of patriotism in terms of celebration—Fourth of July parades and picnics, hearing our anthem played at the Olympics. We don’t think of it in terms of mourning. But love is not always a joyful or a celebratory thing. Sometimes, it simply must hold on in the face of discouragement and grief, hoping and praying that one day something will change for the better.
“And [the father] said to [the older brother], ‘It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ ”
For the father in the story, it wasn’t a case of “my son, right or wrong.” It was simply hope, and faith, and love. As we try to come to terms with the shape our country is in, no other tools will do.
All references taken from Luke 15, New King James Version.
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