How can we have an intelligent conversation on the most dangerous policy topic of the day without being branded traitors, self-loathing Americans, anti-patriotic, or soft on democracy? That’s a good question, especially when even the president of the United States questions the patriotism of those few in the U.S. Senate who question his policy or challenge his authority to wage war at will. Must the first casualties of patriotism always be dissent, debate and discussion?
This is a frightening time, and if one cannot speak out of Christian conscience and conviction now, then we are forever consigned to moral silence. We hear much talk of “moral clarity,” but it sounds more to me like moral arrogance, and it must not be met with moral silence.
Anthony Lewis, formerly of The New York Times, said recently that if the purpose of the terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, was to destroy our confidence in our own American values, then, he feared, they had succeeded. In the name of fighting terror both abroad and at home, our government — particularly through the attorney general, together with a culture of patriotic intimidation — has suspended our constitutional liberties, stifled dissent and defined a good American as one who goes along with the powers that be, in a “my way or the highway” mentality. When patriotism is defined in this narrow, partisan, opportunistic, jingoistic way, then perhaps that old cynic Dr. Samuel Johnson was right when he defined patriotism as the “last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Frankly, I prefer his contemporary, Edmund Burke, who said, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Our country is lovely, which is why we love it and are willing to serve it and, if necessary, to die for it. It is because we love it that we dare to speak to affirm the goodness and righteousness in it, the virtue and the power of its core values, and to speak against the things that would do harm to it and to those core values. What is and has always been lovely about our country is our right and our duty to criticize those in power, to dissent from their policies if we think them to be wrong, and to hold our alternative vision to be as fully valid as theirs.
In 1952, Adlai Stevenson was running for president against the patriotic and heroic Dwight D. Eisenhower. Charges of eggheadism, of intellectualism, of being soft on communism and soft on patriotism had been leveled at the intelligent and eloquent Stevenson. In a speech to the American Legion convention called “Patriotism in America,” Stevenson said, “What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our time? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility, a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” How carefully, poignantly and aptly chosen are those words in comparison with some of the language we hear flashed about in recent days.
J.B. Phillips translates Romans 12: “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him.”
Note “With eyes wide open.” Not in fake devotion or in pseudo-piety, but with eyes wide open as an act of intelligent, thoughtful worship. He goes on: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands, and moves toward the goal of true maturity” (Romans 12:1-3; Phillips).
I know that in the mighty roar of wisdom, might and riches, the sounds of love, justice and righteousness — those things in which God delights, and in which God’s people are meant to delight — sound thin, feeble and anemic. Yet my Christian conscience tells me that these “soft” values should prevail every time over the “hard,” even though they often do not.
If I am compelled to compromise those Christian values in the service of the state, I had better be as certain as is humanly possible that such a compromise is worth sacrificing the things I hold most precious. And I certainly won’t know that unless there is thoughtful discussion, debate and dissent.
The gospel, however, does tell us where we ought to be — tough, untenable and difficult as that place may be. Love, justice and righteousness are superior to wisdom, might and riches. How often do we have to be told that? “And these are God’s words,” says Paul at the end of Romans 12: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.”
Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered with evil. Take the offensive and overpower evil with good. That is what Paul is saying: Take the offensive! Overpower evil with good! Now that is a radical foreign policy. That would scare the bejesus out of a lot of people, to know that with all of our power we decided that we were going to overpower evil with good.
If we wish to be on God’s side rather than making God into our own ally of American realpolitik, then we would do well to remember our text from Jeremiah. God’s values are clear; so too ought ours to be. If you love the Lord, you will love the things the Lord loves. There is no other way around it. SThe Rev. Professor Peter Gomes serves in the Memorial Church at Harvard University.
This essay was excerpted from an article that was published in Sojourner magazine.
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