When a nation feels attacked, like France last month and the United States following September 11, 2001 it stirs the best and worst of patriotism and encourages xenophobia. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century describes, in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, what he calls the ethical paradox of patriotism.
Within patriotism, there is a degree of living out the wonderful spiritual and altruistic element of allowing people to go beyond their own self-interests and to identify with a larger purpose. However, on occasion, Niebuhr explains, the altruistic impulse expresses itself with “…such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use that power without moral restraint. Thus, the unselfishness of the individual makes for the selfishness of nations.”(91).
The danger is that, “the sentiment of patriotism [can achieve] a potency in the modern soul, so unqualified, that the nation is given carte blanche to use the power, compounded of the devotion of individuals, for any purpose it desires.” (92). The most dangerous part about this is that the times when these sentiments are most strong, are exactly at the times when the nation is engaged in aggression or defense. Therefore, it is when nations are making the most consequential decisions about life, death, and destruction that their ethical and moral critique is at its lowest.
At times like these, during and after horrendous acts of violence and loss of lives, we need to pull together and transcend our differences. I was proud of how the American people, pulled together during and after 9/11/2001, just as I have been moved by the stories from Paris of compassion and courage. People opened their homes and donated blood and pulled together with strangers in expressions of their shared humanity. My admiration and gratitude pours out to the first responders and all who rise to these moments and help people with broken bodies and broken hearts. The stories of heroism – both great and small give me renewed faith in the human spirit.
Other less visible acts of heroism are performed by those who face the ridicule of their fellow citizens by offering prophetic words that call their nation to ethical and moral action. James Bryce aptly said, “Patriotism consists not of waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.” Great patriots, such as, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not get caught up in the sentimentality of patriotism or the popular hysteria and emotions of their times. They were moral thinkers for their nation. They risked providing a critical and ethical analysis which called their country to live up to a larger vision.
The United States put these words on its Statue of Liberty (a gift from France, in fact):
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
For me, the statue’s torch sheds light on a vision we cannot give up on, even and especially, when terrorists instill fear in our hearts. While some prominent Americans are calling us to turn our back on refugees from the Middle East, others are courageously pushing us not to give in to the terrorists’ intentions which are to goad us to turn away from our values.
In France, and across the western world, there is a renewed call to arms and especially to bombs. Why do we try to assuage our suffering by creating even more? We have a euphemism called “collateral damage”. In other words, these are injuries or deaths of men, women, and children who have no involvement with, or connection to, the terrorists. These are people going about their daily lives in peace, like the people who were killed in Paris and everywhere terrorism strikes. The one undisputable evil in the actions of terrorists is the taking of innocent lives – sacred human lives. When we do the same, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is good. The prophet Isaiah warned: “Woe unto them that call evil good.” (5:20)
Remember, “Patriotism consists not of waving the flag, but in striving that country shall be righteous as well as strong.”
May France and the United States, and all of our allies against terrorism, find ways to keep our people safe, without forgoing our values or defiling our souls.