Patriotism is a good word that also throws dark shadows.
For starters, “patriotism” is derived from Latin and Greek words that mean “father,” as in “fatherland.” As if there are no mothers or daughters or sons. Patriotism has, historically, been about patriarchy, androcentrism and phallocentrism (a polite word that means “thinking with your penis”). Patriotic stories are invariably violent. We are most patriotic when the news is an unending and breathless series of updates about the murders and funerals of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.
I checked a thesaurus to see if I could find any kinder and gentler synonyms for patriotism. The thesaurus offered “loyalty,” and “devotion,” as possibilities. But other synonyms included nationalism, jingoism, chauvinism, and worst of all, “xenophobia.” That means, “fear of the other” but is widely used to mean “hatred of anyone who isn’t like me.” Patriotism is perhaps the best word for the quality I want to write about, but it throws long shadows.
No wonder then, that in England, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “patriotic” was understood to be a slur. To be a patriot then was pretty much the same as being called a “Tea Partier” now—only worse.
“Patriotism” is also an “ism.” Such words insist that you are either a true believer or badly mistaken. “Ism” words like “Marxism,” “fundamentalism,” and even “liberalism” are used to draw lines in the sand. These are words for ideologies that take over the minutes, days, and sometimes the souls of our lives.
Patriotism might be a good word but it casts dark shadows. For example, Irene and I have a large charcoal drawing of a statue that stands in the center of the Dutch City of Rotterdam. The statue is entitled, Stad Zonder Hart," which means, "city without a heart."
The statue is of a person who seems contorted in pain. The body is twisted in unnatural ways, arms all akimbo. And the torso is cratered by a huge hole where the heart belongs. City without a heart.
The statue commemorates the destruction of Rotterdam, on May 14, 1940. In the space of a few hours, Nazis dropped nearly 2000 bombs on the city center. The blitzkrieg ignited a firestorm. More than 1000 people died, 85,000 more were homeless, and nearly three square kilometers of the centrum was pulverized into dust.
Stad Zondar Hart is a monument to the devotion—the patriotism—that the surviving Dutch have for their nation.
But the Stad Zonder Hart inevitably casts a terrible shadow, too. See it and you are confronted with another group of patriots: the generals who launched those bombers against Rotterdam, the pilots who flew them, and the ruthless SS who came in their wake to round up Jews and send them to death camps. Nazi patriots stole Rotterdam’s heart.
And that is one of the problems with patriotism, isn’t it? Tie patriotism too strongly to country and suddenly few are asking what is right or wrong.
I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s new Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence for review. Along the way she reminds readers that Jerusalem has been destroyed several times. And she points to a remarkable passage that Isaiah writes in response to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Of course, Isaiah describes the pain of Jerusalem’s destruction. He does so, for example, in a passage Christians would later use to describe Jesus. Israel, says Isaiah, was despised and rejected, afflicted, wounded for our transgressions, and led like a lamb to the slaughter. In many ways, Isaiah’s book is a written Stad Zonder Hart, a patriotic, anguished monument to the horror of a nation’s utter defeat. Isaiah is a book with lots of shadow in it.
But then, surprisingly, in a passage Armstrong highlights, Isaiah 60—among other similar passages—Isaiah writes: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” And that light is dawning on a New Jerusalem. A parade of nations—including many of Israel’s past enemies—comes to New Jerusalem’s gates to honor her. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The light in New Jerusalem, of course, is God. So, at first, reading Isaiah 60, I’m a bit anxious because patriotism mixed with religion tends to be very scary. Consider those fight for Allah or who died for the Divine Hirohito of Japan. Consider the crusades or The Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda.
But leaving aside, for a moment, the difficulties of mixing religion and patriotism, there is something else in this passage that is at least a partial antidote to the many shadow sides of patriotism. The author says that in New Jerusalem, God “will appoint peace as your overseer, and righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders.”
So Isaiah 60 hints at patriotism rooted not in aching sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem, or in memories of war dead, or even in a volatile mix of nationalism and God. It hints at a patriotism based on ideals.
Listen, patriotism has always been a good word wrapped in dark shadow. We ought never forget the sacrifices so many made to preserve freedom at home, or to liberate our friends abroad. But if patriotism is based only on the memory of sacrifices made, it will not necessarily have a moral heart. Memory, after all, is fickle. The past—from Pax Romana to the American Revolution, is always subject to pragmatic revision by the state for its own ends.
So, ultimately, patriotism must be informed by enduring ideals if it to avoid walking the fence between jingoism and disaster. Unless the Canadian—and American—way is all about finding and making peace rather than being dragged off into one war after another; unless we believe in reconciliation and equal opportunity as means to short-circuit violence at the fringes of our domestic society; unless we embrace righteousness—that is, justice and equity for neighbors both near and far—unless we embrace righteousness rather than mere health and wealth for ourselves; unless we root our patriotism in a future worth bequeathing to our children, rather than in memories of past battles won or lost patriotism will merely continue to be a good word that casts a long shadow.
But when patriotism is informed by the light of Isaiah’s kind of ideals: peace, nonviolence, righteousness and reconciliation, it will go far to cast our national shadows away.