Posted by Sappho on March 15th, 2014 filed in Quaker Practice

For years now, my Quaker meeting has had a practice of meeting for Religious Education an hour before our meeting for worship. In that time, we’ve done various things. We had a Bible study where we read the Gospel of Matthew. We have an intergenerational Religious Education program once a month, with activities and discussion that are more geared to children joining adults. (The last one was about music.) And for a couple of First Days each month, we’ve been working our way through a set of lessons and queries on Quakerism.

One First Day a month, one of our attenders picks an article in Western Friend, and we talk about it. This month, that was last Sunday.

The Western Friend issue in question was the January/February 2014 issue, and the whole issue has a theme of patriotism. Some articles talk about ways in which Friends have concluded that they are, in fact, patriots (loving home and country), while still rejecting war and violence. Poems talk about the ways in which patriotic impulses are used to inspire people to fight “them.” And some articles talk about coming to terms with problems in our country, such as “White America’s Myth of the Black Male” an “Healing Our Nation’s Oldest Wounds” (those inflicted by settlers on Native Americans). The one selected for our discussion was “Patriotic Principles and Quaker Testimonies.” David prepared a series of quotes and queries for our discussion, and we settled into silence and then spoke to the queries.

1. The author observes that “The Tribe may be one of the earliest manifestations of patriotism, as the tribe reflects a bond forged from fighting against a common threat or fear, based on a strong identification of ‘us’ against ‘them.’ In contrast to such bonds forged in fear and opposition, community is described … in Faith and Practice as ‘our shared sense of the common good, within which we discover who we are and where we each fit into the larger scheme of things…. We see Jesus’ command to love one another as a command to be in community. We testify against all appeals to divisiveness.’ Thus the nature of ‘the tie that binds’ is centrally important to Friends.”

We are a small community with values that could be and have been considered eccentric, fringe, radical, or subversive. Do we base our identity on opposition to those who disagree with us? Do we define ourselves in the negative – do we know who we are less through reflection and original action than be thinking and talking about who we are not? Is this something we should be concerned about?

I remembered, and spoke about, a study that reported on differences in brains between conservatives and liberals, with conservatives showing more development in the “snake! get away from it!” section of the brain, and liberals more in the “seeking out new things” sections, and of how, when that came out, I saw it linked, and reposted, by many of my friends, as evidence that we aren’t like those narrow-minded and tribalist people on the other side of the aisle. On the one hand, I think there’s probably a bit of truth in such studies, and some (nowhere near all, and very likely not even most, but some) of our politics come from the different ways we’re wired. And part of it may be that some of us, those with, perhaps, a fight-or-flight response that’s more easily roused relative to our tend-and-befriend response, may be more vulnerable to fear of the Other. But there’s another truth, that all of us are prone to a degree of tribalism, but with different ideas about who our Tribe actually contains.

Others spoke of other things, in reaction to this query and the next. Some spoke of struggles with the ways in which patriotism is used to rouse people to war. How do we counter this? Others spoke of different pitfalls besides actual war. One Friend talked about the kind of economic nationalism that resists outsourcing to other countries; do we have the right to object, if such outsourcing perhaps reduces the living standard of some people within our country, but raises the living standard of people elsewhere?

I thought, as I often think, amid talk about patriotism, of Bonhoeffer. On the eve of war, Bonhoeffer was travelling in the US, and some of his friends wanted him to stay, for his own safety. “I shall have no right,” Bonhoeffer wrote to Niebuhr before leaving America, “to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” Patriotism leads people to many places, and Bonhoeffer’s led him, in the end, to involvement in an assassination attempt against the leader of his country (because the leader of his country was Hitler).

That tribalist impulse, that leads us to bond with particular groups of people and places, is a double-edged thing. We can harness that devotion for good, but we also always need to keep an eye on it, because, unchecked, it can lead to many kinds of hurt to people we judge not of our Tribe.

2 Responses to “Patriotism”

  1. Marian Neudel Says:

    I have trouble with patriotism. Back when that Original Other Blogger was writing about the Benedict Option, I could not resist coming back with the Benedict Arnold Option. Sometimes, as Thoreau would say, the only place for an honest citizen in a dishonest country is in jail. I know, logically, that I have a quintessentially American personality, which would feel awkward at best anyplace else except possibly Canada. But I still find myself longing to live in a REAL Western industrialized country, with REAL universal health care and gun control and free education. In the meantime, the impulses that turn up under “Patriotism” in my psyche mostly have to do with responsibility. As in “this is my house, I need to keep it clean.” (and “why can’t those nasty neighbors stop throwing their garbage in my yard?”)

  2. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    I’ve come to realize, in discussions with Hector, that I may be more patriotic than I once thought (at least, I think I have more inclination that way than he does). I’m not necessarily sure this is a good thing, as I have some of the same uneasiness with patriotism as you do. Sometimes, Thoreau is right in this one. But at least there are ways to turn those impulses to good. I like your “this is my house, I need to keep it clean” take on patriotism.