Would Jesus Salute the Flag?
The origin of the term "holiday" is Holy Day. A Holy Day is a day set apart for something. Our present understanding of the term "holy" always assumes that the thing set apart is set apart for God. This is not surprising. Words like "holy" are pretty much only the province of biblical characters, preachers and other religious types.
Yet curiously, the word "holiday" is not necessarily fraught with such religious implications. That's why we celebrate the Fourth of July Holiday, but don't imagine it is a Feast in the same sense that Christmas is. It is "holy" to Americans, not the Church.
And rightly so. We do well, as a people, to celebrate the American founding. It is a thing worthy of celebration, like all birthdays. But a question can arise, and has arisen over the years, of how we ought to regard our country or any country as Catholics who are, in a certain sense, "aliens and strangers" here on earth. Ought we to be patriots? This is a particularly live issue when we contemplate the depths to which nationalism and "love of the Fatherland" have brought the 20th Century. And so, the question arises: Would Jesus have saluted the flag?
Such a question elicits many throat-clearings and embarrassed silences in postmodern circles. I myself have felt the embarrassment, schooled as I am in the assumption that any linkage of "God and Country" is a prelude to all sorts of arrogant rhetoric about "America: The City on the Hill" and "Manifest Destiny" and all. And to be sure, I think America has a great deal to blush about and do not regard my country as a Royal Priesthood or a Holy Nation.
But when asked, "Would Jesus commend patriotism?" I answer "Yes, he would."
Jesus tells us the two greatest commandments are "Love God" and "Love your neighbor." At bottom, all healthy patriotism is simply obedience to the second commandment. It is the recognition that love does not stop at my front door, or even at my next door neighbor's front door, but that it extends to my town, my state, and my country (and beyond). Seen in this light, patriotism is simply common sense. As we are to love our neighbor (including our enemy) we are to love our country (even when she sins). But to love our country when she sins does not require us to shout jingoistic nonsense like "My Country, Right or Wrong!" This, as Chesterton observed, is like shouting "My mother, drunk or sober!" Jesus certainly never subscribed to such nonsense, and when it was necessary, shouted prophetic warning to his countrymen while steadfastly refusing to ever give up preaching to them the love of God, even when they nailed him to a cross.
This is not beer and brass bands "patriotism". But neither is it the current trendy version of high-minded religious disdain for the "vulgarity" of loving one's country which turns up its nose at all patriotism and piously refuses to be present at the Fourth of July parade with the hoi polloi. Rather, it is love of neighbor, which is all patriotism ever is, and the refusal to reject that neighbor even when he sins. When patriotism ceases to be love of neighbor--when it becomes Pride, for instance, and exalts the love of country over the love of God (as happened in Nazi Germany)--it ceases to be patriotism and the first voice of complaint ought to be a Catholic voice. But when patriotism dies altogether in a high-minded contempt for all such "vulgarity" as love of country, it is just as dead--and just as prideful.
May God bless my country, which is to say, may God bless my neighbor.
Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea