Patriotism as a Sacramental

I came of age intellectually in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism of the 1970s. I was taught by the prevailing winds of culture to believe love of country, pledges of allegiance, national anthems, and all that sort of thing were terribly corny. If you want to know the mood of the time, just watch some reruns of MASH. Patriotism was Frank Burns. True enlightenment was Hawkeye Pierce mocking Frank Burns. Patriots were suckers, jingos, boobs and hypocrites.

Eventually, I learned that my generation was, in this as in so much else, the exception to an almost universal fact of human nature since the dawn of time: the love of one’s native land. For civilized ancients, it was unheard of not to feel a love for your native country. Athenians loved Athens, Spartans loved Sparta, and Romans loved Rome. As the nation-state came into being, patriotism—the primal love of home—fueled the process as the English loved England, the French loved France and Spaniards loved Spain. Shakespeare gets exactly right the feeling of love for home when he speaks of his own native land in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

This is as normal and natural as loving your own mother and father—because it is loving your own mother and father. We see exactly the same natural impulse to love home in the ancient Jews:

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
all you who love her;
exult, exult with her,
all you who were mourning over her!
Oh, that you may suck fully
of the milk of her comfort,
that you may nurse with delight
at her abundant breasts!
For thus says the LORD:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap;
as a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort. (Isaiah 66:10-13)

At its most basic, this is as much a patriot’s anthem to his homeland as “America the Beautiful”.

But, of course, in the case of the biblical authors something else is happening as well: God is revealing himself and grace is building on nature. The love of home in the hearts of all healthy human beings is, in the case of the inspired authors, transformed into a sign of our longing for our true home.

The right way to understand patriotism, then, is to recognize that, like all natural and healthy human things, it is sacramental. God reveals himself in a human way. The great paradigm of this is Jesus Christ himself: God in human flesh. In Christ, God takes normal things and communicates with us through them. He takes plain water and raises it to the sacrament of divine cleansing, drowning, birthing, and quenching in Baptism. He takes the basic stuff of bread and wine and feeds our souls in the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist of his Body and Blood. Indeed, God speaks to us from all creation and fills our lives with signs of his love.

One of those signs is the human impulse to patriotism, which God transmutes into a sort of image or shadow or sign of love for a far greater Homeland. That is what the letter to the Hebrews is talking about when it speaks of the great heroes of the Old Testament:

These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The ancients, just like us, longed for something more than mere earth. They loved Jerusalem. But they loved it because ultimately they longed to come to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22). The saints are ultimately patriots of Heaven.


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