Monday, January 19, 2009

Bush's Farewell: patriotic sin

President Bush's "Farewell Address" has been dismissed, I think justly, as yet another example of denial and delusion, and ridiculed as superficial and inane. But one line in the speech is seriously disturbing -- or should be -- to "people of faith". One could call it "heretical" if that word wasn't so out of favor among anti-judgmental progressives. Yet, to my knowledge, it has gone unmentioned by his friends and foes alike.

The line is in the next to last paragraph: "It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve as your president. There have been good days and tough days. But every day I have been inspired by the greatness of our country, and uplifted by the goodness of our people. I have been blessed to represent this nation we love. And I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other — citizen of the United States of America."

That last sentence is gratifyingly humble in its lifting up of the status of "citizen" above that of "president". It's a fine and unusual declaration of democratic values. I find it odd, however, that those who proclaim that ours is a Christian Nation haven't questioned the faith and the priorities of one who ranks the title of "citizen" higher than that of "Christian" or "follower of Jesus".

The slogan "God and country" so often comes out as "Country and God" Patriotism, in the sense of a simple fondness for one's home country and culture, is a benign-enough emotion but when nationalistic fervor elevates it to supreme status, it usurps the place that the faithful are supposed to reserve for their religious commitments.

"Put not your trust in princes" is a well-known Biblical warning (Psalms 146 and 118) against faith in the power of the state and its rulers. Faith in the self-proclaimed greatness of one's country and the self-proclaimed goodness of one's people is similarly suspect. We are, after all, despite the familiarity of our country's places and routines, describable as sojourners in a strange land, a phrase rooted in the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus (with an echo in the Letter to the Hebrews}.

Sojourners have to keep a wary and critical eye on their strange and possibly dangerous surroundings. But comfortable familiarity with seemingly 'normal' ways dulls the analytical and critical capacities, thus clouding the sojourners' discernment of their true way. The acceptance of the 'normal' makes it easier to avoid the conflicts that are inherent in the relationship between Jesus and Caesar, between non-violence and violence, between justice and exploitation.

I have to conclude that there's hypocrisy and sin in a patriotism that puts country first. Loving your home is fine, but it's not the thing of ultimate value. Thinking of it as a fine mansion when it has many of the characteristics of a tenement is delusional. And destructive of faith -- and of the country, too.

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