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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Patriots
distributed 7/1/11 - ©2011

The 4th of July is not a religious holiday -- even if it will be celebrated in scads of US congregations this weekend. The occasion, though, does deserve religious consideration.

My experience in a local church a week ago prompts some thoughts about how we define patriotism. I've come to a fresh realization that, philosophically and strategically, it is essential to broaden the roster of patriots who are celebrated at times such as this.

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Last weekend, I was the guest preacher at a church in Colorado Springs. I am delighted to say that my ecological message about "Circles and Lines" was warmly received by this generally progressive congregation.

This church has a long history with its ministry of the arts, including a frequently changed display of visual arts. The large collection of works for their mid-summer exhibition was highlighted as "patriotic".

As I browsed the materials, I became uncomfortably aware of the almost total meshing of "patriotic" with "military" themes. As I recall, among dozens of pieces exhibited, there were only two which were not directly tied to the armed forces. (One was a lovely small sketch of the Statue of Liberty, the other was the hood from an old VW "bug" painted with an American flag motif.)

Now it is important to say something about Colorado Springs, where this church is located. The Springs is literally surrounded by five large military installations, including the US Air Force Academy and the huge Army base at Fort Carson. (My sermon, by the way, affirmed the remarkable fact that Fort Carson has plans to become "zero waste" by 2027.) "The military" is deeply important in the life of the city, and in the personal journey of many of its residents.

In that context, when church members loan their patriotic artwork for a special seasonal display, it is not surprising that a lot of them reflected images from the Air Force and Army. Quite a few of the framed pieces included inscriptions of thanks and recognition, revealing the owner's own patriotic service in the armed forces.

What made me uncomfortable was not the presence of military images in the church's patriotic art show, but the virtual absence of other patriotic themes. The collection as a whole reflected a message that has become pervasive in US society, especially through the 10 years since 9-11: that our most honored patriots are those who wear uniforms. On occasions like the 4th of July, we affirm the military and "first responders" as our heroes, to the exclusion of other people who offer their lives in the service of our country.

What other images might have been displayed that would broaden the notion of "patriotism"? I found some interesting examples by flipping through the designs in a catalog from the Syracuse Cultural Workers, which cover the range from exquisite posters to T-shirts and bumper stickers.

There is the bumper sticker that says "Peace is patriotic", and a shirt announces "Peace also takes courage." Another slogan says "DISSENT Protects Democracy".

More artistically, a poster marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders with "actual Mississippi mugshots of the courageous, mostly young African Americans and whites who helped change the course of the Civil Rights Movement." A poster with a photo of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez has the "patriotic" message, "I am convinced that the truest act of courage ... is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice."

Another poster has a quote from Albert Camus printed across an American flag image: "I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice." On the less edgy side are graphics which say "be the change you wish to see in the world" and "It's too bad that the people who really know how to run the country are busy teaching school."

You get the idea. (And perhaps you'll get on the mailing list from Syracuse Cultural Workers!) There are many patriots in our history who didn't wear a uniform. Countless people, committed to many causes, have joined with those who signed the Declaration of Independence in risking and sacrificing "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

Patriotism -- committed service to your country -- has many forms. Those who seek change to make their country more just, more sustainable and more inclusive are patriots, too. Perhaps, some year, that Colorado Springs church can have a summer art show that will explore "the many faces of patriotism", or host the traveling exhibit of "Americans Who Tell the Truth".

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My thinking on this topic is also shaped by my study this summer of the prophet Jeremiah. In the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah -- compelled by God and out of love for his people -- preached doom and gloom, "terror on every side." He was ignored, mocked and reviled by his own people. He was bold, persistent and immensely creative in putting forth his message, and he was painfully ineffective in bringing about the transformation that he believed was necessary.

Our Bible contains the Book of Jeremiah -- all 52 chapters of it -- because this trouble-making dissident came to be seen as true and faithful in proclaiming God's judgment and grace. Eventually the prophet was seen as a patriot in Judah.

Jeremiah experienced what still goes on today. Those with a stake in preserving the status quo will claim the mantle of patriotism, and will dismiss and discredit those with a different set of goals. Today's proponents for renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, environmental justice and animal rights are often labeled as "unpatriotic", subversive and "socialists".

When our society only honors the patriots who wear a uniform, when patriotism is seen only in defending the status quo of global empire, then those of us who advocate for dramatic change are marginalized. We are seen as enemies of the nation, our love for our country is denied, and our work for a better future is blocked.

This Independence Day, celebrate the great variety and the passionate commitment of our nation's patriots. While gathered around the grill, or while waiting for the fireworks, invite your friends to name their unlikely patriots. Give thanks for all those who have worked and sacrificed in calling the country toward our highest goals and deepest values.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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