Sunday, February 5, 2012

Loving America?

It is once again an election year and people are talking about who does and who does not love America. I recently read an article about a very wealthy man in Nevada who loves America and will donate huge sums of money to candidates who share his love. On Friday I saw a website of a religious writer who loves America to the extent that America is dominated by his brand of religion. Politicians are quick to point out who doesn’t love America because that’s how elections are played out here.

Most folks, however, would express more of a general love for America. Lately I’ve been thinking about what that really means. How does one love a nation? How is me loving America any different from my friends in other countries loving their homelands? And when a person claims to love a country, upon what or whom is that love focused?

What should I love about my country? Is it the government? Hmmmm. In an election year, each candidate swears that the others are despicable and will ruin the nation. Voters project hostility toward the politicians they don’t prefer. If we don’t love our politicians and the governments they run, do we still love our country?

If I voice my opposition to a particular war in which my nation is engaged, do I stop loving America? In order to properly love my country, do I have to be pro-war? Aren’t only insane people pro-war? Wouldn’t a stand against war in general and any war in particular show some kind of love?

What about the people? Now we’re getting somewhere. Love is a people thing, so loving the nation must have something to do with loving the people. However, as a percentage of the overall population, the people I actually know make up a very small group. I don’t know how to love people I don’t know and have never met.

Maybe it’s the actual land (“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York Island”). I’ve always lived in California, and I can say that I love this particular land. Except for parts of LA. Or Barstow. Or the parts I’ve never seen. Hard to love the parts of the great state of California that I’ve never visited. It would be like loving the moon.

Take South Dakota, for example. I don’t love South Dakota or anyone who lives there. I have nothing against South Dakota, but I’ve never been there and am acquainted with none of its residents. As far as I know, South Dakota doesn’t even exist, except on maps that are designed to deceive us. I do believe in South Dakota, however, because a friend of mine grew up there and has told me her story. She mostly tells the truth, so I believe her. But I still don’t love South Dakota. Can’t do it.

Does everyone who claims to love America love all of America, really? Do we love the people who disagree with us, or whose customs are foreign to us, those who speak languages that we don’t know and eat foods that we can’t even identify? Do we love the unknown places and places we’d never visit again? Do we love the government no matter how screwed up it gets and even when the wrong candidates get elected? Do we? Really?

Maybe we’d say that we love America’s values and what it stands for. Of course, those things have always been a matter of debate within our own nation, and get more complex as the nation ages. What America valued as a relatively small body of people in the late 18th century can be very different in the early 21st century.

But even if we do say we love America’s values, we’re talking about a love that is abstract. It’s a love focused on ideas rather than on people, and that’s a tricky thing. It’s also easier to condemn others when we crash against ideas. It’s harder to do that when we look eye-to-eye and come to know one another. Many people who have started out as enemies have become friends once real relationships were allowed to emerge.

I do love America, and if you live in this country, you would probably say the same. It’s helpful to think about what that means, and recognize the limitations and conditionality of our kind of love. When I think of America, I think of what I know: People and familiar landscapes; symbols and sounds; food and enjoyment; memories and hopes. That kind of love isn’t entirely unique to America—I have friends in England, Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela who would say the same thing about their countries.

As I said at the start, it’s an election year again. It’s a good time to examine our own claims about love. If you can, watch the candidates debate on TV, and then pick the one you dislike the most. Imagine sharing a meal with that person, and hearing about his or her life. If you are a follower of Jesus, imagine praying for that person, right on the spot. Imagine leaving that time together, still standing opposed to that person’s political agenda but now sharing a relationship that holds the possibility for love.

In a recent interview, Bono (of U2 fame) said that Americans are too hard on themselves. He’s probably right, but that’s not a bad thing. When you have as much freedom and resource as we have here, we should be hard on ourselves. We should challenge our own loves on a regular basis and ask ourselves what that love really means. If we don’t examine our loves, then we run the risk of thinking that the world is all about us. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our home. But let’s do it honestly.


Sonja said...

The idea of loving your country becomes even more interesting when you live abroad. I find myself having a strong reaction to things I've honestly never thought twice about while still living in Germany when I hear them criticized here.
Patriotism is such an odd beast.

Mike McNichols said...

Well said, Sonja. I had that kind of experience in England in 2005. It was very uncomfortable to hear your own country criticized on another nation's soil.

bakerpadre said...
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bakerpadre said...

Great insights, as always Mike. But just a nit I have to point out -- I think Ray Anderson was from South Dakota, wasn't he? :-)

Mike McNichols said...

I think you're right, Jeff. But when you and I knew him, he was a Californian. South Dakota still only exists for me in an abstract way!