land is my land
by Julie A. Wortman
Our contributing editors and editorial staff gathered in Washington, D.C., for one of our regular meetings last October. Just about everyone admitted to feeling uncomfortably challenged by the patriotic fervor of the moment. Although horrified by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we were nonetheless dismayed by this nations response. We wished for a more considered, deeply multi-lateral, non-military approach to combatting global terrorism and bringing terrorists to justice. We were embarassed by the presidents simplistic "good-versus-evil" characterization of the situation. We were appalled by a church lobbyists shoulder-shrugging report that, despite the massive casualties among non-combatant Afghanis, an anti-war position would be laughed out of the halls of Congress and so wasnt worth risking. We were disheartened by the mainstream medias unwillingness to probe the deeper politics behind the war especially the double-standard rhetoric of "youre either with us or against us."
Neither the World Trade Center nor the Pentagon symbolized values, policies and activities of which any of us had ever been especially proud. The question was, what, if anything, about this country stirs our passions on a level comparable with the apparent ardor of those fellow citizens who were waving the flag? In what, as Christians, might our patriotism lie?
Each of us left our gathering pondering the answer. For me, the claim that this is a land of "liberty and justice for all" at first seemed a possible response. This has always been a core value for me instilled, I suppose, through unthinking repetition of the pledge of allegiance each day of the seven years I spent at Gilles-Sweet Elementary School (named for two local World War I heroes). Theres also a gospel resonance to the claim which now, as an adult, I like. But this is not the only country that espouses such an ideal or that purports to offer its citizens a voice in government through democratic process. My true allegiance is to the ideal, not to the country which alleges it as its working ethic. I love and am proud when citizens of any country choose on behalf of the common good, when profits bottom line is one of only many considerations in decision-making, when the well-being of children takes precedence in the drafting of laws and budgets. In this sense, I found myself thinking, I am primarily a citizen of the world and the flag I would be willing to wave is one of the globe.
But as I lived with that proposition, it seemed increasingly superficial. I began to see that faithfulness to a universal ideal is just about impossible to sustain, not to mention even work up energy for, without blood-and-guts specificity. This, I realized, is where love of country makes sense.
But I am not speaking here of political boundaries. I mean love of country in the most literal sense. It is this land where I live that I love. This 50 or so square miles of coastal Maine. These granite shores and forests of spruce and fir where I walk daily with our dogs. These blueberry barrens and hayfields. These seals, loons, deer, eagles, osprey and moose who inhabit this land and these waters. I love my neighbors who make their living and raise their children here. I love our town meetings, agricultural fairs, community theaters and curling club.
And out of this love of country, out of this love of local geography, comes the political awareness needed if liberty and justice are to be safeguarded. Here, in this specific place, my discomfort with globalized economics gets personal. Here I can measure the impact of exploding population growth on wildlife habitat, water quality and land values by the number of deer I see, by the water I drink, by my annual tax bill and by the public debate over expansion of the local transfer station and the size of pipe to be used for the new water district. Here domestic violence and homelessness wear the faces of neighbors and teens that I call by name.
This land is my land, I say with deep feeling, and I will fight for its welfare. It happens to be part of the state of Maine in a nation called the U.S. Before that, it was part of an English colony. Before that it was in the care of the Wabanaki tribes, their ground of being. When we moved here five years ago, we committed to making it ours.
And because this land is my land, I understand the grief and fierce pride of post-9/11 New Yorkers. Because this land is my land, I comprehend the desperate struggle of both Palestinians and Israelis for a homeland. Because this land is my land, I more easily detect the ungroundedness of political posturing, whether from the right or left.
Most of all, because this land is my land, Im freed of any sense of shame for my lack of conventional flag-waving patriotism. l
Julie A. Wortman is editor/publisher of The Witness. Read her "Hesitating at the sanctuary door in funeral times" and other responses to "An Advent call to the church" at <www.thewitness.org/agw/adventcall.html>.
on baptisms politically transcendent citizenship
by Bill Wylie-Kellermann
In the apostolic community, thus, baptism signified the new citizenship in Christ that supercedes the old citizenship under Caesar. With that context, baptism, nowadays no less than in the biblical era, not only solemnizes characteristic tensions between the church and a regime but reaches beyond that to confess and uphold the sovereignty of the Word of God now militant in history over against the pretensions of any regime. (William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word, p.159)
If Christians have been spared the savagery of beasts or if the more notorious vulgarities of emperor worship have been abated, other forms of persecution have succeeded and the hostility of demonic principalities and powers toward the church has not diminished. By the 20th century, the enmity of the power of death toward the church had come to be enacted in the grandiose idolatry of the destiny of British colonial imperialism, or in the brutal devastation of the church following upon the Soviet revolution, or in the ruthless Nazi usurpation of the church in the name of "Germanizing" or "purifying" Christianity so as to have this accomplice in the pursuit and in the incineration of the Jews. Meanwhile, in America ... civil religion, which has assorted versions, ...imputes a unique moral status to the nation, a divine endorsement for America, which, in its most radical composition, disappropriates the vocation of church as holy nation. (William Stringfellow, Conscience and Obedience, p. 103)
In the present crisis, I confess (perhaps with other Witness readers) to yearning for the oracular voice of theologian William Stringfellow. Given, among other things, the heavy current atmospherics of patriotism, we do well at the very least to listen to his words once again. To breathe his apocalyptic wisdom.
Stringfellow reminds us that there is categorically no such thing as a Christian nation. The reason is simple. With biblical Israel, the church shares the vocation to be itself the holy nation. One way the gospels reflect this is in the language of the "kingdom" movement. But even the word for "church" (ekklesia) is cunningly lifted from the political lexicon of the Greek city-state, where it signified "the assembly of the free citizens of the polis" (a bold enough counter-claim for a crew that included women, slaves and those otherwise conspicuously denied the freedoms of citizenship).
Baptism is the emblem of that new superceding citizenship. It mitigates, obviates, and qualifies any other allegiance or political enthusiasm. As such, it signifies the freedom to speak boldly and publicly, regardless of consequences. As such, it authorizes the exercise, not only of ministry, but of conscience. It testifies to justification, not by works or ideology or manifest destiny or righteous cause, but by faith alone. As the sacrament of new humanity, it transfigures and renews a persons relationship to all humankind, indeed to all of creation a relationship unencumbered (or at least unconstrained) by the divisions of nationalism. Or for that matter any other "ism."As the witness of resurrection, it signals freedom from bondage to the power of death. (Which is to say, as baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, it articulates the freedom to die indeed of already having died.) It constitutes a remarkable and politically transcendent citizenship.
In many respects, the current atmosphere is heavy with its opposite. The pledge of American allegiance is held to be primary and definitive (even for multilateral partners). Patriotism is employed as a silencing mechanism against political critique and opposition. It may either dull or passionately stifle conscience. At a time of broken-hearted need, it purports to offer citizens solace, meaning, belonging, identity and justification. It sanctions military violence and state terror in the guise of a justified and blessed nation, in the very name of the "good" incarnate vs. "evil." It clarifies a persons relationship to the rest of humanity and creation specifically on the basis of nationalism (layered with other isms). It articulates the freedom to kill.
This is not to suggest there is no place for the love of this country, nor especially care for its constitution (also under attack in the present crisis). Flags, particularly early on, in Freedom Struggle marches testified to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s capacity to mobilize (and finally represent) the best of the American tradition on behalf of justice. The dream over against the nightmare.
But it does draw the lines of priority for Christians. A space of freedom is opened and marked out. The idolatrous association of the current patriotic rage with the incumbent regime and its policies (oddly so aligned with the interests of global capital) may be recognized as a frontal assault, a disappropriation of the baptismal vocation.
Or so, at least, I imagine Stringfellow might say.
Witness contributing editor Bill Wylie-Kellermann is editor of A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans,1994). The photo on the poetry page is of Bill and his daughter Lucy participating in a Gulf War protest.