Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Patriotism and Paradise

I preached this past Sunday about Shalom. It's a Hebrew word often translated "peace," but with a whole lot more depth of meaning. It's describing a state of "right-ness," a place/time/atmosphere/reality where things work "right" for everyone. A place where everyone is welcomed and cared for and content. Some people call it heaven, some people call it the Kingdom of God, some call it paradise, others call it utopia. It's been the vision of everyone from Buddha to Thomas Jefferson to Karl Marx. I suspect we all want a place that feels like home (in the best sense).

This notion easily gets merged with Nationalism in unique ways. I've seen in play out in the US, but I haven't really been exposed to other countries - it may be the same there or manifest in different ways.

The US is pretty divided these days between conservatives and progressives - people who want to "get back to when things were right" and people who want to "get on to when things can be right." They might not agree this describes the opposing position, but both are examples of Patriotism in their own right. I think they're both examples of this search for Paradise as well.

Our nostalgia of the 1950's is very strong in this country. The place where Mom kept the home in order and Dad came home on time everyday from a fulfilling job that provided well for the family. Throw in two, mostly well-behaved children and you've got a Normal Rockwell painting. It's an idealized paradise we create in the past. Others go further back, to the founding of the US and all the democratic, capitalist ideals those Founding Fathers planned for this great nation. In either case, the "conservative" patriotic paradise tends to be in the past - something we must reclaim.

Others recognize the very real injustice that has always existed, whether in the US or some other idealized state earlier on (Christians are fond of treating the "early Church" the same way), and they reckon that the true destiny of this country lies ahead and they strive to create the idealization they see in their heads. This, too, is Patriotism - a patriotism of the progressive variety, but one, again, based in this search for Paradise.

Part of this is the Nationalist mechanism through which we see the world. The powers that be recognized at some point that keeping people in competition with each other was better for the powers that be and worked hard - and quite successfully - to limit our understanding of public life to government and rule of law, shutting out other avenues of public discourse (like the economic unity envisioned by Marx - and obscured by Lenin).

These alternative views - which recognize, at their core, that no political entity can every be the foundation of Paradise, can ever provide the Shalom which we all seek - simply do not fit into the tight little box contemporary society has constructed.

The idea being that humanity itself is at the center of our ideals. Marxism, at its core, is one of human egalitarianism - the people, if given the right conditions, can create Paradise. I'm not sure anyone's really give that a fair attempt, but I also suspect a fair attempt won't work out too well.

I am more and more enamored with what is known, for better or for worse, as the Anabaptist tradition - one in which the Body of Christ, Christians, exist as an alternative political entity - not an alternative government or an economic class, but simply as a companion to the other formations of society.

This is also a humanist philosophy - but humanism through the lens of Jesus Christ, the infusion of deity with humanity that embodies Paradise in a person. Figuring out how we relate to and then live in response to that person is a whole separate adventure in itself, but one that makes more sense to me than the well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless versions of Patriotic Paradise we see played out around us everyday.

This difference is that Patriotism tends to be shaped by our own ideals. We imagine the past or the future in ways that make sense to us. In essence, we build our own Paradise and become offended and defensive when others don't share our vision. This is why Patriotism itself can be both a powerful motivator (when it brings unity) and a deadly diversion (when it causes dissension).

Now I am not so naive to think our Christian conceptions of life and society are free from our own inclinations, ideals, and preferences; we can't ever escape our biases. I do hope, however, that there is some measure of selflessness in building an ideal around the life and teaching of someone else, in this case a someone else who was all about selflessness.

Even amongst us Christian alternative politic folks, it's real easy to allow our conceptions of Paradise to creep in - to accentuate the history and scripture with which we resonate and to marginalize those we find untidy or inconvenient - much the same way the Constitution is held up only insomuch as it reflects our Paradise.

The answer, and it's not much of one, I suspect - for both Church and State - is to be constantly incorporating the competing vision into our own. If conservatives are actively seeking to include progressive visions of the future into their own conception and progressives recognizing the value if history and tradition in shaping the future, we become less likely to see ourselves on different teams, as opponents.

If the Fundamentalists and the post-Christian dreamers would stop trying to eradicate each other and attempt to live together, we're going to find more space for everyone. It may not be pretty - in fact it will likely be real messy - but I suspect we'll be a lot closer to Paradise than we could ever imagine (and it probably won't look like any Paradise we've ever seen).

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