I like thinking about patriotism on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King was one of our greatest patriots and provided leadership far ahead of his times. He came out early against the Vietnam war as an unjust, evil, and futile war. That was well before it was popular to oppose the war and was a bold, courageous act, which paved the way for others to follow. From the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, on April 30, 1967, King delivered his famous sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” He said, “But the day has passed for superficial patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. ‘Ye shall know the truth,’ says Jesus, ‘and the truth shall set you free’.”

I do not care for thinking about patriotism on the national holidays. Patriotism, as exemplified by Dr. King, thinks evaluatively about one’s country in light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it’s in error and fix it when it is broken. Yet especially on our national patriotic holidays, too often our churches promote nationalism—the uncritical support of one’s nation regardless of its moral, truthful or political bearing. I attended a worship service on a national holiday. The service, designed to lead worshippers into an encounter with the Divine, began with the presentation of the American flag by the Scouts, followed by a parade of men in old military uniforms. Next came the Pledge of Allegiance, standing up. This scene likely plays out in congregations throughout the land. The pastor did his best to encourage critical thinking, but this kind of nationalism makes it feel unpatriotic to question, to consider alternative ways of thinking, or to criticize these practices. 

Careful here. I can imagine my beloved mother saying “Johnny, we must honor our boys who sacrificed so much for their country.” She would have stood for the pledge and belted out the national hymns with pride and gusto. And yet, she raised me in an American Baptist church less than six miles from where Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Crozer Theological Seminary. Some of my pastors were his classmates. I was raised in that church to think globally, for God so loved the world (cosmos is the Greek word in this verse). I grew up hearing “thou shalt not kill” and “love your enemies” and “blessed are the peacemakers.” The church taught me to think, to consider implications of attitudes and behavior, and to recognize that, like the disciples, there is a time to obey God rather than humans, even if that calls for civil disobedience. This church modeled that Christians are to be champions for the human race, without borders, boundaries or walls. Whether from across the avenue or from Central America, the one in need was my neighbor. I knew that part of my allowance went to helping people in faraway countries. Essayist William Hazlitt said “The love of liberty is the love of others. The love of power is the love of ourselves.” (1) Because we were raised to love others, all others, the consequence is that we learned to love liberty. Two words summarize how I was raised in that American Baptist church: it was centered upon love and forgiveness.

In the midst of the Vietnam war, I received a piece of mail from the Selective Service System that began with the word “Greetings!” along with the invitation to report for a physical, to prepare to be drafted into the army. Because I was raised to think critically and evaluatively, I tried to reconcile the Christian teachings of my church with the potential of being drafted. If I stepped across the line, I would be required to carry out orders, even if that meant to kill another human being. What if I was ordered to kill another human, a husband or a father, for a war which one of my heroes called “unjust, evil, and futile”? It did not reconcile. And so I decided that I would reject the invitation and pay whatever price was needed. I was prepared to become a conscientious objector—and then a new lottery of draft numbers was initiated and I ended up with a high number. I was excused, but I would have been ready and willing to pay the price.

Decades later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words still deeply resonate with me: “…the day has passed for superficial patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery.” Please, please, please let our nation think critically and evaluatively about the growing number of untruths proffered in our time, even from the highest offices. If we do not, we shall be bound in spiritual slavery. When I attend a service designed for the worship of God and instead, I experience an exercise in the deification of nationalism, I am distraught and cannot help but think that spiritual slavery is occurring before our eyes. 

I truly want to be patriotic. I listen to The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss, Edelweiss, Bless my homeland forever” and I long to sing that about the United States of America. I love the patriotism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “When a whole nation is roaring patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart.” (2) I dislike the patriotism described by George Bernard Shaw: “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” I can easily reconcile my church’s teachings with the patriotic voice from Malcolm Little (also known as Malcolm X): “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or who says it.”(3) There are some wrong things going on in our country today, inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Thinking Christians must not surrender their sense of patriotism and global agape (the Greek word for love) to an uncritical devotion to nationalism.

I pretty much avoid going to church on those national patriotic holidays, which are hardly holy days. And yet, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a national holiday which I am proud to celebrate – I like to think about the best of patriotism, how he was a patriot and leader ahead of his time, and to use this day to celebrate my citizenship in the Kingdom of God and in the United States of America.