Believe it or not, I’ve still got one pillowcase from my husband’s college dorm years. Its red, white, and blue stripes, warm out of the dryer, never fail to take me back to the 1970’s. Every imaginable consumer product from T-shirts and bed sheets to school supplies was available in a stars and stripes motif as the nation put Vietnam behind them and waxed unabashedly patriotic for what seemed like an entire year of my childhood. Against a backdrop of parades, fireworks, and a patriotic color scheme, we celebrated the United States bi-centennial. Patriotic young citizens hung buntings and strung crepe paper in the school gymnasium, learned the words to God Bless America, and spent entire band periods working our way through patriotic medleys.
Predictably, the pendulum has swung its slow arc in another direction, and I’m wondering if there is a role for the patriot, the incurable optimist, in a world of tweeting presidents, heinous school shootings, and online political vitriol. The 70’s were certainly not without their own moments of significant chaos: the beginning of busing and the end of the draft; unrest on college campuses and pervasive angst at the gas pumps. Even so, as with a certain Dickensian holiday “men and women seem[ed] by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely” just for the sake of the celebration, to love the past and to look toward a better future for the U.S.A.
The Patriot as Irrational Optimist
In his classic work, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton refers to this determination as “irrational optimism,” a love for country that does not falsify or pretty-up its history and reserves the right to criticize, to “safely be a skeptic.” Rather than living on the sharp edge of “surly contentment,” the irrational optimist operates out of “fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent” that might just lead to meaningful change.
“The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.” (106)
Chesterton maintains that a “reasonable optimism” in a man is “likely to ruin the place he loves,” for one danger of devotion is that it leaves one open to “defending the indefensible.” True patriotism sings, “Land that I love,” allowing the sadness of that land’s failings to lead to a deeper and more active love, a love that seeks resolution.
There is much to be disturbed about in the news and in our own neighborhoods and schools. The fate of young immigrants hangs in the balance while politicians wrangle. Public schools languish in a mediocrity fueled by unfunded State mandates; pop culture icons are generally laughable, often pathetic; and even the staunchest glass-half-full-heart struggles to find a foothold for optimism.
As a woman who believingly follows Jesus Christ, I can fall off Luther’s horse in either direction. The marathon horror of #MeToo stories makes me pessimistic about our leadership and the entire world in general. But then, my heart softens as I read the words of–and, also, bear witness up close to the lives–of young men and women who live and interpret the faith with incredible courage and an optimism that is utterly infectious.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time that would challenge the most ebullient optimist, and yet God declared himself as eminently present, even as civilization was clearly making its slow spiral down the drain:
“’Am I a God near at hand,’ says the Lord,
‘And not a God afar off?
Can anyone hide himself in secret places,
So I shall not see him?’ says the Lord;
‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:23,24 NKJV)
This Memorial Day, I’m challenged to the bone by Chesterton’s pondering on patriotism. Viewing a flawed nation led by deeply flawed individuals, the question is: “Can we hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?” (109) Can we find grace to “heartily hate” the weak and the ugly about our past and our present, and at the same time “heartily love” all that is well-intentioned and hopeful about our future? (108)
In these post-crepe-paper-and-bunting years that sometimes feel like something akin to exile, maybe more than ever, we are called to an “irrational” devotion to our nation.
When we embrace our surroundings and let ourselves fall in love with a nation we no longer trust, we join the garden-planting, fruit-harvesting Israelites, carted off to Babylonian soil with instructions to make a life and, thereby, to make a difference. Too often, the church’s response to patriotism and the political food fight in D.C. has been either an off-putting and unexamined flag-waving OR a disinterested shrug–because “we’re citizens of heaven” and we’ll get our “pie-in-the-sky” later.
“And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:7 NKJV)
Patriotic holidays are a great excuse for a little “peace seeking,” a perfect opportunity to fly the flag, sing the songs, and practice a little “irrational optimism.” Last year, resisting the tendency to live in a bubble, our church hosted a community picnic on the Sunday before Independence Day. We passed out invitations to surprised neighbors and welcomed anyone who came, even if they did not attend the service. When we gather our people for hot dogs and potato salad, and then fling the doors wide to those outside the bubble, we foster common life—which can lead to common ground.
Community gardens, turquoise tables, and neighborhood lawn sales are non-political (and non-threatening) meeting places where we can land in peace as the aliens, sojourners, and exiles (I Peter 2:11) that we are. We live in challenging times, but we live in hope, and our lives are under a call to faithfulness, or, in Chesterton’s parlance, a call to “irrational optimism.” When our love for country is formed around a deep belief that God is at work in our circumstances, we are better equipped to look for Him to be at work in our country and in our world.
This post is part five in a meandering journey through Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. If you’re just joining us, you can start here for the rationale behind this project. The journey through Orthodoxy has taken us into topics as diverse as parenting, the irony of free will, the humility of being right, and the miracle of God’s creative genius.
As usual, your insights on Chesterton’s writing are welcome in the comments below, and if you are also inspired to create your own blog post, be sure to share the link with us so we can continue the conversation over at your place.
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