Patriotism, Pessimism, Church, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton,

Patriotism, Pessimism, and the Church

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.

Patriotism, Pessimism, and the Church, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, Jeremiah 29

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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40 thoughts on “Patriotism, Pessimism, and the Church”

  1. That was an interesting read Michele, here in Australia we are not as patriotic, we are proud to be Australian but we have a culture that is very easy going…we have a saying “she’ll be right mate”… meaning everything will work out!


    1. I love “she’ll be right, mate,” and I think that mind set would find a great following here in Maine, U.S.A. We’re a pretty laid back lot as well.
      It’s good to get the perspective of others outside my own country. Thank you, Jennifer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Born two years after the end of WW2 I was raised to honor the flag and love my country. I was taught that America was established by those who were fleeing oppression and were willing to risk everything for the right to be free. This was instilled in me so the noble ideal of freedom and inalienable God given human rights is embedded in my DNA. However there is one allegiance that supersedes love of country and that is my devotion to Christ so I will always default to that.

    It seems to me now, looking back, though never perfect, there once was a balance within the framework of American society, where love of God came first in the list, then country and fellow man. Somewhere along the way, love of God has been bumped to the end of the line leaving us with an imbalance. So, while I still feel the patriotism that was infused in me, I can’t go along with the trend of kicking God to the curb. I just can’t. I must choose God over ideal.

    The long history of fallen man accounts, over and over, the rise and then slow disintegration of all that is civil in civilization and the cause is most usually the substitution of the god of SELF above the true God. It’s predictable even. Is this where we are now? Seems like it is to me. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, first God, then everything and everyone else. And I think we best love our country (and others) when everything arises from and comes through the grid of God-love.
      I’m finishing up a review of Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book where he laments the new Holy Trinity: My Needs, My Wants, and My Feelings. Sadly, this is the grid through which we read Scripture, and it is the way humanity interprets both civility and civilization.
      Thanks for raising good questions and for sharing your perspective.


      1. This book by Eugene Peterson look’s like a great read! My theory that we have raised an “all about me generation” seems to be supported by the title of this book. This is the generation that can’t get past themselves to put God first or to care about their country. Prayers this Memorial day that God continues to work in our world to open eyes and hearts!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful, moving, timely post! I love to read your thoughts on patriotism. The connection between G.K. Chesterton and the prophet Jeremiah would never have occurred to me without reading your article. More churches should follow your church’s example and throw open the doors to the community. When we work together, everyone benefits.


    1. As I was pulling my thoughts together for this post, I was surprised at the timing myself. I’m not organized enough to plan this read through so that my post for Chapter 5 would land on the week before a Patriotic Holiday.
      And I am so thankful for my little church home. We have a lot of work to do, like any church, but we’re following the Jesus way when it comes to loving on our community.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a very thought-provoking post. Of course, quoting Chesterton, how could it not be? I think that there is a lot of discussion surrounding the topic of what it means to love your country, yet not excuse its sins. Within my family, there are as many perspectives on this as people who live in our home. I long for the morality we thought our society once had. I wonder sometimes if we don’t associate that with the patriotism of the past. Yet, someone needs to be brave enough to point out that the emperor is naked. Bless you!


    1. I’m sure there will be some intense conversations around picnic tables this Memorial Day weekend. There is so much to disagree on, but my prayer for our nation is that we could be united on a foundation of righteousness as defined by the Word of God.
      Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think the key for the believer is exactly what you said: “God is at work in our circumstances.” Although the country seems crazier by the day, God IS in control. I appreciate your sharing of Jeremiah’s words – we are to make a life in the midst of the crazy. That is God’s will for us. Sharing life with our community shows them God is at work!


    1. Isn’t it sad that we forget to notice God at work in our circumstances?
      This has been a great time for me to be reading Jeremiah, and this chapter of Orthodoxy fits right in with the truth Jeremiah was living.


  6. I’ve been troubled by the all or nothing approach to our country that I see in so many. Either it’s perfect and no one else better say otherwise, or it’s terrible and we need a revolution (what exactly they mean by that I have not yet understood.) And I think those two views fuel each other. We need clear eyes to see that it’s not perfect, but it’s not irredeemable, either. Our country is flawed both historically and currently, but there’s good as well. And we need God’s grace both to see what’s wrong and to do what we can to stem the tide while asking Him to do what only He can do. Sobering thoughts that I had not expected from this volume of Chesterton – thanks for sharing and sparking thoughts and conversation..

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I appreciate your meandering journey, Michele. Sometimes things don’t come to us in a straight line. The patriotism vs nationalism conversations have me re-thinking things as well.


    1. I had a hard time coming to a clear explanation of Chesterton’s thoughts on “irrational optimism” and pessimism. How ironic, really, that we’re called to love our country and to love God in this season when they seem to be on different trajectories. But then, Jeremiah helped to pull things into focus for me. I’m always grateful when God does that for me!


  8. This post leaves me with lots to chew on, especially as a veteran. Thank you for sharing your own and Chesterton’s thoughts. Many blessings, friend!


    1. Yes, I’ll bet it does, and I’m sure I’ve said it before, but want to say it in celebration of Memorial Day: “Thanks, Liz, for your commitment to serving this country. Thanks for all the many adjustments you made to fulfill your calling!”


  9. Michele, I so appreciate this post. And will be thinking on this all day. There is much to dislike about the health of our country and yet … God has placed us here to live, at this very time in history. May we be faithful to seek Him and be a people who reflect His love and the gospel so we become agents of change. Happy Memorial Day!


    1. I’ve been so surprised to find ideas in Orthodoxy that could have been written this very day. Chesterton often digresses into long paragraphs of details that are very specific to his geography and his time, but I’m beginning to see why his work has persevered through all the decades of readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Chesterton‘ s writing is so relevant for today. And I love the way you pulled together his thoughts with yours and Jeremiah’s regarding today’s challenges. I’d like to see more ‘irrational optimism’ today as described by Chesterton. Can we get the whole world to read his book, Michele?


  11. I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. How patriotism currently looks and works in America is something we are still finding a little baffling to understand after having lived overseas for so long. Thanks for sharing at Booknificent Thursday on!


    1. I’d love to hear more about your perspective. Living outside the USA and immersed in a different culture for as long as you were must require some re-adjustment — and some explaining to your kids!


  12. A very interesting read. And although I’m not American – I do understand the challenges as I suppose each country has it. 24 years into our democracy and there are yet so many challenges here in South Africa. Corruption in government, some people still living in poverty which makes crime rife but I still remain hopeful that things will change and I am still so proud to be a South African no matter what. So all I can do is pray for my country, it’s leaders and it’s people #globalblogging

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this about blogging! Thanks for sharing a South African perspective on this, and I’m learning from you in the process: Proud and Praying! This is the stance we need to protect all that is good in our countries!

      Liked by 1 person

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