16 February 2006

Patriotism and grief

"Patriotism" has been a difficult concept for me. Maybe it's because I've not lived in the country of my birth and original citizenship for most of my life; or because I've lived in six countries at one time or another; or because I've read too much pop psychology and pop anthropology, not to mention Kant and Kierkegaard, so that all the mysticism has drained out of concepts such as "nations" and "borders." Maybe it is because as a Christian I have an allegiance that trumps all others.

But I can't live on some smug, abstract plane of superiority. We all live in webs of relationships that have cumulative caches of obligation and custom, encouragement and inhibition, good and evil—and those relationships have helped make me who I am. If I cherish freedom of speech and the independence of the church, that's partly a result of the nation whose air I've breathed most of my life.

My double-mindedness about patriotism has come to a head this week. For better or for worse, national leaders often become national symbols, even presidents elected by roughly half of the voters, in turn who are roughly half of an adult population. The behavior of our current national leaders has just pushed me over a threshold. They no longer inhabit that position of symbolic national headship for me—and, unexpectedly, I feel strangely mournful, empty, as if there's been a death in the family.

This goes deeper than simply having a visceral dislike of Bush/Cheney policies, or distress with their class warfare, or disgust with corruption and bullying. All of that has something to do with it, of course. What pushed me over the edge was the renewed attention to Abu Ghraib that resulted from the release of more photos from the scandal that immortalized that name. (Photos our "leaders" do not want us to see.) I do not feel any national commonality with the power structure that is responsible for tolerating torture, for hiding it, for justifying it, for twisting and spinning and sneering and name-calling when faced with demands for accountability. The heads of the executive branch are responsible for executive operations in this country—and the more "unitary" power they claim, the more responsible they are. This is their mess, but I helped finance it with my taxes, and I fear that I signal approval if I can't find a way to emigrate from their false America.

So, I have a country—a country with a heritage of democracy, although who knows what will remain of that heritage tomorrow. I have a country which, at least today, still allows me to express outrage and rejection in the face of its corrupt leadership. I have a country—but I have no president. The headship is vacant.

(See Patriotism II)

On a lighter note about patriotism, my world-citizen pretensions are exposed every four years when the Winter Olympics roll around. Normally, rankings of countries mean nothing to me, but when I see the land of my birth, little Norway, sitting at the top of a list of mostly world powers—Russia, the USA, Germany—how can I not feel proud?

Norway finished the 2002 Winter Olympics in third place in the medal count, but if you count medals per capita, they trounced the rest of the world many times over. (I'm not above spinning the results in their favor, too: they had more GOLD medals than any other country.) This year, as of this morning, they were on top of the total medal count.

Perhaps the more important list where Norway perennially appears at or near the top is the list of countries ranked by contributions to aid and development in the economically distressed world. If only my adopted country, the USA, normally soooo competitive on the world stage, could be stirred into a competitive fever in that contest.

From Maxine in Baghdad:

13 February 2006 in Baghdad

Dearest friends-

A friend wrote and told me about the snowstorm on the east coast today. It's funny, because I had kind of forgotten about snow here in the desert of Iraq. After I got done dancing around the room in joy that I didn't have to shovel it or drive in it, I got to thinking about the good qualities of snow.

Snow has a marvelous effect on the place where it falls. It muffles the noise of everday life, and covers everything in a downy blanket of white. For me, snow has always been a spiritual experience. I feel somehow like it's God's way of making me slow down for a bit, to silence the clatter and clamor of the usual things so I can feel God's presence. I find it to be a very peaceful feeling.

I'm missing snow here in Iraq, because there's very little that silences the noise and the chaos here. Daily I'm barraged with sirens, generators, bombs, gunfire and helicopters. There's precious little time when there's not some (if not all) of that going on. It jangles my nerves and makes it hard to hear the voice of God among the din.

I've been trying to find that sacred space, mostly by manufacturing it myself. I've been practicing meditation techniques that, by disciplining by own senses, produce the quiet I desire. It's not easy; in fact, it's a lot of hard work. It seems there is always something that wants to steal my focus, to draw me away from God. I'm a novice at this and each day I struggle with the sense that I'm not getting much further in my development, but I keep trying.

My colleagues are still being held by those who took them. Daily I pray for their safe return and work in any way I can think of to convince those who hold them that now is the time to release them. It's been nearly two and a half months now. I wonder how much more they can take of being held captive. I pray for their families and ask God to help them remain hopeful.

I'm also praying that Tom, Jim, Norman and Harmeet can find a peaceful place with God in the middle of their captivity. I don't think it will be a snowstorm here in Iraq, but I'm counting on God to find the next best thing.

God's peace to you this week-



Gregg Koskela said...

Thanks for your words, Johan, thoughtful and light.

I'll root for Norway in your honor!

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Gregg! Norway still clings to top place this morning, by just two medals over second-place Germany. Russia and the USA are in third and fourth place.