08 March 2012

Bloodlands, part two: What is patriotism?

Some folks pledge their hearts to the Red, White, and Blue,
But my heart's been changed and all things have been made new.
I can't serve this world and to my King be true,
There's just one land I love.

--Bill Jolliff, "The Country of the King"

I'm continuing to read the book I mentioned last week--Bloodlands--and trying to understand how this relatively small region of the globe suffered such unimaginable levels of state terrorism and genocide. Timothy Snyder suggests that, when Germany's ultimate military victory became impossible, and therefore his draft solutions for the "Jewish question" (removal beyond the Urals) became unattainable, the actual elimination of Europe's Jewish population became the new definition of German victory. Along with centuries of ripening anti-Semitism, what else can explain the incredible devotion of resources to the extermination of helpless civilians even at the expense of the war effort?

On the Soviet side, Stalin seemed to be an equal-opportunity slaughterer at least through the war years. (After the war, he began to turn his murderous attention more specifically to Jews.) The carving-up of Poland, the Soviet seizure of the Baltic states, the German invasions and Soviet reconquests meant that millions of people were whiplashed back and forth between both dictators, at the cost of more hundreds of thousands of lives--sometimes with two passes of the grim reaper within a fifteen-month period and a third pass before it was all over.

Each regime tried to conceal its own crimes against humanity from the world. Stalin added a new twist--he even concealed the full scope of Nazi crimes. Specifically, he categorically refused to recognize the Holocaust as anything special. On top of concealing his role in the deaths of many thousands of Poles, of national minorities within the Soviet Union, of returning Soviet soldiers from German prisoner-of-war camps (after they had survived mortality rates surpassing 50% in German hands!), he did not want to allow the million and a half Jewish deaths on the Soviet side of the border to be any kind of a distraction from the general suffering of the Soviet people led by the "first among equals" Russians.

By the time of his death, Stalin had spent over two decades beating the drum against "enemies of the people" and with that drumbeat hustled many innocent and loyal people toward the cruelties of camps, NKVD basements, and unmarked graves. Hitler started out puffing the greatness of the German people, but soon forcefully funneled that sentiment into personal loyalty to him alone--and when his global-scale criminality brought them to ruin, said that they did not deserve to survive. The most important function of a national leader is traditionally to serve and protect the people, not to kill them by the hundreds of thousands.

Who were the real enemies of the people? Whose behavior was the very opposite of patriotism?

Apologists for Stalin, to this day, say that his complicity with Hitler's invasion of Poland, and the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement allowing Soviet takeovers in the Baltic countries, were strategically necessary to provide time for the Soviet Union to prepare for the inevitable Nazi attack. However, there is no possible explanation, within the bounds of decency, for the cruelty with which Stalin and his apparatus treated the Poles, the national minorities, the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, and the returning soldiers.

At all times, however much blood they had on their hands, these murderers could be counted on for stirring words of patriotism. The unspoken message: might makes right. People learn the lesson well enough. Even after several generations of relative peace, people might be inclined toward resignation if leaders talk a good patriotic line but actually fudge their national stewardship in favor of narrower interests. Some might even forget what genuine patriotism is--and that it applies to leaders and their actions just as much as to the average mild-mannered citizen.

Russia is just one country where some are rethinking the meaning of patriotism, in part because of dissatisfaction over the relationship between governors and the governed. Americans are long overdue for a conversation on the subject of healthy patriotism, given the distortions of the current political season:
  • the President is accused of wanting to remake the USA into the image of a tired and failed Europe, and of apologizing for the USA on account of his international courtesy and preference for diplomacy
  • and a minority of the electorate continue to think his citizenship and loyalties are suspect, nonsense that some other national politicians who undoubtedly know better are willing to exploit
  • while Obama himself weakens American constitutional values by supporting "anti-terrorist" policies that water down the concept of due process, and an insidious form of technology-driven low-intensity warfare that makes a mockery of others' sovereignty
  • and almost all national politicians forget (or pretend to forget) how to differentiate between American interests and Israel's interests.
None of these developments threaten to herald a dictatorship anywhere in the near future. But all of them might be symptoms of a weakening of that mutual respect and mutual accountability among community members and their leaders that are the best long-term protection against tyranny--whether that is the tyranny of one person, as in days of old, or of an enmeshed and impenetrable technocracy, which might be the biggest danger of the future.

What can Christians do to inoculate our nations against murderous and cultish forms of patriotism? To me, the only healthy patriotism is functional, not mythological or tribal or cultic or anything involving ultimate loyalties that only God can claim. Functional patriotism treasures the mutual obligations of a nation's citizens, and gives us an investment in each other's success--not our own private aggrandizement. Functional patriotism promotes intelligent statecraft on the international stage, and the building up of institutions that promote trade and communication and prevent war. Functional patriotism encourages young people and newcomers to cherish the languages and cultures that we have the honor to host within our borders. Functional patriotism asks leaders to be as patriotic in deeds and sacrifice as those leaders want the rest of us to be. And functional patriotism understand that nations and empires come and go; they learn to recognize the limits that sustainability imposes so that the good things we stand for can last, and so the planet will flourish under our stewardship, not shrug us off on account of our abuse.

I'd love to think that we Christians can counter the blasphemies of cultic patriotism with the ethics of biblical discipleship and a style of participation that proclaims God's grace rather than our demands for privilege.

A convenient summary and listing of English-language comments on last Sunday's elections in Russia.

Don't answer the ringing phone. "Metaphorically, a ringing phone is something that feels urgent but isn't."

Two recent items from the Legal Times blog: "Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. this afternoon in Chicago offered the Justice Department's most detailed defense yet for using lethal force to kill Americans abroad..." and "Talks Fail Between Chabad and Russian Government Over Return of Religious Texts."

John Stott on creation care as one of the "neglected aspects of our calling."

How CCM music avoids lament and "sanitizes the wilderness."

"The 'biblical view' that's younger than the Happy Meal." But here's my concern: while I agree that it's not right to invent a 'biblical' doctrine ("Life begins at conception") if it isn't really biblical, what can we say positively and biblically that guards our treatment of sex and conception from permissive assumptions that really do diminish life? I suspect that the fertilized egg became a political proxy that was either heralded or marginalized in the larger arena where we'd otherwise discuss how much we were willing to build up, support, and guard women's dignity, and hold men accountable. As politicians, Christians, and citizens, why do or don't we trust women to make the right decision? This is NOT a rhetorical question.

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