Friday, July 2, 2010

Pride Or Prejudice?

I am patriotic. I love my country, the United States of America, and I refuse to accept anyone challenging that fact.
Songs and marches about my country stir my heart, many times bringing me to the verge of tears.
Though, at my age, it's not likely, I would, if my conscience convinced me that the circumstances warranted, defend any of my fellow U.S. citizens against an enemy's attack.
I am daily inspired by living examples of U.S. citizens who, despite horrific obstacles, manage to keep going: providing for their families, improving themselves mentally, physically and spiritually, reaching out to others in selflessness, enriching their fellow citizens lives by giving their time, talent and resources.
I am grateful for living in a country relatively safely, able to have a decent roof over my head, having access to wholesome food, and able to meet all of my basic needs.

Nevertheless, I believe that I also have the right to question what I believe to be the shortcomings of my country and its leaders, the right to demand that they be accountable to "we, the people", the right to voice my opposition, even passionately, when I perceive laws, policies and actions which are questionable, inappropriate, possibly hurtful or unjust for my welfare and that of my fellow citizens. It seems to me that many times we like to flaunt the idea that we are a nation "under God", yet when confronted with things which clearly run counter to generally accepted godly principles of morality, justice, and charity, we're not, as a nation, always willing to act accordingly.

I'm categorically opposed to my country or any nation going to war with any other nation. I'm also realistic enough to know that there have always been wars, and that that probably won't change any time soon. During the Vietnam War, when I was still a Roman Catholic priest, I volunteered to enlist as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. My superior at the time refused to allow me to do so, for good reasons. My desire to enlist was motivated solely by wanting to help bring some kind of hope and spiritual support to the men and women engaged in that horrible military debacle. 

My cousin, seminary mates and other friends were called up to serve, in the flower of their youth. John Glasper, two years behind me, was killed during his first week in Vietnam, by "friendly fire". Captain Robert Bush, whom I met while supplying at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, KS, was shot down in an F-15 aircraft on his second and last tour of duty. Thankfully, my cousin, Mike Beck, survived the war after losing a number of close friends, including his Lieutenant, and being awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded twice. None of these three nor I, I feel sure, had identical convictions about the war itself or about our country's motivation or participation in it. I do believe that each of us dearly loved our country and, at the same time, tried to live by our deepest convictions.

Today as I came out of the supermarket I stopped by a table where a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam conflict, a recently retired postal worker, manned a Military Order of the Purple Heart display. As with the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), who frequently have such local displays, one of their principal uses of donations collected is to support wounded veterans. I will unabashedly confess that I am a complete sucker, an extraordinarily easy-touch when it comes to women and men like that. One of my deeply felt gripes with the U.S. government is the disgraceful and shoddy treatment of veterans: not only those living, but even of those who have already given their lives. Recent findings have pointed out the bumbling and outrageous SNAFUs regarding the military cemetery and burial system. So it went without saying that I happily placed my donation in the can today.

Having picked up one of the brochures, I read about the aims and purpose of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. I list these below, to give credit where credit is due, and, reflecting some of what I said above, to point out what I consider a touch of propaganda:

National service and volunteer programs assist veterans with benefits and claims and supports those who are hospitalized."
It's hard to argue with that.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart takes great pride in the United States of America and all that for which she stands."
I was OK for the first half of that statement, but am having some trouble with the last phrase. Trouble is, in my view, that we "stand for" one thing on paper and in patriotic speeches, but for far different, often quite ignoble and hurtful things in reality. I base that on our actual history, on some facts which are on the record.

We work to keep alive the history of General George Washington and America's citizen soldiers from all wars." And on the inside of the brochure is a quotation from George Washington: "The road to glory in a patriot army and free country is thus open to all."
I guess my question is: what kind of "glory" is possible in any army, a group trained and focused on the taking of lives of opposing combatants and, in unfortunately too many sad instances, of the lives of innocent men, women and children? The other consideration is the fact that though, at the time of the 1770's Revolution Americans may have been a middle-class society (generally white, male, and either lawyers, land owners, or slave-owners), it had a large and growing number of the poor, and many of them, largely through conscription or impressment, did the actual fighting and dying. Additionally, slaves, indentured servants, Native Americans and women were repeatedly denied, not only basic rights, but certainly any right to even bear arms for their country. Even then, America was far from being the "free country...thus open to all" referred to by Washington! (John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, Oxford, 1976)

We help educate the youth of America to understand that freedom is not free."
I've never really understood exactly what that means, frankly. The freedom which God has given each of us, without exception, is totally free, and that's true whether one finds oneself in a situation of oppression or not. That's the whole meaning of grace. If that phrase means that each of us has to take responsibility to exercise our freedom for the good of others, all others, then I can go along with it. Somehow, I don't think that's what the person who coined that jingle may have had in mind.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart offers camaraderie with friends, new and old, who share the common bond of combat for America."
I can understand this. To have survived such ordeals as our military men and women have experienced certainly creates an unbreakable bond. Clergy have something similar; and cops and firemen; and survivors of breast cancer. The danger is that any group can become in-grown, isolated, exclusive, even discriminatory.

 The Ladies Auxiliary Military Order of the Purple Heart consists of wives, mothers and daughters who support our veterans."
These are often the unsung heroes. They go through "combat" also as they anxiously live through the months or years of their loved one's involvement in the military. They're the survivors of so much of which we're totally unaware.

Well, with all that said, I ask God's blessing on the United States of America on this 4th of July weekend celebration of becoming, at least in theory, a group of "united states". I ask God's blessing on each and every citizen of this great land, especially on the many new citizens from such wonderfully diverse ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds. I ask that God may motivate us to really look at and make real, in our own everyday lives, the principles which our national documents say that we espouse. I pray that we may all find our ways to true "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". 

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