Each summer, mixed in with the cook-outs, beach-going and family vacationing, patriotism - with its flags, fireworks, parades, and national hymns – moves to the fore of our national conscience. Though I love my country, I have become more and more disturbed by our lack of critical self reflection concerning how our nation interacts with other sovereign states around the world, and how it addresses the historical and current struggles of so many of my fellow citizens.
Twice this summer I have felt trapped by unquestioning patriotism. The first was of my own making, the second, blindsided me.
I recently moved to a new community and joined a local choral group, knowing that they were practicing for the patriotic concert series the weekend before the Fourth of July. Most of the material was not overtly patriotic, “I’ve been everywhere,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and the like - a romp across America in song. At the end of the show, I told myself I could make it through “God Bless the USA,” after all, I signed up to sing and I knew what I was getting into. I steeled myself, but when the time came, I found myself numbly singing and wishing I were somewhere else. I waved the little flag they gave each of us, and walked off the stage angry – at myself.
On Sunday, July 3, my wife and I went to the progressive church we have been attending since we moved to town. It is a church that is rooted in Peace and Justice work and champions the separation of Church and State. When I read the morning order of worship, I was stunned to see America the Beautiful as the closing hymn. I did not know what to do, but since we were there and the service was beginning, I sat, contemplating how I would handle myself when it came time to sing that nationalistic ‘hymn’. When the usual call for the singing of hymns came – “Please stand as you are willing or able” – My wife and I decided we were not willing. I could not sing, asking God to “Shed His grace” on the USA.
I hold an ordination in the American Baptist Churches of the United States and have pastored churches for 25 years. I served 4 years in the US Navy. And I have a son I love dearly who has made the US Navy his career for the past 15 years. So you might ask by this point, “What’s your problem?”
Let me tell you.
To sing these lyrics – beseeching God’s blessings and grace upon the USA – is an act of prayer. If the original intent of the writers of these and other nationalistic hymns is to be properly understood, they are acts of Christian prayer. For individuals to pray this way for themselves, without taking stock of their sins or wrongdoings, would be to misunderstand the basic tenets of their faith. For the three great Monotheistic faiths – this is so. Therefore, singing these national hymns of prayer without taking stock of our nations acts of sin and wrongdoing is likewise improper. Yet, all too many citizens of the United States do so from a position of uncritical, unquestioning patriotism. Because of this, we never seem to address the sins of our nation – and therefore we keep committing them over and over again.
Because I do love my country, but often reject what it does in my name, I find I can no longer sing these ‘hymns.’
I cannot ask God to Bless the USA when this nation has engaged in nearly continuous war since WW2 against countries and people who never harmed us. Based on our government’s lies, these wars have cost tens of thousands of US military lives and millions of lives – mostly civilians – in the countries we have invaded. For this I pray God will forgive the USA.
I can not ask God to shed His grace on the USA when we have the largest prison population of any nation in the world, nearly half of which are incarcerated for minor crimes that are counted as felonies, disproportionally disenfranchising people of color who in most states will never be able to vote and across the USA will never be able to find meaningful work because the carry the label Felon. In this graceless reality, I pray for God to forgive the USA.
I cannot ask God to Bless the USA when in those fore-mentioned prisons 700,000 people are military vets – most of who are there because they acted out due to untreated PTSD. For this I will ask God to forgive the USA.
I cannot ask God to shed His grace on the USA when according to the US Census Bureau, 45 million people – 1 in 7 US citizens are living in poverty, most in families where at least one person in the home is working, though under-employed and underpaid. Most of them work for corporations who’s CEOs make multi-millions per year. In this graceless state, I will pray for God to Forgive the USA.
I cannot ask God to Bless the USA while 50 million people in this country struggle with no or inadequate health care – a reality that shortens their lives and makes those shortened lives miserable. For this I will ask God to forgive the USA.
I cannot ask God to shed His grace on the USA when black and brown lives are taken routinely and many more are shown dehumanizing disrespect by those who we employ to “Protect and Serve.” And when courts respond with acquittals, even when video shows the police gunning down or severely beating people who are not showing aggression toward them, for this I will ask God to Forgive the USA.
Likewise I cannot ask God to shed His grace on a USA whose political leaders created and then turned a blind eye to a gun culture that takes the lives of 33,000 citizens every year and equips and emboldens the actions of unstable men who have gunned down innocent police officers in cold blood. For this I will as God to forgive the USA.
I cannot ask God to Bless the USA when we as a society remain willfully ignorant of our history, refusing to acknowledge that our nation and its overwhelming wealth is built on the genocide of its indigenous people, the theft of their land and the working of that land by millions of black slaves, and later by child labor. The ills of these realities echo loudly to this day. For this I will ask God to forgive the USA.
I cannot ask God to shed His grace on the USA when so many lawmakers would and do deny LGBTQ citizens basic protections under the law. Their reality is one of being systematically denied employment, housing and the basic human respect we all deserve. They live in danger of their very lives and have the highest rate of suicide of any group of people in the US. For this lack of grace, I pray God’s forgiveness of the USA.
When we as a nation seriously engage in addressing these issues and work diligently toward solving these realities that crush and subjugate so many of my fellow citizens, then I might be able to sing, “America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!”