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Bob Francis: A Reluctant Patriot

posted by gp_intern

Memorial Day has always been one of the most important holidays for my family. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I am from what can safely be called a military family, with my father, one grandfather, and five uncles all serving in our armed forces, representing all four major branches among them. It is on this day each year that we pause to give special thanks to those who have served in our country’s military, according the highest respect to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice of their very lives to secure and protect our freedoms. Given my military family heritage, it is not surprising that I was socialized from the earliest age into an unquestioned, devout patriotism, which was never on display so proudly and publicly as on Memorial Day.

I was home for Memorial Day this year, which allowed me to rehearse many of our family rituals from my youth. My 12-hour day yesterday consisted of two Memorial Day services (with accompanying parades) in two different towns, three picnics, and visits to five cemeteries to lay flowers and pay respects. In many ways, the events of the day were as touching, sincere, and heartfelt as I remembered them. I even shed a tear at one service when the local marching band played the Marine’s Hymn, which brought to mind my Marine father on this first Memorial Day without him.

However, despite recollections of cherished memories, my adult sensibilities intruded, giving me a much more discerning eye through which to observe the day’s events. The patriotic premises I uncritically absorbed in my childhood have long since evolved, tempered over the years by a healthy dose of biblically-informed skepticism of nationalism and militarism. I was reminded that the inextricable linkage of patriotism, militarism, and American Christianity in our national narrative is alive and well – a marriage that I find distressing and theologically dubious at best.

At least in small towns like those where my family lives, Memorial Day services put on display the way in which the Christian faith remains co-opted by the national and military narratives of the American people. Expectedly, both services I attended rehearsed our cherished freedoms and honored our servicemen and women for their sacrifices. But the commendations went much further than that. There were prayers to God for national blessing and undisputed claims of America being the greatest nation on earth. Imagery abounded of America as a distinctly Christian nation and the related need for us to get God back into the public square “where He belongs.” It was implied throughout that God guides our national ship, and consequently, our national causes must be the very causes of God. On this day, unlike any other, we see pastors and soldiers side by side, as if there were no contradiction between the kingdoms of God and America.

What concerns me in this display of Christian patriotism is how easily we think that God is on our side and that what America does may as well be what God is doing in the world – especially regarding our military. It can perpetuate a dangerous “us vs. them” mentality, with “us” always being on God’s side of the ledger and our causes always being just, simply because it involves our troops. Also alarming is the uncritical way in which our American and Christian identities no longer seem separate, making it anathema to suggest that our patriotism might need correction (instead of unabashed support) from our biblical faith.

Like most touchy and complicated issues, nuance is often lost in our world of sound bites, fundraising, and political gain. But I’d like to try and walk the fine line as a reluctant patriot. I want to honor those men and women who have bravely and nobly served our country, for in doing so, I honor my own family. I want to be grateful for America’s successes, not taking for granted the many ways in which America truly has been a noble and even unprecedented experiment in democracy. And I want to acknowledge the freedoms we indeed enjoy, ones only longed for by many in other lands and times. But I want to stop short of worshipping America. I never want to place America where only Christ should be, and I want my allegiances to be properly ordered and never confused.

If I could have scripted yesterday’s events, I would have liked to hear more talk about peace, not war. The fact that men and women of any nation must die in combat reveals that we live in a fallen and imperfect world, one waiting to be redeemed. It reveals what we have not yet learned – not the art of war – but the art of peace. In these times of violence, I would be more comforted by images of swords beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, instead of battleships and soldiers never coming home. I would like America to honor our peacemakers as reverently as our soldiers. And if we want to invoke God, I would like to hear about God’s kingdom, the one where the lion lays down with the lamb. And we could rehearse God’s promises – not for military victory (which I don’t find in my Bible anyway) – but about how a suffering servant, who told us to turn the other cheek and offered no word in his own defense before being led to death, has somehow overcome the world. That would be my idea of a Memorial Day.

Bob Francis is the organizing and policy assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.



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Ben Wheaton

posted May 29, 2007 at 5:04 pm


We already have such a memorial day. It’s called Easter.



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moderatelad

posted May 29, 2007 at 5:17 pm


Services that I wittnessed talked about honoring the heros of the past. Thanking those who served that were present, but praying for peace and for God guidance and direction. Yes – there are a few that glorify war, sing it’s praises. I believe that vast majority pray more for peace but when there is no other choice in the pending conflict – war is the best of the worst options to bring peace. Historically – the US has come to the rescue and assisted in ending the war. Blessings – .



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Tom

posted May 29, 2007 at 5:51 pm


“But I want to stop short of worshipping America.” Thank you for saying this Mr. Francis. How about stopping short of worshipping capitalism as well. We ceased to evolve past the base nature of the authoritarian mindset and now we’ve got a multi-generational culture that’s indoctrinated to a “traditional” concept of God. A quarter of our federal budget goes to war and defense. There’s never been a real threat big enough to warrant all this build up and attention to defense. One only needs to travel back a ways to find the America we worship today. It s the result of being fed a steady and strange dietary brew of GODLESS COMMUNISM.



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cs

posted May 29, 2007 at 6:32 pm


We do need to remember that Christ is our King, and the temporal world is temporary. However, it is hardly a new idea that God does intervene in national and international affairs. The founding fathers referred to the hand of “Providence,” while making sure to refrain from endorsing any one denomination as a state church. As to the prophetic images of swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, my Bible presents this blessed hope as the act of God. Nations can and should strive to live justly and peacefully. Nevertheless, a nation which chooses not to provide for its own defense is naive and a vulnerable target for others. We should also keep the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men separate in terms of what a nation can and should do for military defense.



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Tom

posted May 29, 2007 at 6:42 pm


“However, it is hardly a new idea that God does intervene in national and international affairs. The founding fathers referred to the hand of “Providence,” while making sure to refrain from endorsing any one denomination as a state church.” I recall our Constitution saying, “the People must act on the warnings of the Founding Fathers against standing armies and foreign entanglements.”



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Jim

posted May 29, 2007 at 6:44 pm


“The patriotic premises I uncritically absorbed in my childhood have long since evolved, tempered over the years by a healthy dose of biblically-informed skepticism of nationalism and militarism.” I share your skepticism of nationalism and militarism. I think we should avoid being seduced by such forces. I think what we celebrate on Memorial Day is the transcendant virtues of duty and sacrifice. The fact that on many occassions human beings having willing risked their lives to make the world better. That is beautiful. I’m reminded of the line for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “Jesus died to make men holy, now we die to make men free.” Maybe they weren’t really dying to make men free. Maybe they were dying as a result of much more complicated forces. But I am okay with being moved by the power of their willingness to die to make men free.



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posted May 29, 2007 at 7:11 pm


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Carl Copas

posted May 29, 2007 at 8:25 pm


Tom: “I recall our Constitution saying, ‘the People must act on the warnings of the Founding Fathers against standing armies and foreign entanglements.'” Tom, where can I find that in the Constitution?



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Tom

posted May 29, 2007 at 8:38 pm


It speaks to these concepts, which George Washington further articulated by warning us against “standing armies and foreign entaglements.”



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Ron

posted May 29, 2007 at 8:52 pm


Bob, I served in the Army and was overseas the last few weeks of 1968, all of 1969 and the first few weeks of 1970. I view Memorial Day to be next to Christmas on my list of important holidays. We, in America, are free because so many before us were willing to fight, and die, to preserve our right to freedoms many other nations do not have. Is it a perfect society? Is our way the way of the world? No, but it is as good as any other form of government, to date. Do we fight? Yes. Is that good? No, but it is often times necessary. Tom, it is not about worshipping Capitalism, but, embracing it as a true measure of ones ability to succeed. Those who condemn, or even fear, Capitalism are the ones who want to be told what to do and when to do it. While maybe not perfect, Capitalism allows anyone to rise above the level they were born into or to fall deeper into poverty and despair; all without undo influence from government, a Royal Family or a dictator. I like that idea! I do not want my government to tell me I have to be a farmer, or machinist, or work in a factory until I die. I do not want my government to tell my wife she must stay at home and have dozens of children so the Communist Party can grow: only to reverse that doctrine when the country became OVERPOPULATED. I like the fact that I decided what I would study in college, what I would do as an adult and what I do on a daily basis. I rejoice in the fact that Capitalism allows me these privileges, while Communism does not.In GOD We Trust ! We were formed as a Christian based country, but we have embraced every religion known to man. Can that be said of other religions? Can the Jewish faithful in Israel say that about any Arab country neighboring them? Do many Muslims, in the Middle East, not yell death to the imbeciles and look straight to the United States? So, Tom, a quarter of our federal budget goes to war and defense, but there’s never been a real threat big enough to warrant all this build up and attention to defense. Ever stop to think that the large defense budget and such detail to defending our borders is the reason no threat is conceived to be present, by you. The threat is real and is facing us each and every day. It is our strong commitment to the defense of freedom which prevents our being attacked more frequently. Unfortunately, persons who think like you can become the very factor that leads to the destruction of our way of life and Democracy as we know it!



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Maggie Wellert

posted May 29, 2007 at 8:53 pm


Thank you for putting into words so clearly the sentiments that many of us feel. I deeply appreciate the observation that often what we do substitutes worship of America for worship for Christ.



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Wolverine

posted May 29, 2007 at 9:08 pm


Bob Francis wrote: Imagery abounded of America as a distinctly Christian nation and the related need for us to get God back into the public square “where He belongs.” It was implied throughout that God guides our national ship, and consequently, our national causes must be the very causes of God. I’m not sure that something very similar cannot be said of Sojourners. While Sojo does not claim that the US is a distinctively Christian country, they do argue that religion should remain a part of public discourse, and they do claim that their movement is distinctly Christian. From there it is simply a matter of reading your own press releases to come to the conclusion that “our…causes must be the very causes of God. I say this not because Francis is necessarily wrong, but because it is such an easy trap to fall into and there’s no reason elaborated why only conservatives are prone to fall into it. Wolverine



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Ngchen

posted May 29, 2007 at 9:15 pm


Excellent post. I believe that it is great to have a love for country, and for those who have sacrificed for it. The (blurry) line that one should never cross is to turn love of country into a love of an idol. We must never forget to whom our primary allegiance lies. Also, there is another nuance that people tend to forget. Love of country does not equate to uncritical support of its government. Country and government are closely linked, but there are times when the loving thing to do is to steer government away from wrongful action.



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Gary Schrag

posted May 29, 2007 at 9:35 pm


Bob, Have you detailed your personal journey somewhere? I can only imagine that given where you came from to where you are must have been very difficult and an inspiring one. Gary



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Randy Myers

posted May 29, 2007 at 10:11 pm


As a child of te military and an aspiring believer in Christ, I share the author’s perspective. I would only add that all the survivors of war who I have known and served (many of them from WW II) would say that the “soldier’s” primary prayer is always for peace. Solemnity, not glory, is perhaps the best mood for days such as Memorial Day. The preachers and politicians who unite the flag with religion only serve to make the point of Mark Twain’s “War Prayer.” Again, survivors of combat pray for peace. Of course I can only offer this as having listned to them and IMHO.



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Don

posted May 29, 2007 at 10:24 pm


Thank you, Bob, for your willingness to discuss this issue. I too have become a reluctant patriot, especially since the upsurge of idolatrous nationalism we have witnessed since 9/11. Willingness to fight and/or to die to preserve our freedom; yes, this is the focus of Memorial Day. I recall the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. But I wonder if even this can sometimes become misplaced devotion: “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.” –Psalm 33: 16-17 “Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he answers him from his holy heaven with the saving power of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. O LORD, save the king! Answer [a] us when we call!” –Psalm 20: 6-9 Yes, we should honor those who have sacrificed for the cause of freedom. But we should never forget that it is the grace of God–and only the grace of God, not our military prowess–that preserves our freedoms. Furthermore, the Christian church also has martyrs to honor–those who have sacrificed their lives for the Faith. Do we as American Christians think more often and give more honor to those who have died for a temporal cause or to those who have died for the eternal cause? Peace,



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jurisnaturalist

posted May 29, 2007 at 11:26 pm


Tom, God established our human nature and encouraged trade and exchange. He tried to prevent establishment of a centralized state. Don’t worship the state. Don’t worship Capitalism, though I think that is quite unlikely. Indeed worship the one true God, and recognize what He established. Free trade is creative. Voluntarism is the Christian Ethic. Coercion is the state. It is a false god.



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jurisnaturalist

posted May 29, 2007 at 11:28 pm


Sorry, Tom, You and I are agreed about standing armies. Shut down all the foreign bases, bring all the boys home to be active in enterprise, point the guns out, and allow open legalized immigration.



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jurisnaturalist

posted May 29, 2007 at 11:36 pm


Ron, “We, in America, are free because so many before us were willing to fight, and die, to preserve our right to freedoms many other nations do not have” Here is the confusion. We are free because we do not allow our government to get too big, and we maintain the responsibility for our own freedom. This makes us more willing to sacrifice for our families, so that they can keep their liberties. How many of us would offer our lives for a “fatherland” that promised to enslave our children with taxes and socialized programs? Soldiers fight for their families, for their buddies, and then, for their unit, their branch of service… and then for their country. Honor them for recognizing the value of liberty.



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jurisnaturalist

posted May 29, 2007 at 11:41 pm


I think we are confused about who ought to feel threatened. The liberty Americans enjoy is a threat to centralized governments everywhere. They ought to be afraid of losing their people to a nation with greater freedom. We save them the trouble by keeping these willing individuals out. If we opened our borders to legal immigration and abolished the welfare state, only those able to pay their own way would make the trip. As people left their homelands, powerholders in those lands would recognize the threat to their power. They would be forced to loosen their grip on their subjects. This would make other nations more free, more productive, more able to supply their own needs, and provide greater gains from trade to everyone. You see, its not America the government we believe in, its America, the LACK of government we believe in. Nathanael Snow



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Kristi

posted May 30, 2007 at 12:09 am


I know so many who confuse love of country with love of God or love of government. I LOVE my country—all its diversity and generosity, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t rail against un-ethical government policies. And when I choose to rail against those policies, I am criticizing certain individuals who make up the government NOT my country as a whole, AND it further reinforces just how much I love God and honor His ways. I firmly believe that more people need to vote and lobby and speak up for their God-given, biblically mandated conscience instead of towing some rigid idealogical line just for the sake of patriotism. BUT on a day like Memorial Day, it is the appropriately grateful thing to honor all of those who in their heart of hearts believed they were doing right and putting all they had towards making a better, more peaceful world.



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kevin s.

posted May 30, 2007 at 2:48 am


Thank you Kristi. I also think many of the policies of this country are unethical. Many of the people in this country are (empirically) immoral. But thank God we have the freedoms that we do. People on both sides might like to pretend we are teetering on the brink of (take your pick: Communism or Fascism), but the truth is that we are not. We can thank our veterans for that. They ave risked their lives to make this happen. Honoring our veterans does not mean we must idolize them.



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Mike Hayes

posted May 30, 2007 at 2:00 pm


Bob Francis, Thank you for the concept… a reluctant patriot… that sums it up pretty well, I think.



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Peter Neufeld

posted May 30, 2007 at 8:12 pm


The threat is real and is facing us each and every day. It is our strong commitment to the defense of freedom which prevents our being attacked more frequently. Unfortunately, persons who think like you can become the very factor that leads to the destruction of our way of life and Democracy as we know it! Ron | 05.29.07 – 2:57 pm ——————————- Ron. I like your comment the best of all of them. Well said.



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Payshun

posted May 30, 2007 at 8:18 pm


I can only praise some veterans, others did not fight to keep my people or others free. I thank God for my father and his service. I thank God for all the black soldiers in the military and the struggle for equal rights. I thank God for the soldiers that fought and protected the children that just wanted an education. I also thank God for those that did just things in during their service but there are some that I just can’t commend. p



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Sarasotakid

posted May 30, 2007 at 11:58 pm


Very well stated. The marriage of Christianity to blind patriotism has been very troubling for me too. It is good to hear the voice of reason.



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Peter Attwood

posted June 1, 2007 at 12:04 am


The notion that we have any freedom because American soldiers have died for it is a religion of human sacrifice, the notion that the blood of sinful men redeems us. Only the blood of Christ redeems us, and the gospel clearly teaches that freedom is for any who walk in his word, and nowhere else (John 8:31-32). When Thomas Jefferson stated that the tree of liberty must be regularly watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots, he spoke no different from Vladimir Lenin claiming that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. There really is no fellowship between Christ and Belial; whose blood you honor as bringing freedom is the root that determines what fruit you get. It is from this root that the US consistently brings forth slavery and slaughter as it has from its beginning 400 years ago. This theological problem must be faced and radically repented of, or we will keep seeing the same self-righteous and sanctimonious nation continuing the same dreadful crimes. It was that way before Bush, and it will be that wau after him.



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Payshun

posted June 1, 2007 at 2:27 am


I agree Peter. p



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Wolverine

posted June 1, 2007 at 7:31 pm


Peter Attwood wrote: The notion that we have any freedom because American soldiers have died for it is a religion of human sacrifice, the notion that the blood of sinful men redeems us. You’re confusing two types of freedom here: political and spiritual. I’m not sure anyone believes that the death of soldiers brings spiritual freedom, that was won by Christ. If you were talking about political freedom you would be closer to the truth, although that’s not exactly right either. I believe it was Gen. Patton who famously said (I’m paraphrasing) that nobody ever won a war by dying for his country, but by making the other guy die for his country. Memorial Day is about remembering the bravery of those who risked and lost their lives defending this country. We also honor (at different times and different ways) those who served and lived to return, because it is their service, not their deaths, that ultimately keeps us free. Politically, that is. Wolverine



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Don

posted June 1, 2007 at 8:26 pm


“…because it is their service, not their deaths, that ultimately keeps us free.” No, it’s God’s grace, and only God’s grace, that keeps us free. See my earlier post. Paul told the Athenians that God determines the times and the places of habitation for all nations (see Acts 17: 24-27). We are kept free because, so far, it is God’s will that we be kept free. That doesn’t mean, of course, that military service counts for nothing. Military serivce is honorable, as are all other honest vocations. But I am speaking of ultimate reality here; a reality that we would all do well to keep in mind. Peace,



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Bill Samuel

posted June 2, 2007 at 2:30 am


Occasionally a voice of reason here. But the commentator does not seem to have looked at the legislation establishing Memorial Day. It sets it aside as a day of “prayer for permanent peace.” You almost never hear that. Instead folks act like it is a day to glorify war – a day to promote killing and being killed. It is ultimate blasphemy to say that we must do evil in order to do good. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is right to oppose the devotion of so much of our resources to the instruments of death and imperialism. It’s good to see a staffer of Sojourners indicate that, even though Sojourners steadfastly refuses to take that position. Sojourners ran a major campaign about the “budget as a moral document” last year and never once mentioned where most of the money in the budget was going. Now Sojourners is hawking a forum on which it is going to promote three candidates who all favor larger military forces and a larger military budget, as well as unlimited abortion and the death penalty. And the group has the gall to claim it is Christian! Bob Francis, I strongly urge you to quit your job with Sojourners and find a group that actually favors changing this country’s devotion to death to work for. Jim Wallis is a real threat to meaningful change in this country because his sometimes rhetoric attracts idealists who want to bring the kingdom of God closer, and then perverts their idealism and gets them to work promoting establishment politics that is the antithesis of the kingdom of God. Scripture warns us against false prophets like him.



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Tasiyagnunpa DuBray

posted June 2, 2007 at 2:40 am


Don, Yes, but we live in a fallen world and when Jesus prayed that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, He did so because earth is not perfectly ordered by God the way heaven is. I believe that God sets the times and places of nations, but I also believe we should not overstep our bounds by setting up and destroying nations. America has played God with her neighbors far too long–first with the many nations here on this continent, with Vietnam, and Iraq. If a country is going to rise and throw out an oppressor than they need to be the ones to ask us for help, as America asked the French for help during our Revolution. (And before they get to that step they should be seeking God. America in its infancy did that as well and though so many of the early leaders were imperfect, starting with the Pilgrims, they were willing servants in the hands of an Almighty God.) Iraqis want us OUT of their country (though one of the big cheeses the other day did say we are needed, but I’m talking about the masses.) I think it is right and proper to honor all of our veterans. Not because what they did during service was so great, necessarily, but because they were willing to serve. That by itself is praiseworthy. Jesus himself said there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for a friend.



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Payshun

posted June 2, 2007 at 11:54 pm


We play God w/ any nation that we can get away w/. That’s why we can seek to destabilize Latin America and have failed repeatedly. We really need to stay out of internalized matters of other countries. p



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Tasiyagnunpa DuBray

posted June 3, 2007 at 5:52 pm


Payshun, I agree, unless, like I said they ask for help. Tasi



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