National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003


Patriotism is not the highest calling

Christians are obliged to set their country right when it is in the wrong


In her readable yet scholarly book, The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990, Marilyn B. Young defines the major premises of U.S. foreign policies following U.S. victories in the Second World War. The first axiom she lists is surely pertinent today; it exists, in an unwritten form, in the minds of many of us.

[]The intentions of the United States are always good. It is possible that in pursuit of good ends, mistakes will be made. But the basic goodness of U.S. intentions cannot ever be questioned. The intentions of the enemies of the United States are bad. It is possible that in the pursuit of bad ends, good things will seem to happen. But the basic badness of enemy intentions cannot ever be questioned.[]

It is a Catholic Worker “tradition” (modeled on our founder, Dorothy Day) to oppose injustice and the use of war and weaponry as substitutes for addressing the deeper issues of poverty, exploitation and systemic violence perpetrated on so many of the world’s people. This leads to dissent, even in time of war, and Dorothy Day actually opposed American participation in World War II -- not because, obviously, she held any sympathies for Nazism or for Japanese militarists, but because she understood that war is a degradation of the human spirit, that it permits, even demands, simplistic thinking such as that quoted above, thinking that seeks to override both our moral sensibilities and our rationalism.

The Catholic tradition (granted, often imperfectly and even, at times, hypocritically) maintains a profound requirement that human beings assert both their moral understanding and their intellectual reason in discerning what is right and permitted by God. After the war -- when the revelations of death camps for Jews, dissenters and others were fully revealed to the U.S. public -- Day was once asked if she would recant her opposition now that she knew the extent of Nazi crimes against humanity. Day replied that she did not believe that the war had been fought to save the European Jews and that if it had been -- given the millions of deaths -- the war was then, largely, a failure. What Day had reasoned was that wars are begun by governments acting in the interests of those who control wealth and power -- the very temptations Jesus rejects when they are offered to him by Satan during the 40 days in the wilderness.

Dissenters, like Day and many others, are not blaming individual soldiers or others who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing; however, we know that every one of us must be accountable for his and her moral decisions. I, for instance, am a veteran of the Vietnamese-American war, and was once asked by a student at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., whether I considered my participation “honorable.” I hesitated, weighing the moral import of this, one of the best questions I have ever faced, and realized I must answer her with absolute candor. I said that I did not consider my participation in the invasion and slaughter of a people who had never attacked my country “honorable”; in fact, I cannot see how it could be so, no matter my youth, ignorance, or naiveté at the time. I am not the most culpable, true, but I cannot escape culpability in the injustice and international crime that was that war.

Dissent is guaranteed by the foundation documents of American society, by our own revolutionary heritage -- yet it is as difficult to dissent in wartime as it is for schoolchildren to be appreciably different in appearance or attitudes from their peers. But no one develops a mature religious conscience (or any other sort of conscience) by “going along to get along.” Christians, of course, know that the strictures against violence in the gospels, from the mouth of Jesus himself, are very nearly absolute. Subsequent church teaching (albeit often misused) does recognize the permissibility of “limited” violence in the defense of others and/or in the face of aggressive attack. Jesus himself overturns the tables of money exchange in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, and even, according to John, fashions a crude whip and lashes the moneychangers.

His violence in this case, I think, is more symbolic than designed to inflict real damage, but it is nevertheless an expression of the need, at times, to defend our moral principles with action. Yet in Matthew 5:45-46, Jesus reminds us that God’s “sun rises on the evil and on the good, and the rain falls upon both the just and the unjust alike, and if you are only good to those who are good to you, what credit is there in that?” Removing injustices is necessary but one must avoid the sort of “crusades” that create so many victims in the name of “victory.”

In the 1986 Roland Joffe film, “The Mission,” the two Jesuits played by Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro choose different responses to an unjust, organized military assault: One will not resist violently and one will. I think the morality of both characters’ actions is justifiable under the circumstances presented in the movie, as the context is the defense of the weak and innocent against the greedy and powerful: Both men are resisting an aggressive invasion that denies any other possibilities.

So dissent is necessary; indeed it can be a moral imperative. The course of dissent must be as careful of harm to the innocent as any course of war, but it can, under certain circumstance, justify -- even require -- physical as well as verbal defense of victims. The Christian also must understand that one’s country and one’s government are not synonymous with “the good,” and that the Christian’s obligations extend beyond every border. We live in a country “right or wrong,” certainly, but we are obliged to attempt to “set it right” when it is wrong. Patriotism, I believe, is not completely rational until we know this; but no matter, patriotism is not the Christian’s highest calling, and Christianity has long ago decided that it crosses -- that the promise of the cross crosses -- all boundaries, to seas beyond shining seas.

Michael Welch lives at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker house in La Crosse, Wis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003[corrected 04/25/2003]

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