When Katherine Bates, an English prof at Wellesley College, first penned one of our patriotic songs after a trip to Colorado, she marveled how God had “shed his grace on thee.” We have to ask whether such is still the case, since patriotism has morphed into nationalism and “civil discourse” has become a great civil war of words.
Bates’ poem is patriotic in the best sense of the word — just a love poem to her native land and the joy it brought to her heart. There are many such hymns to countries all over the world, but in some, ours included, the word “patriotism” has been snagged by people with more aggressive agendas. To distinguish them from ourselves, we brand them “super-patriots.”
The Brit, Samuel Johnson, famously called the extreme form “the last refuge of scoundrels,” which must have raised eyebrows in jolly old England, given that he uttered those words two years before the American Revolution.
Indeed, such persons look askance at us today if we dare to say that the beauty of other lands has merit comparable to ours.
“Civil discourse” is also our ideal, and something we desperately need, since democracy calls for freedom of expression — however crackpot it may be.
And I would like to cite recent examples of such tolerance, but I can’t think of any. Nothing seems to sweeten the national conversation; these are violent times in both word and deed, and there will be blood.
Around Independence Days we also witness the conflation of patriotism and religion, and some people seem to think ours is a theocracy. But I must warn that to reference the Bible, e.g., for instructions in civility is to take a tour of hell.
We actually expect much more in terms of social behavior than did those of ancient times, not to mention they had thicker skins. Discourse in the Middle East was vigorous to the max and Jesus, as a Jew, was a prime example: Their bible was given to considerable mayhem, but then Christianity has been no improvement.
In both Old and New Testaments, the word “fool” comes up a lot, an aspersion that in our time occasions long, arduous rebuttals that tend toward the ugly. If Jesus called his critics a brood of vipers who influenced others to be sons of hell, is that how I should respond to the tea party? He added that they were blind guides given to greed and self-indulgence, not to mention unclean outside and rotten inside. This makes it hard to fault people who talk like that on the floor of Congress.
He also said they lacked the love of God in their hearts but he didn’t even give Judas the benefit of a friendly “intervention”: He just called him a devil. Amen and amen. And keep in mind that he routed the cashiers’ tables and drove everyone, including their cattle, out of the temple. Surprisingly, he was not faulted for creating such a scene — his critics just wanted to know what gave him the “authority” to do so.
With a model like that, it’s no wonder that St. Paul got the habit real quick: He said the Christians in Galatia were liars, and called Corinithian church leaders false apostles and deceitful masqueraders. Talk about tough love.
Happily the Good Book has higher points, calling on us to avoid unwholesome talk; to be quick to listen and slow to speak; to be rid of anger, rage and malice; and to do all things that lead to peace and mutual encouragement — something urged by mediators and consultants today in hopes of restoring civil dialogue, but it is, after all, nothing new.
So better relations with others is not really beyond us; we’ve just forgotten how or we ignore it or are just plain no good at it anymore.
As one Msgr. Charles Pope so eloquently said about scriptural teachings regarding civility: that the better biblical formula seems to be clarity with charity, truth with both toughness and tenderness, i.e., to heed the old adage to “say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”
I’ll drink to that, because if we don’t there may be hell to pay. And grace will no longer be shed on thee. Or anyone.
John Burciaga of Newburyport writes on politics, social issues and religion, and may be reached at email@example.com.