Independence?

We celebrate today the 228th anniversary of our country's independence. The gospel reading we have just heard speaks, however, not of independence but of dependence. "I am sending you like lambs among wolves," Jesus tells his disciples. Sheep are grass eating animals which spend much of their lives grazing. Wolves on the other hand are meat eating, always on the prowl for unsuspecting prey. Sheep, and especially young lambs, are among their favorites.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them like lambs among wolves, he is reminding them of their vulnerability. Far from instructing them to outfit themselves with equipment to reduce this vulnerability and make them independent, he orders them to do the opposite. They are to leave behind even such basic necessities as shoes, food, and money : items which would make them inviting targets of wolfish greed. They are to remain sheep-like and vulnerable, completely dependent on him as shepherd.

We Americans need no reminder of our vulnerability on this Independence Day. The morning headlines, and the evening television news, show us daily the terrorist wolves which surround us. The limits to our cherished independence are painful for us Americans. For well over a century, roughly until the First World War of 1914-1918, we were confident that two broad oceans protected us from foreign wars and enemies. No more. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 2001 removed forever any doubt on that score. What is the appropriate response?

To that question there is no lack of answers. In the end they come down to two. The first is the response of nationalism. The second seems similar, but is in reality quite different: patriotism.

A spokesman for nationalism is the American naval hero, Stephen Decatur. Born in Maryland as the son of a naval officer in 1779, he entered the navy himself age the age of nineteen. In 1804, when only twenty-five, he commanded an American warship which sailed into the harbor of Tripoli in North Africa, where the U.S. frigate Philadelphia had been captured, after running aground. To prevent those who had taken the ship from enjoying their prize, Decatur set the frigate afire and bombarded the town. This was the first of many similar exploits which, in the words of the encyclopedia article from which I have taken this information, earned him a reputation for "reckless bravery and stubborn patriotism." Whether Stephen Decatur was truly patriotic I want to consider in a moment. There is no doubt, however, that he was reckless. He died in 1820, when only forty-one, from wounds suffered in a duel: an attempt to prove who was "right" at the point of a gun : something not merely reckless but insane.

Decatur is best remembered for his frequently quoted toast at a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia. He asked the guests to drink to "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." That is a classic expression of nationalism. Nationalism recognizes no standard higher than that of one's own country. It finds expression today in the mindless simplicity of the bumper sticker: "America. Love it or leave it!" Nationalists resent and repudiate any suggestion that criticism of one's country might be an expression of love for country : for failing to live up to the highest and best in its history and tradition. Few forces in the world today are more destructive of peace and happiness than nationalism : the exalting of one's own country over all others, regardless of the cost in human misery and suffering.

Patriotism, on the other hand, is love of one's country not because it is in every respect "best"; and certainly not because it always has been or always will be "right" : but simply because it is ours. Isn't that how parents love their children? Last Christmas a friend of mine who is a law professor in Mississippi sent me a Christmas card with a picture of his five children. In an e-mail I said: "How proud you must be of your children." He responded: "I'm proud of them 90% of the time." When I told that to a father of teenagers here in our parish, he commented: "That's a very high percentage." Both those fathers, however, dearly love their children; not because they are "the best," and certainly not because they are perfect, but simply because the children are the fruit of their parents' love.

Patriots love their country in a similar way. A spokesman for patriotism is the German-American Carl Schurz. Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1829, he came to this country in 1852. An admirer of Abraham Lincoln, Schurz fought for the Union in our Civil War, rising to the rank of Major General. After the war he was owner and editor of a German language newspaper here in St. Louis, the Westliche Post. From 1869 to 1875, Schurz was one of Missouri's two Senators in Washington, where he opposed the punitive "Reconstruction" policy imposed on the South by his own party after the Civil War. Taught as a schoolboy at his Jesuit school in Cologne that there is a higher law which stands above all human laws and judges them, Carl Schurz believed, like his fallen hero, Lincoln, that this higher law required not punishment for the southern states but reconciliation, to bind up the nation's wounds.

In a Senate speech Carl Schurz quoted Stephen Decatur's words and responded to them. "Our country, right or wrong! When right, to be kept right; when wrong to be put right!" That is the voice of patriotism, which is a Christian virtue. Nationalism, which is pride on a public scale, is incompatible with our Christian and Catholic faith.

On this Independence Day we need to recall that as Catholic Christians we have dual citizenship. We are citizens of our country, which we love because it is ours. But we are citizens also of a higher realm: the invisible and spiritual kingdom of heaven. As citizens of our country we work with all people of good will for justice and peace: in our community, in our nation, and in the world. As citizens of God's kingdom we acknowledge a higher law than those made by Legislatures or Congress. When those human laws command : or, as in the case of abortion, when they permit : what God's law forbids, we respond as the apostle Peter (whom we celebrated with his companion Paul last Tuesday) responded to the unjust commands of authority in his day: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Appeal to this higher law evokes today the angry protest that it amounts to imposing on a pluralist society our special morality. Slave holders brought the same charge in the 1850s against those who wanted to abolish slavery. "We're not forcing you to own slaves," their opponents said. "But don't force your special morality on us." Those who call themselves "pro-choice" make the same argument today. We are ashamed today of laws which permitted slave holders to treat human beings as property. The day will come when we will be no less ashamed of laws which permit us to treat unborn babies as disposable bits of tissue which can be cut out like an appendix and thrown away.

The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate today, lists in first place among those truths which it calls "self-evident" the "right to life." Defending this right for all : not just for the strong, the healthy, and the self sufficient but also for the unborn, the aged, and the gravely ill : earns us today the scorn and hatred of people who consider themselves sophisticated and enlightened. They too are among the wolves that threaten us today. In confronting them we have Jesus' assurance: "I have given you power to 'tread upon serpents' and scorpions, and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. ... Rejoice because your names are written in heaven."

Dr. John Jay, Hughes, Dr. Theol (German) church historian, is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis

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