Some years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote that “love of country is most ennobling… when it is most concrete,” which is to say that loving America in general will not foster genuine national loyalty, however, loving baseball and apple pie— particular things, in other words— will do so. Hart went on to enumerate more than fifty particularly American things he loved, and his list ranged from the Marx Brothers to Samuel Barber and Miles Davis. His essay on patriotism culminates with a brief apologia for national loyalty, and it strikes me as a thing which might appeal to the pacifist and bellicose alike:
The proper love of country, it seems to me, should [involve] a deep attachment to what is near at hand that is still free from any presumptuous belief in the lesser value of things that are far away, and that is therefore able to grow beyond the local towards the universal, beyond the nation to a larger culture, beyond that to other cultures, and ideally towards the embrace of all humanity and all of creation.
Hart here identifies the tutorial nature of love. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is an ethic which assumes love is a teacher. A man’s intuitive care for himself must always be pushed outward, stretched farther. Our neighbors are not on the other side of the world, but physically close to us. Our neighbors are just beyond our own bodies. Love is a dilation of being, the reception of the Infinite Himself. When God’s love fills a man it “runs over” and those near that man are blessed by the gratuitous bounty which overflows. The man who loves God cannot help loving his neighbors.
Love of that which is near to us is intuitive, though. St. John assumes as much when he asks, “But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” Our neighbors are visible, touchable, knowable. They speak our language. However, St. John says love of “people we can see” is a prerequisite for loving the unseen God. That which is easy to love leads to that which is more difficult to love. Love pulls us outward and apart. When we stretch love of self, we love neighbors. When we stretch the love of neighbor, we love our city. When we stretch love of city, we love our state. And then our nation, and then our allies… The final reverberations of love of self fill the earth. Returning to Hart’s quote, then, love of country is not antithetical to love of enemies, but the first step toward it.
I have met a good many classical teachers (mostly men) who cannot speak of America without rolling their eyes, either for historical reasons or ideological reasons, and it ought to be admitted that an unflinching, honest look at America’s past (or present) certainly yields much to weep over. We have not loved our enemies as we should. Anyone taking stock of America’s sins will necessarily have to look at her merits, too— but the decision to celebrate civic holy days should not be staked in some kind of moral calculation which has determined our virtues outweigh our vices. Who is just and wise enough to make such a judgment? But a stingy love of country is a stingy love of enemies, as well. The man who attempts to love his enemies before loving his neighbors will find his love groundless, unfounded, and unpracticed. Love of neighbor and enemy entail a universal love, not a love curated to gall our fathers.
If holy days like the 4th of July are to have any spiritual value for us, they must help us move from Hart’s “local towards the universal.” The 4th must not be an occasion for boasting which masquerades as gratitude. On the 4th, drink American beer and listen to American music and cook American food, and do so because God has made it easy to love the things which are near us, and because He has commanded us to love our neighbors. Such love is not ultimately confining or xenophobic, but expansive.