Mark Olson has continued his discussion of patriotism
and repentance, and the way that citizens should balance between the two. He uses me as an example of people who can never stop to just unabashedly praise their country. Mark offers a comparison to the Orthodox Church:
As far as refusing to ever express unabashed patriotism, as Mr Schraub claims he must do, while I think such sentiments are necessary, I don’t think they need to flavor all national events and days. In fact, I think going that far is an error. Taking the analogy with the very penitential nature of the Eastern Orthodox church, a penitential attitude and repentance flavors most of the year. However, it is set aside for the Paschal celebration, indeed for the 5 weeks of Pascha, prostration and kneeling is forbidden. There is a time for repentance. But it is not … all the time.
Perhaps, though I assumed the pain in my knee was from a tennis injury, not too much time spent in "prostration and kneeling." There is a serious question here, about the right way to incorporate repentance into civic life. But I'm not convinced the balance I've struck is an inherently bad one. And it is
a balance. If you search through my archives, you'll see many, many posts that refer to and take seriously the many admirable elements of our country: traditions of freedom, democratic norms, egalitarianism. What troubles Mark, I suspect, is that very often these references come in the form of critiques that we are not living up to them. When we lock up innocent men (and sometimes children) without trial or hearing, we are betraying the principle of freedom. When we engage in naked voter suppression schemes, or treat some of our tax-paying citizens (in D.C.) as a colony on the Potomac, we do violence to the tradition of democracy. And of course, when we continue to support devastating structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and inequality of opportunity, we make a mockery of the egalitarian strain of American thought that we claim to adhere to.
When I make such a claim, what am I doing? If I thought of America as irredeemably fallen, it wouldn't make sense to make reference to these supposed histories of liberty, democracy, etc.. What purpose would they serve? Why would I assume they would have any hold on the polity, or would carry and persuasive authority? By virtue of the fact that I make the appeal, I am inherently taking seriously the meaning of weight of the ethical principles and traditions I appeal to. This, then, is the distinction between my way of expressing pride in country and Mark's. Mark wishes to keep our penance and our pride separate. There is a time for one, and a time for the other, but we need and should not demand that all be present at all times. My formulation is the precise opposite. Yes, the critique and the repentance will never leave our discourse--we cannot flee our sins. But at the same time, this critical outlook comes within the context of giving serious weight and respect to the positive aspects of American life we wish to celebrate. The critique only makes sense within the context of a political tradition that would be responsive to it. The fact that I have politically comprehensible language for expressing moral wrongs is the tribute.
This view sees America as an antinomy--a set of irreconcilable rational opposites. Undeniably, we have a history of racism in this country--one that inflects everything we do and every policy we enact. Equally true is that we have a political language of equality in our nation--from the abolitionists to the Reconstruction Amendments to the Civil Rights Act. A great deal of American political work has been focused around reconciling these two opposites. It is amazing, if you read contemporary texts, how much effort the Jim Crow South put into trying to call its racial state of affairs liberal, egalitarian, fair, and in accordance with the mandates of law. Even in the depths of Jim Crow, White southerners weren't willing to completely cut themselves off from the language of a liberal, equal state. And even at the height of the civil rights revolution, the we also saw savage race riots around the country. What this shows us is that--even in our darkest (and lightest) hours--both sides of the dualism have pull on us. I am opposed to Mark's regime of separation because it seems to severely mistake the relationship of America's sins to its virtues. Neither makes sense without reference to the other. The many acts of violence and injustice, past and present, we have committed as part and parcel of our culture circumscribes whatever tradition of liberty, equality, and democracy we may possess. But the very idea of a critique against these injustices is framed by a cultural scaffolding that allows these critiques to extend beyond their provincial borders and have real weight in the hearts and minds of the dominant caste.
This, in sum, is why I have trouble ultimately wrapping my head around Mark's paradigm. I guess I can see its appeal--it is certainly more fun to be able to celebrate one's history untainted and unblemished by remembrance of our sins. But ultimately, it lacks coherency. Fredrick Douglass famously asked "What to the Negro is the 4th of July?" If we adopt Mark's position, how do we answer him? Do we demand his silence, so as to not ruin the festivities? Do we tell him that he should be thankful, too, and that he should suppress the persistent nagging feeling that our
freedom was bought at the expense of his
slavery? If Douglass himself adopted those stances on his own, maybe I wouldn't have a problem. But if he feels compelled to ask, then we, I feel, are obligated to give an answer that takes seriously his implicit indictment. And I suspect (without proof), at the end of the day, that you will find more instances in my archives where I cite the virtues of America as constitutive, serious, ongoing facets of our social existence than Mark cites the sins of America in the same manner (as constitutive, serious and ongoing facets of America's social existence).
So where does this all leave us? In contrast to Mark's invocation of the Orthodox model, I will forward a Christian theologian of my own: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's
notion of "cheap grace" and "costly grace."
Cheap grace...amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sins departs.
Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must the asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
Though Bonhoeffer's argument is decidedly Christian, I think it has salience beyond that. It is obviously difficult--Bonhoeffer died in Nazi concentration camps for vocally opposing the Holocaust. Maybe we can't all be Bonhoeffer--though if we aren't willing to make the sacrifices necessary to truly account for our unjust advantages and privileges, than I don't think we can turn around and claim absolution. But in general, when the question is sin, I'm not sure my political or moral obligation is to make life easy for the sinners. For sins this deep, grace doesn't come from merely saying "I'm sorry." It comes from word and deed, it is most certainly a "gift" and it must be "asked for", and it is up to the wronged to determine what and how the sinner must pay restitution. America's sins are such that we need costly grace, America's virtues are such that there are concepts, language, ideas, and precepts which can bridge the victimized with their victimizers and allow grace to be achieved.