Patriotic Principles and Quaker Testimonies

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Dad was tight-lipped about the war years and only occasionally referenced his having been “stationed in Guam.” In sorting through my Dad’s papers to write his obituary in August 2013, I discovered his certificate for Distinguished Service as a Navigator in nine successful air flights, 1943-1945, to drop bombs on Japan during World War II. I stared hard at the aged photograph of the young crew in uniform, standing proud in front of their Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Renown for its ability to fly higher and faster than Japanese planes, the B-29 four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber was one of the largest aircraft of its day, with very advanced features such as a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-gun turrets. My fears were relieved when further research assured me that Dad had not been on the flights that dropped either Fat Man or Little Boy – codenames for atomic bombs detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Spending most of his post-war civilian years working at the Nevada nuclear test site, Dad was bussed each day through the gate that families were not allowed to transgress. His commitment to safeguarding “national security” aligned well with his taciturn nature. His response to the question “What do you do for a living?” always got the same answer –  “Work.”

Patriotism can be described as a form of devotion, and as in any form of devotion, the integrity of that to which you are devoted is paramount. The concept of patriotism has been misused to manipulate, especially to manipulate young people who seek a sense of belonging and higher purpose.

What may be most appealing about a patriotic call are the stirring inspirational values to which our country aspires. The army of adjectives (duty, honor, loyalty, sacrifice) that stand at attention to salute the word patriotism (which is latin patris for father) contrast with the softer adjectives that accompany the comforting image of motherland (nurture, sustain, home, origin). However, in studying words such as “community, equality, unity, and peace,” I am struck by the outward resonances and dissonances between patriotic principles and Quaker testimonies.

The tribe may be one of the earliest manifestations of patriotism, as the tribe reflects a bond forged from fighting a common threat or fear, based on a strong identification of “us” against “them.” In contrast to such bonds forged in fear and opposition, community is described in Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice (2001) as “our shared sense of the common good, within which we discover who we are and where we each fit in the larger scheme of things… We see Jesus’ command to love one another as a command to be in community. We testify against all appeals to divisiveness.” Thus the nature of “the tie that binds” is centrally important to Friends.

When asked about equality, Americans generally point with patriotic pride to the practice of one-person-one-vote and the promise of “equal protection under the law.” Often our politicians gloss over issues of inequality by stressing that in our country all have an “equal opportunity.” Quakers describe equality in strikingly different terms. Our testimony on equality is “rooted in the holy expectation that there is that of God in everyone” (Pacific Yearly Meeting, 2001). This valuing of every life – because each has God within – is a parity that cannot be diminished by external circumstances or personal failures.

One of the oldest patriotic phrases embedded in American culture may be found on the Seal of the United States and many U.S. coins: “E pluribus unum,” which translates, “out of many, one.”  Originally a reminder that many states formed a single nation, today this phrase attests that diverse peoples can come together in solidarity as one country. The phrase is especially highlighted at times when our country is undergoing great stress. For example, “E pluribus unum” was a frequent theme in ad campaigns run after the September 11th attack on the U.S. in 2001.

By contrast, the Quaker testimony on unity affirms that “unity grows from trust in one another and readiness to speak out, confident that together, Friends will find the truth” (Pacific Yearly Meeting, 2001). Friends are clear that unity is different from well-known political terms such as consensus or “majority rule.” Reaching unity is often a long and time-consuming process as Friends labor with each other and with the Spirit, not to simply reach a decision, but to find the truth.

There is probably no sharper distinction between what is traditionally understood to be patriotism and Quaker testimonies than is found between our different approaches toward actualizing peace. In the name of patriotism, citizens are asked to kill others through military service during times of war to resolve conflict and achieve peace. Quakers see the path to peace quite differently. As George Fox so eloquently stated, “We utterly deny all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world” (Britain Yearly Meeting, 1660). Friends hold fast to the conviction that a violent means will never accomplish a lasting peace.

One profound sadness of our experience in the world is that the deepest divisions are not always between ourselves and those in a far off land whom we have never met. Rather, sometimes the schisms between ourselves and the people who are closest to us may be the hardest to bridge. In reflecting on my father’s devotion to patriotism and my own devotion to my Quaker faith, I feel this keenly. I also see that, for us as Quakers, patriotism is devotion to the healing of divisions, wherever they occur. ~~~

Sarah Hawthorne is a Member of Strawberry Creek Friends Meeting in Berkeley, CA. She currently serves as Clerk of the meeting’s Nominating Committee, and is a past clerk of Worship & Ministry, and of Care of Meeting Committee. Sarah works at the University of California, Berkeley, as an Associate Campus Counsel and Assistant Provost.

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