A Quaker Patriotism

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Find a lesson plan here, for using this article with children in First Day School.

I love my country. I love the many people whose paths I have shared: farming and fishing families on Puget Sound, children of engineers, migrant workers I picked strawberries next to, my college classmates, those I was in the Army with, the thousands of struggling, often heroic families I met as a social worker. My family. The people in my Quaker meeting, the people on the buses I ride, and the people who sleep in the bushes in my suburb.

I love this land: The two coasts I’ve lived near, and the mountains, plains, prairies, cities, and waters in between, which I’ve crossed and re-crossed by bus, rail, car, and airplane.  Especially I love Western Washington, where I married, raised children, worked, and worshipped.  I’ve had its soil under my fingernails and its skies in my eyes all my life.

So I am a patriot, a lover of my native land and peoples.  I am a pacifist patriot and a believer in the American Dream.

When I was a teenager in the Boy Scouts, my whole troop enlisted in the National Rifle Association and learned to fire rifles. I kept that membership card for years. I think I tore it up shortly after a night in 1970, when snipers targeted my dormitory at the University of Washington, and a bullet hit the wall behind a friend’s bed. But when I finished college, with Seattle unemployment high, I picked up a rifle again to obtain guaranteed military training as a journalist.

After three years in the Army, I put that rifle down for good. I had come to understand that the Army exists to kill and threaten. It doesn’t really make us safe. War destroys people in body and spirit, and it creates enemies. I couldn’t accept that any more. I saw that Spirit teaches us that our way is to be peace.

But even though war destroys bodies and spirits, there are good people in the Army, men and women who love their families, friends, and God. The military offers a solid start to people who don’t have many opportunities. Many elements of Army life are legitimately part of the American Dream.

But I set military domination aside from the American Dream. I find three aspects of the American Dream that make me an American patriot: First, despite government abuses under the Patriot Act, we are still a nation of laws, not ruled by the whims of tyrants. I have an Egyptian acquaintance who left his new life in the U.S. and moved to Canada because he believes that the U.S. no longer is a nation ruled by law. I have more hope than he does.  Second, our civil liberties are precious to me, especially our freedom to worship as we are led. It’s why the Pilgrims came to this land, and the Quakers, and many, many others. My grandparents were free to give up the rigid state churches of the countries where they were born. I was free to give up the church of my childhood and become a Quaker. I love that. Third, I am an American patriot because our country upholds the promise of equal opportunity. I love this nation which can be a refuge for humanity, and where – even though we don’t yet fully live up to equality for all people – we’re working on it.

But my patriotism doesn’t stop at the borders of our nation. I am a pacifist patriot, an American patriot, and I am also a World patriot.

I have friends now, it seems, everywhere on earth. I love the open greenness of the Welsh countryside and my openhearted friends in Cardiff.  I love the beautiful trails through the woods and bogs of Finland, where I watched the shifting curtains of the Northern Lights with my Finnish cousins.

Any patriot’s love for a country is closely tied to the land and life there. So I feel a little patriotic towards many countries. In fact, if we don’t if we don’t all feel a little patriotic towards the whole world, we’re in trouble, because climate change is everywhere. The green hills of Wales and the woods and bogs of Finland will wither and brown along with America’s woods, bogs, and prairies, and Africa’s grasslands, and Australia’s vineyards. Worldwide climate change reminds us that we’re all part of one homeland.

So my sense of patriotism is broad – it embraces the whole world. At the same time, my sense of patriotism is particular – it reflects my Quaker faith.

Quakers have played key roles in the American story since colonial times. We participated in – and sometimes led – the development of religious tolerance, respectful dealings with Native Americans, movements to end slavery and assure women’s voting rights, and efforts to win legal guarantees of civil rights for racial and sexual minorities.  So naturally, we see our country’s heritage of ideas as our own.

We’ve also been part of our country’s mistakes. Quakers began the terrible practice of solitary confinement in prisons, with the idea that it would lead to soul-searching and redemption. It hasn’t worked, is brutal and dehumanizing, and is a stain on our nation. All too often, Quakers have been slow to see our own racism. American Quakers continue to benefit from America’s worldwide military and corporate machine. And Quakers tend to benefit from tax laws that favor the comfortable and well educated, even as we speak against those laws.

So the United States of America is what it is partly because of Quakers. Fortunately, we also hold answers for bringing our beloved homeland closer to the American Dream. Our starting point – the center of a Quaker patriotism – is quiet. 

Quiet is rare in America. But when we’re quiet and still together, especially in worship, we can touch the Source, find that we know what to do, and find joy in that. When we feel filled from the Source, we can slow our frantic drive to fill ourselves with more, more, more. When the Spirit guides us to work as teams to restore our planet, then our hope is restored, we have reason to live, we can lay aside busy-ness, despair, and denial. We can be real patriots, open to God and to healing the land and its peoples.

In stillness, we can see that our quiet patriotism needs to be shared, that we need to reunite with the rest of fractured America. So we’re called to a kind of Quaker evangelism, a peculiar evangelism that is shaped around quiet rather than exhortation, around hope rather than fear, and around deep listening on every side.

I believe that all people are capable of being quiet. And I know that that all people deserve the quiet as much as we do. We need them to bring the vision to reality. Our fellows are wonderful people, and we should give them a chance. We should stretch our imaginations to envision a sort of Quakerism arising in the military, in farmworker communities, in fish processing factories, in prisons, in corporate boardrooms and assembly lines.  Among engineers, the National Rifle Association, backpackers, market researchers and janitors, people who are unemployed and homeless. Not just in the West, but throughout the United States, and the world.

I don’t imagine we can reach everyone.  But with the strength of the Spirit and the strength of the human spirit, I think we can reach enough. ~~~

Warren Ostrom has been a convinced member of University Meeting in Seattle, WA, for over thirty years.  He has served in many positions in University Meeting, Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting, and North Pacific Yearly Meeting, and is the author of two Pendle Hill Pamphlets. Now retired, he worked for two years as a military print and broadcast journalist, for several years as a mental health therapist, for twenty years as a geriatric social worker, and then as a stay-at-home dad.