In the United States, we end the month of May by remembering our war dead.
The last Monday of the month is formally known as “Memorial Day.” And while for many, the occasion marks the start of summer, this is the time when we are urged to remember all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
They are our sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, grandparents and long gone ancestors. Some are family and some are strangers. Some have big stone markers at their burial sites, while others lie in nameless graves.
All are our heroes and heroines. All are patriots.
But just what makes a patriot these days? Those who are willing to put their lives on the line for America come by the title automatically. The question is, how do you define patriotism for the rest of us?
People use words like “service” and “sacrifice” when asked about the meaning of patriotism. But does it also mean blind allegiance to our nation and its leaders?
Listen to the thoughts of the the Reverend William Barber II, a modern-day leader of the civil rights movement. His father was drafted into a segregated U.S. Navy during World War II to fight against the threat posed by the German Nazis:
“He was willing to love this country, but it is not a love that is a blind love. It is not a love that says my country and nowhere else. It is not a love that says God bless America. It is a qualified love that loves the country enough to literally tell the truth to that country and to constantly want it to be better than it has been.”
Yes, one can be patriotic while still challenging the things in his or her homeland that are wrong.
Barber also told National Public Radio that today, it is more important than ever now to speak truth to power. “Patriotism requires us to not only fight to hold on to the things of the past but to fight to push to the victories that we have not yet won,” he said.
My country right or wrong?
There are those in power here and elsewhere who would love to see us all put blinders on, to close our eyes to our own deficiencies, and simply accept the declarations of those in charge.
In their pronouncements, they often give the impression that they believe patriotism is about symbols like the American flag and the national anthem.
But as much as I love our flag, and admittedly still get choked up when I hear the national anthem (say, when an American stands on a gold medal platform at the Olympics, or a casket is laid to rest), patriotism is really about what is in your heart.
Which brings me to the latest pronouncement from the people who are the big bosses of American professional football. The owners — bowing, in large part, to pressure from President Trump — recently ruled that all players in the National Football league who are on the field at the beginning of a game must stand for the national anthem.
This, after several players decided to kneel during the anthem to draw attention to what they saw as injustices perpetuated on the African-American community. To them, “taking a knee” — a move used sometimes in team sports to call attention to an injured player – seemed a fitting way to highlight a real problem.
The president, of course, considered the NFL ruling a win… while some players complained their right of peaceful protest was under attack.
They “took a knee” to awaken America’s conscience, not to belittle its symbols. But Donald Trump — a reality TV star who knows a good prop when he sees one — is milking this episode for all it is worth.
In truth, those who fought and died for this country did not do so to defend a song or a piece of cloth. They did it for other reasons: to stand up to tyranny and to promote the values this nation was founded on.
What are these values? The document that gave rise to this great American experiment in democracy — The Declaration of Independence —describes them this way:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It’s as true today as it was when the final draft of the Declaration was approved by the founding fathers on July 4th, 1776.
Think about it. This is what patriotism should be about: actions, not symbols, that speak to our values as a people and our relationships as Americans with others around the world.
In the end, it is about all the little and big things we do to make this nation a better place and to “be a light in the darkness.”
Our war dead are patriots, as are all who serve. But those of us who uphold American values — who believe that when our country is wrong it is our duty to make it right — are patriots too.
On Memorial Day, I noticed a posting on social media that summed it all up better than I ever could. It was written by the mother of a young Marine who died in the line of duty:
“… He believed in human rights, compassion and our right to freedom of speech. He hunted, he volunteered for homeless veterans, cared about all people of color, religion, and gave his life for this Country.”
I never met this Marine, called “Bud” by his mom. But I know one thing. He fought for our values and set an example, not just in the military, but in the way he conducted his life off the battlefield.
He is the ultimate American patriot.