25 August 2013

US vs. Them: The danger of "isms"

I know that we are now far removed from the 4th of July Holiday, where the people of the United States celebrate the war that removed British rule from its shores (I think any celebration of the loss of human life is detestable) But the problem of nationalism is not limited to one particular time of year.  The problem pervades Western culture so strongly that it has become second nature for many. So I ask you to consider the following statement:

God Bless ____.

What did you fill in the blank with?  Whites? Blacks? Old people? Young people? Men? Women?  Those statements are grossly inappropriate and wrong.  Yet throw in the word America, and it suddenly seems appropriate.  God Bless America.

Why is this more acceptable? What is it to be American other than to separate one group from another, so that there are those who are “in” and those who are “out.”

Racism has long been a blight on the world.  Yet I’d argue that nationalism has been just as great a blight, and has been instrumental to constructing the racism of the twentieth century (thank you, nineteenth century Europe). I would like to think that most people nowadays view racism as something detestable (although the recent Trayvon Martin case, and people’s response to that case, makes me more certain than ever that I am wrong), and in my cozy little Mennonite community, it can often appear that way.  We believe that all people are children of God, and thus skin color is of no importance, and we work actively to dispel racism.  And yet the same type of division, the “us” vs. “them,” is used in nationalism.  People take pride in their nation, view their nation as superior, and think of other nations as inferior.  The United States actively tries to create little democracies all over the world that look and act like “Americans.” (unless, of course, the U.S. government actively deposes a democratic government where the people have chosen  a leader which the USA does not like, and replaces that leader with a tyrannous dictator, as in Guatemala). Some church communities are even victims of the nationalistic fever which elevates some of God’s children above others.

Going further, one also notices how dissenting voices, those who say “hold on there, something isn’t right with this,” are silenced.  Cases of blatant silencing of dissent can be seen institutionally in the USA in the early twentieth century when the Espionage Act of 1917 was passed, allowing any who opposed the war (WWI) to be jailed for up to twenty years (that would include pacifists).  Additionally, universities such as Columbia fired pacifist faculty members, such as James McKeen Cattell.

Today, this sort of silencing effort can be much more subtle, and much harder to confront.  It has moved into the realm of social institutions (as a fun fact, this is the strategy employed by German anti-Semites in the halls of power, which, over time, made people more willing to give up their Jewish neighbors to the government, because those neighbors had already been socially ostracized).  Many dare not suggest that Americans are not the most prestigious group of people in the world for fear of the reactions of friends, family, and larger community.  Some of us have become so complacent with the established order of things that we don’t even bother to speak out against obvious injustices perpetrated in the name of the United States of America.   The United States government is like that uncle who is in the mob.  You’re pretty sure Uncle Sam is doing some shady things, and is probably hurting people, but you don’t give it too much thought because Uncle Sam gives you nice things and treats some of his wary friends well. The great evil of nationalism must be addressed as seriously as the great evil of racism, for the two are one and the same, and one often leads to the other.

When I, personally, have attempted to follow Christ’s example and love all humans equally by abstaining from nationalistic practices, I am made to feel unwelcome, or at least people make their disapproval known.  Going to hear an outdoor community concert band, I was ridiculed for not joining in the singing of the national anthem.  And going to a baseball game with a group of Mennonites, I found others giving us disapproving stares when we abstained from the Pledge of Allegiance (our allegiance is to God, alone).   I understand that these attempts to distance myself from harmful nationalism are weak and symbolic at best, but it’s a first step and reveals much about the American people through their responses.

But, rather than considering this a failure of the system to welcome me and my views, I would consider this an affirmation of my Mennonite Christian humanist principles.  After all, the early Anabaptists rejected the world in Articles IV and VI of the Schleitheim Confession.  Also, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when the exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man,” (Luke 6:22 NIV) and “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26 NIV).  Also, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”  If America doesn’t hate us for putting God (and thus our fellow humans) before country, we are doing something wrong.

(a concise version of this was published in MWR as a letter to the editor)

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