Ah, it’s that time of year again. Break out your stars-and-stripes t-shirts/earrings/steering wheel cover/panties, everybody, or just crack open a beer, grill some burgers & veg, and light some (preferably Indiana-made) fireworks off in the backyard. For as long as I can remember, the 4th of July was about going down the road to the little village of Hesperia (code names in high school sporting rivalries: Hysteria or Hespotucky) to go to the horse pulls, the tractor pulls, the craft fair, the yard sales, the Lions barbecue stand, the horrendous live music, maybe even the swimming hole. Then it was home for a good long nap outside, or a tubing trip down the river. Then back again in the evening to stake out a good spot on the hill next to the dam lake over which the fireworks show would be displayed after dusk. Once, a piece of a firework landed on the beach blanket I was sharing with my brother and two best friends. It was charred and cool and smelled like sulfur. It’s packed away somewhere at my parents’ house, waiting for my nostalgia towards it to fade to the point where I will throw it away. Now, in my chosen exile from the US, I suspect that my nostalgia is alive and well.
Inevitably this time of year also means that my Facebook feed clogs with all sorts of Military Tributes and patriotic statuses (stati?) on the one hand, and sarcastic comments about American cultural hegemony and neo-colonialism on the other. Though as always I am tempted to pull a Bob Marley and just tell both sides “Let’s get together and feel all right,” I realize how naive – if attractive – such a position is. I told a friend once that I much preferred telling people that I met that I was from Michigan than that I was from the US, largely due to the fact that Michigan has less baggage: Eminem? Rust belt? G-Rap the Evangelical Ghetto? Escanaba in da Moonlight? These are topics I like to engage with people about. The decisions of politicians in Washington are a whole ‘nother ball game.
For a while I’ve been quite happy with the line that Derek Webb takes in his “King and a Kingdom:”
who’s your brother, who’s your sister
you just walked passed him, i think you missed her
as we’re all migrating to the place where our father lives
’cause we married in to a family of immigrants
my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
it’s to a king & a kingdom
there are two great lies that i’ve heard:
the day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die
and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class republican
and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like him
but nothing unifies like a common enemy
and we’ve got one, sure as hell
but he may be living in your house
he may be raising up your kids
he may be sleeping with your wife
oh no, he may not look like you think
Webb’s critique of American society and politics is usually pretty spot-on, in my opinion, but I especially like this song because it manages both to comment on the uselessness of the ‘America: right or wrong’ mindset, especially for a Christian, and make a statement about what this strange community of faith is that we sign up for as Christians. It is at its heart nationless, unified by a common enemy that is in all of us, a motley crew of in-law emigrants who have married into a caravanserai which makes the audacious claim of being headed for the rule [or ‘basileia,’ if you want to get your Greek on] of God.
That is not to say that I don’t long for my country to be a place where justice does exist, where standards of care and education are the highest and fairest they can be, and where communities can flourish. On the contrary, I pray for these things with all my heart, and I know many other Americans do so without claiming competition or as their motivation. But I wonder: when competition drives our economic and political systems – when it is our prime mode of operation, business decision-making, and essentially our fundamental ethic, can we avoid thinking about doing well as a country without getting obsessed with doing better than everyone else simply because we are Americans? [or insert any other nationality, as you please.]
I’m still celebrating the 4th of July with American things. Still making “aren’t you sad you lost us?” to the Brits I chat to during the course of the day. Still nostalgic for a scrap of firework. Still blaring Bruce Springsteen. But I’m trying to do so with the knowledge that, at the end of the day, America is temporary, just like everything else. To some degree, that is what makes is so beautiful.