It was the biggest American flag I have ever seen, a gargantuan flag, a sea of red, white and blue fabric. It covered the entire field in a 9/11 remembrance ceremony held before the New England Patriots football game this past Sunday evening in Arizona. How big was that symbol of America? Try 300 hundred feet long by 160 feet wide, so huge that it took more than a hundred people to unfurl and then hold it still, as Kristen Chenoweth, sang “The Star Spangled Banner”. As the music swelled and the 80,000 plus folks assembled there stood for the anthem, it made me wonder.
Is that what it means to be patriotic and a patriot, to really love the nation you call home? Is one a patriot because you know all the words to a song and then sing it out loud at a sports game? Or if you take off your hat and stand up and then cheer loudly at the end?
Is that patriotism?
Earlier that day I was blessed to visit a little known but amazing private museum in Natick, Massachusetts, the Museum of World War II. It houses one of the largest collections of WWII memorabilia in the world. I spent two and half hours roaming through the halls of that place, saw some amazing and breathtaking items, all lovingly preserved, from the greatest social cataclysm of the last century. I touched a pair of binoculars salvaged from the USS Arizona, a ship which went down on December 7, 1941, when America was attacked at Pearl Harbor. It gave me pause, made me think about the men and women who died that day, trying their best to defend their homeland and protect their fellow citizens. Millions and millions of American soldiers and civilians and citizens all somehow came together in the war years, defeated fascism, defended freedom.
Is that patriotism? To put one’s life on the line for others, in courage and in service?
Earlier in the week I worked at the polls on our statewide Primary Day, checked local voters in. From 7 to 11 am I sat behind a table and crossed folks’ names off a voter list, then handed my neighbors a ballot. The turnout was low but next November 8th it will be a different story as our nation chooses a President. On that day and night, if past trends hold, more than 90 percent of my neighbors here in town will vote. Go into a private booth. Choose the man or woman who will guide our ship of state and have the power to wage war or to seek peace, to unite or divide us. All because we as citizens will give one of those candidates the power to do so. We vote because they work for us.
Is that patriotism? To exercise this civic responsibility to choose our leaders?
Lately our culture has been caught up in one of our periodic debates about just what it means to be a patriot and patriotic, sparked by the refusal of a professional athlete to stand during the playing of the national anthem at a football game. For a few days it was all the talk on social media and the airwaves. Some labeled him a traitor to his country for that act, declaring he is anything but a patriot. Others have defended the protest, declaring that his freedom to dissent is what makes a patriot, a patriot.
But it begs the questions. What is patriotism? Who is a patriot? Who is not? And who gets to decide?
Is patriotism about symbols and rituals? Like the flag I fly outside of my house. A lapel pin I sport on my suit. A red white and blue peace bumper sticker on my car. Watching fireworks on the 4th of July, and then cheering when the veterans march on by in a parade. When I rise at Fenway Park and sing along with 40,000 other folks that “our flag was still there.” Is that it? Can I claim the title of patriot if I do no more than cover myself in the appearance and trappings of patriotism?
Or is patriotism about something more substantial, more concrete, more sacrificial even? Like serving in the military, or at the least, as a citizen, supporting those women and men who defend me. Thanking them. Making sure that when they come home they have all the services and resources they need to pick up their lives again. Paying my fair share of taxes: maybe that’s what a patriot does. Recognizes that part of our national covenant with and to one another is taking the fruits of what we’ve earned in freedom and then sharing it with those who have less or need a hand up or help. Is patriotism found in those who push back against the government, who protest in sincerity and non-violence? Maybe patriotism happens when we volunteer in our communities—build a Habitat for Humanity house, coach Little League, tutor an inner city kid, serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Is patriotism somehow connected to affirming the truth that we are all in this experiment called democracy together, and that we need each other.
What does it mean to be patriotic and a patriot?
I don’t claim to have a lock on just how to answer that question; nor do I feel I have the right to say just who is a patriot and who is not. I can only speak for myself. But this I do know: a patriot’s job is to constantly ask one’s self: “If I really do love my country, then what am I doing to embody and act on this devotion?”
So I’ll keep flying my American flag in gratitude, but for me, there has got to be more than just this, to being a patriot and to being patriotic.