"Christ speaks of compassion without boundaries ... Flags are about separation, assertions of superiority and aggression. The whole notion that loyalty to country is connected to one's religious faith is totally bizarre and unjustified."
-- Stephen Kolbasa, commenting on his recent dismissal as Catholic school teacher
(quoted in WCBS news radio report)
Although I identify myself with a Protestant version of Christianity, I have to declare my strong support of former Catholic school teacher Stephen Kolbasa, who was recently fired from his job for refusing to permanently display a national flag in his classroom. I first saw this story on my favorite news and views website, commondreams.org, which has reprinted a brief article on Kolbasa's firing that originally appeared in The Progressive.
Intrigued by the story, I decided to dig a little deeper. I discovered that Kolbasa has a long record of peace activism in Connecticut. His deep and abiding commitment to a socially engaged form of faith reminds me of an anti-nuclear event I attended with my sister several years ago, at which people of many different faiths who were dedicated to lives of activism. Many of them lived in near poverty and the amazing lack of materialistic goals really impressed me. Throughout the multi-day event, the participants all slept on a Catholic high school gymnasium floor. Many of them were part of the Catholic Social Worker movement, which (as I understand it, and I may even be getting the name wrong) promotes simple living and dedicating one's life to activism against war, violence, injustice, and inequality. But there were also Protestant like us, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, etc.
Learning more about Kolbasa also led me to an intriguing website that maps the vast field of nuclear missile silos in the sparsely-populated Great Plains grassland area where Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska come together. This is one of my favorite parts of the world, and it is shocking to see how many weapons of mass destruction cover the landscape there. It makes something abstract like the U.S. nuclear capability somehow more tangible and frightening. I've driven by a few of these silos while driving the gravel backroads, but it is something else to see them all mapped out.
I say all of this as an American citizen who deeply loves the United States: its beautiful landscapes, its diverse people, its small towns, its backroads, its countryside, etc. To me, patriotism is a huge moral problem but loving my country is part of who I am. (Loving the current government and devoting myself to idolatrous symbols such as the flag are not part of that, however!) I believe that my love of my country is utterly contingent on my own life story and is not a claim that America is better than any other country or that the lives of my fellow Americans have any more value than others (as, for example, the intense public concern over U.S. casualties in Iraq while glossing over the much greater number of deaths of Iraqis suggests). Having lived overseas before and now again, I can say that there are good and bad things about every country. Americans are not unique in their "love of freedom" or their commitment to democracy. We have much to learn from other countries, and they have much to learn from us. I will always, however, have a special place in my heart for the people, places, and ideals that form a part of who I am as an American. But I also believe that God is working through places and people all around the world, not just in the USA--and like Stephen Kolbasa, I cannot countenance mixing my Christian faith with nationalistic symbols.