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A Critique of Peter J. Gomes’ "Patriotism is not Enough"

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while the crash sites at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still smoldering, the U.S. had quickly launched an offensive against the Taliban regime and routed out al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. As the nation rode high on a wave of patriotism, President George W. Bush inaugurated a campaign that is now widely known as the War on Terror (Nation).

Shortly thereafter the Bush administration began to make the case for an invasion of Iraq that would depose Saddam Hussein and eliminate an alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction that could be used in further terrorist attacks. It was during this time, in October 2002, that Reverend Peter J. Gomes preached a sermon in which he called on American Christians to pause, reflect and formulate a positive response to current events that would balance love, justice and righteousness against the desire for revenge. From this sermon Gomes wrote “Patriotism Is Not Enough” (Gomes).

Bill Maher, host of the TV show “Politically Incorrect” had already served as an object lesson for those who would question the administration’s attempts to conflate patriotism with unthinking support for military operations. When Maher questioned the characterization of the September 11 hijackers as “cowardly,” and suggested that it might be cowardly to respond to their attacks with unmanned cruise missiles guided from thousands of miles away, he met with immediate public censure, the cancellation of his show by several ABC network affiliates, and a warning from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do” in times such as these (Carter). It was in this environment that Gomes sounded the alarm about suspension of constitutional liberties and the stifling of dissent.

Gomes prefaces his essay with the prophet Jeremiah’s warning that we not glory in wisdom, might or riches, but rather in God who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness. To develop his argument he then uses a couple of recent historical illustrations and then returns to Scripture.

First, Gomes cites the 1952 U.S. presidential election in which Adlai Stevenson ran against WWII hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. While speaking on the campaign trail at an American Legion convention entitled “Patriotism in America,” Stevenson suggested that patriotism is not simply a short-lived, hyperemotional reaction to current events, but rather a duty that calls for long-term reflection and a sense of stewardship toward the nation’s well-being.

Gomes further develops his argument by recounting the story of Edith Cavell, a British nurse and Red Cross volunteer during WWI who provided aid to wounded soldiers, without regard to nationality, in German-occupied Belgium. Under the cover of Red Cross immunity, Cavell worked with local nobles in an underground network which helped British soldiers escape to the neutral Netherlands.  When she unwittingly exposed her efforts, Ms. Cavell was tried by a makeshift German court and executed by firing squad for her acts of treason. Before her death, Cavell was quoted as saying, “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone” (Nurse).

Gomes then returns to the Bible to garner support for his argument. He makes the case that God’s people should delight in the same things that God delights in and then quotes from Paul’s challenge to Christians to present themselves, with eyes wide open, as a living sacrifice to God. Gomes appeals to the Phillips translation of Romans 12 which characterizes Paul’s entreaty as “an act of intelligent worship.” He further suggests that a more appropriate response to our perceived enemies would be acts of kindness, quoting from the Paul’s admonition to follow Jesus’ command to feed our enemies when they are hungry and to provide them with water when they are thirsty.

In the end, this is probably a fairly convincing argument for the readers of Sojourners Magazine, which bills itself as “a progressive Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture [which] seeks to build a movement of spirituality and social change” (Sojourners). Indeed, Gomes may already be “preaching to the choir,” as this publication’s readers most likely already share his views. From their shared perspective, Cavell’s quote reads as an appeal for tempering patriotism with compassion, while Stevenson’s call for a calm, measured approach to patriotism reinforces the intellectual approach of asking questions first while delaying any military response for a later time.

However, not all Christians in the United States view politics through the lens of progressive Christianity. For many, the call to patriotism is intimately connected to the manifest destiny of America as God’s instrument of divine justice in this world. From this perspective, Cavell’s remark that “patriotism is not enough” serves as a call to action where moving into the fray of battle is the natural outgrowth of one’s convictions. And in circles where a swift military response is seen as a strong deterrent to further violence, Stevenson’s quote is viewed as an egg-headed intellectual response by those who would rather philosophize than take definitive action. For this group, Gomes’ argument is far from persuasive.

When we confuse our own economic, military and political power with the wisdom, might and riches of God, it is all too easy to see America as the instrument of God’s justice and righteousness on the earth. In our own time the matter is further complicated by the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans during a terrorist attack on our own soil. In the end, Gomes and the readership of Sojourners Magazine must still find a way to extend their movement of spirituality and social change beyond their own constituency to those who are in charge of America’s War on Terror.

Works Cited

Carter, Bill and Felicity Barringer. “A Nation Challenged: Speech and Expression; In Patriotic Time, Dissent Is Muted.”  New York Times 28 Sept. 2001. 29 Sept. 2006

Gomes, Peter J. “Patriotism Is Not Enough.” Sojourners Magazine. 32 (2003): 20-25.

“A Nation Challenged; President Bush’s Address on Terrorism Before a Joint Meeting of Congress.” 21 Sept. 2001. 29 Sept. 2006

“Nurse Edith Cavell.” 25 Sept. 2006

Sojourners: Faith, Politics, Culture. 25 Sept. 2006

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