Loyalty to my Homeland(s)

A paper given at an Interfaith Dialogue on May 15, 2011

When I moved here three years ago from Memphis, Tennessee, I knew I would leave a part of myself behind. I have lived my entire life in this country, and in many different parts of the United States, but Memphis is still my home. This week the worst of the flooding there passed through the Delta and is now making its way to the Gulf Coast. Although all the members of my Memphis family and my friends there are safe and sound, the poor, once again, are not. Please continue to pray for all those who live along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. May God help us to pray for the poor and to help them.

Over the last three days clergy and congregational leaders from more than a hundred Maryland Episcopal churches assembled for our annual convention. The keynote speaker was Dr. Mark Chaves, professor of sociology and religion at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. He told us that, while there continues to be great continuity in our basic beliefs in God and in our spiritual practices of prayer and the study of our Holy Scriptures, there are definitely new religious changes and trends in the United States today. The first trend he mentioned is this: over the past thirty years, there is an increasing acceptance of and appreciation for religious diversity throughout our beloved country. Our dialogue here today is clear evidence of that trend, and I for one rejoice that we are part of such a positive religious change.

Now, I am not a professor. The only advanced degree I hold is the Master of Divinity. And yet those who know me best understand that, as long as I can remember, I have longed to learn. Both my degree and my longing are part of why I am here with you today. Although I am a teacher, I am also a student - particularly a student of words. Words are like puzzles for me. I love to dig deeper into their origins and meanings. I give thanks to God for my high school Latin and English teachers, who nurtured my love for words. And so, without further ado, I want to think with you a bit about what "loyalty" might mean.

The root of the word "loyalty" comes, through the French, from the Latin "lex," or law. Apparently "loyalty" shifted in meaning during the 15th and 16th centuries, when it came to describe the legal rights given to someone because of their faithful allegiance to a feudal lord. In other words, "loyal" has become inseparable from "royal." We have no loyalty to a king or queen in this country, but Americans are still taken with the "royals" and their loyal subjects.

As we might expect, there are disagreements about loyalty. Some say we can be loyal to a country, a group, a cause or people. Others claim it is possible to be loyal only to another person. For people of faith, loyalty is complicated. We keep our faith not in a vacuum, but in the context of what we call "home." There are oaths we take and pledges of allegiance we make to this, our American homeland. So many have served this country of ours out of their deep loyalty to the living legacy of our founders: our freedom and liberty, equality and justice. But our loyalty as an American people of faith is not just to this, our beloved homeland. People of faith also pledge their allegiance to a higher power. We, as people of faith, are loyal, first and foremost, to the God of our understanding.

God, and then country. But what happens when loyalties are in conflict? How do we hold loyalty to our God and loyalty to our country in a healthy tension, especially in this constantly changing 21st century world? How can American people of faith think through this tension?

I suggest that, for American people of faith, loyalty needs to be not just about the mind, but also about the heart. "Where your treasure is," Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, "there will your heart be also" (12:34). We treasure all our American liberties, deep in our hearts - no matter how imperfectly we practice them, no matter how conflicted they may feel. "This land is your land, this land is my land." America is our home, our homeland, and we love it . . . regardless.

In the 60s some held signs that said, "My country - right or wrong." Misinterpreted both then and now as a way to express a patriotic extremism, the phrase is attributed to Carl Schurz, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln. Schurz was the first German-born person elected to the U.S. Senate and later, Secretary of the Interior. Carl Schurz actually said, "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." Hopefully, we will dare love our homeland, our beloved country deeply and faithfully enough that, when it is wrong, we will set it right - and hold our leaders accountable. Hopefully we will both support our leaders and challenge them - especially when they disappoint us, when they go too far, when they break our hearts. There is another trend in our country these days: a declining confidence in all leaders, especially religious leaders. We see those who ought to know and ought to do what is right often condemning others, while secretly causing their own religious scandals.

Fallen religious leaders, we Episcopalians were told this week, also have something to do with another American religious trend: the increase of religious "nones," those who claim no religion and want nothing whatsoever to do with it. For example, there is a psychiatrist who works with PTSD patients at the VA who says he walked out of church at the age of 14 and never went back. The God he heard his religious leaders speak about seemed to have "a lower moral quality than any human being I knew." How, he wondered, could you possibly call a church, synagogue or mosque "home," if they worship a God like that?

Home, as the saying goes, is where the heart is. My congregation, like my country, needs to be a treasured home, a place where my heart and my God is. But what happens when loyalties are tested, when trust is broken? What happens when our hearts are broken, sometimes in the name of our homes, our homelands? One of my spiritual teachers is another sociologist, a Quaker American named Parker Palmer. After September 11 he wrote an essay entitled "The Politics of the Brokenhearted." His essay has become a book, which will be published in time for the tenth anniversary of that terrible day. Palmer's book is called Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. In that book he suggests two basic conditions that support the "habits of the heart" we 21st century Americans need to claim, develop and embrace. Those conditions - those heart conditions - are chutzpah and humility.

In his original essay a decade ago, Palmer said some words about the heart, words that can be extended to a home and a homeland. "There are at least two ways," he says, "to picture a broken heart. The conventional image, of course, is that of a heart broken (apart) by unbearable tension into a thousand shards - shards that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain . . . .But there is another way to visualize what a broken heart might mean. Imagine," Parker Palmer says, "that small, clenched fist of a heart 'broken open' into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one's own pain and joy" (from Deepening the American Dream, p. 232). He goes on to suggest that this image of the broken-open heart is foundational to several faith and religious traditions.

What does "loyalty to the homeland" mean to me? It means trusting God enough to allow my heart and my home to be broken open - by God, by other people, by any part of God's creation. It means receiving a larger life that is, in the words of the poet Rumi, "cleared out for some new delight." Loyalty to my homelands - to God and then, to all ten parts of this country I have called home - means I can actually claim more than one "citizenship." It means my heart can be both in Memphis and in Maryland. It means your heart can be in both France and Frederick, in both Pakistan and Peoria. "Loyalty to my homeland(s)" means I can always have - I always need to have a more open mind, a much larger heart. Even if it means my heart needs to be broken open. Again.