Tough Love of Country

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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The main character in Ernest Hemingway’s World War One novel, A Farewell to Arms, is disillusioned by hollow abstractions such as glory, honor, courage, sacrifice. “I had seen nothing sacred,” he says, “and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”

Abstractions like these show up differently in General Douglas MacArthur’s famous West Point speech in 1962. For General MacArthur, “Duty, honor, country” were “hallowed words.”

“They are your rallying point,” he tells the corps of cadets, “to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”

Who is closer to the truth? Hemingway or MacArthur? The question is not an idle one.

Searching for an answer, we cannot help but note that in adding the word “country” to duty and honor, MacArthur brings the problem into sharper focus for us, especially in a time of war and during a high-stakes national election. As followers of Jesus Christ, who at worship pray collectively, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we cannot sweep this issue under the sanctuary carpet. In a morally ambiguous climate, barraged by a cacophony of divergent voices, how does the Christian fulfill the responsibilities of a national citizen?

A clue to the divine perspective—and perhaps a model for our human stance—lies in the prophetic ministry of Amos. On the surface, the nation of Israel was riding a wave of peace and prosperity with a cozy collaboration between the political and religious establishments. All sacred rituals were observed. Abstract ideas like duty, honor, country—or their reasonable facsimiles—no doubt were trumpeted in all the solemn assemblies. But the Lord’s people had forgotten the covenant. Their society was shot through with moral and spiritual rot. Amos was a simple herdsman from the south, swept into the city like a hot desert wind. At first his message from God seemed to reassure: "For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world." But then the shocker: "Therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities."

Here is the paradox in the prophetic proclamation: God’s punishment was an essential dimension of His love. Tough love, to be sure, but the ultimate test of love is that it rejects abandonment.

What is true love of country? William Sloane Coffin identifies three kinds of patriotism—two are bad, one is good. The bad patriotisms are unprincipled love of country and loveless criticism. "The good patriots," Coffin says, "are those in every country who carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country as a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world."