This is a "final reflections" email I sent to all my students after the conclusion of the semester. I know at least three (out of 65) actually read it, so I'll call that a teaching victory.
This is the time of year I reflect on my teaching and think about, you know, the stuff I wish I'd done differently. So I'm gonna do that, and you're gonna read it. (Just kidding. You can go ahead and click that little trash can icon up there if you'd like.)
My major concerns always have to do with whether I've really upheld goodness, truth, and beauty for you to pursue. I'm not sure.
And part of the problem is that I simultaneously believe three things that are at least in tension with each other and may in fact be mutually exclusive:
- The "American experiment in self-government" is rooted in some fundamentally good, true, and beautiful insights that are worth preserving and upholding.
- Slavery and other forms of exploitation are inextricably interwoven into American history, such that it is hard to argue that there is any part of American history that hasn't been in some way affected.
- And then a third, sort of out-there one: the Western liberal (using the term broadly) Enlightenment-based ideal of a value-neutral, religious-commitment-free space (on which the American experiment is based) is a lie. There are no religiously neutral spaces; the secular state is not a neutral arbiter of religion but is itself a combatant (and a dominantly successful one) in religious conflict. (See the attached argument from William Cavanaugh--come for the invigorating take on the falsely named "Wars of Religion"; stick around for the part where he compares American government to a mafia protection racket.)
My overriding conviction always is that the Church -- which, as St. Paul repeatedly says, is the Body of Christ -- is the one community that should "relativize" all others. That is, all other loves find their rightful place and expression as they are brought into relation with Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus, all loves inevitably become disordered, distorted, and destructive. Anything you pursue to give your lives meaning, purpose, and happiness apart from Jesus will eventually crumble into ash.
So your duty as Americans is indeed to love your country, just as you should love your family and friends. The problem is never -- could never be -- too much love. But it can be disordered love. Or it can be hatred or selfishness falsely masked as love. (That's why "love is love" can only mean something if you know what "love" actually is...) So your overriding duty is to find what loving America looks like when it's brought into relation with the fundamental commandment to love Jesus.
And I should say that bringing things into relation with Jesus is not a matter of hard things becoming easy. The whole "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" line is true, so long as we remember that that "wonderful plan" might look quite a bit different than the wonderful plan we have for our own lives. Ten of the twelve disciples were martyred, after all.
The Christian life is cross-shaped. Jesus invites you into a real death to self, but it's through that dying to self that you find life -- and that, actually, you find yourself. The Collect for the Monday of Holy Week puts it well:
And that's the promise. You will suffer in this life, one way or another. Walking in the way of the cross means uniting your sufferings to Christ, who will never leave you nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5), so that when you suffer, you do so with hope and even, dare I say, joy (1 Thes. 4:13-18).