Archive for July, 2006

A Pox on both their Houses: II – Israel

July 27, 2006

It is easy to look at the turmoil in the Middle-East and cast the blame upon the Muslim extremists. On the face of it, they are the instigators and vilians of the story. They kidnap Israeli soldiers, kill others, hurl unprovoked rockets at Israeli cities, and deny Israel’s very right to exist.

Yet on honest consideration, things are not so simple. Israel is not so innocent as most in America, and specifically in Christian Conservative culture (including most Mormons) reflexively believe.

As of Monday, July 24, well over three-hundred Lebanese civilians have been killed. Hundreds more have been injured, many permanently crippled. A few hundred-thousand have been displaced, sent fleeing their homes, leaving virtually all worldly possessions behind. Many will come back to find their homes and lives in shambles.

The Israeli death toll to Hezbollah attacks? Thirty-seven. About half of those are soldiers.

Such imbalances among “collateral damage” are common in Israel’s security measures. According to reports by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, more than 3,500 Palestinians have been killed, and almost 29,000 injured, since September 2000, while over 1,000 Israelis have been killed, and more than 7,200 injured, in the same period. Despite the fact that Israel asserts that they strictly targets terrorists, Jim Rice of Sojourners has crunched the numbers and determined that while the Muslim terrorists indiscriminately attack civilians, Palestinian children were being killed at a rate 15 times that of Israeli children.

Consider this hypothetical situation. A parent has taken their child to a crowded public area, perhaps a mall or a park. While there, the child is accosted by a criminal, who attempts to kidnap the child. We would accept the right of the parent to use force to prevent the kidnapping of their child. We would even accept the judicious use of lethal force (a pistol) to protect their child. But public and authorities would take a rather more dim view were the parent to open fire on the crowd in hopes of stopping the criminal fleeing with the child.

Is that really any different than what Israel is doing? Can this really be considered a judicious or proportional response?

Gideon Levy, journalist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noted of Israel’s actions in Gaza shortly after the kidnapping by Hamas:

The “summer rains” we are showering on Gaza are not only pointless, but are first and foremost blatantly illegitimate. It is not legitimate to cut off 750,000 people from electricity. It is not legitimate to call on 20,000 people to run from their homes and turn their towns into ghost towns. It is not legitimate to penetrate Syria’s airspace. It is not legitimate to kidnap half a government and a quarter of a parliament.

A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization (“A Black Flag,”).

Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Network of Spiritual Progressives asserted:

this week it’s impossible as a Jew and as an American to not notice that a new human rights violation by Israel has taken place which manages to surpass many of its previous violations in cruelty and in the outrage it has generated (“Israel has Crossed a Moral Boundary,”).

That said, let us put aside the question of proportional response. Let us assume for the sake of argument that Israel’s actions are proportional and strategically justifiable.

No one questions Israel’s right to defend itself. But the mere fact that they have that right does not make the act right.

Israel has followed a more-or-less consistent security policy since its creation. For decades now, it has responded to violence in kind, using quick and overwhelming force to retaliate against attack. And all that violence has done nothing to improve their security. Terrorists continue to arise. Outraged Muslims continue to offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs in the hopes that they might inflict some harm on a few Israelis as they go. Yes, the terrorists are the ones deliberately provoking Israel. It is the Muslim extremists who barbarically target innocent civilians. But two wrongs do not make a right.

Why is it that Israel stubbornly clings to old methods of violence when those methods have consistently proven impotent? Albert Einstein insisted that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Is there something inherent in Zionism that contains the seeds of insanity? Every time Israel clamps down on Palestinian civilian populations, they create more discontent among the Muslims for extremists to exploit. Every time they cavalierly obliterate Lebanese cities, with the inevitable “collateral damage” of human life, in the name of rooting out Hezbollah, they fertilize the recruiting grounds for terrorist leaders to harvest. By their very actions, they sow the very hatred for their own nation they must later fight. Violence rarely spawns anything more than violence.

Israel can successfully kill every single combatant, destroy or seize every single weapon, and completely disband Hezbollah, Hamas, and every other terrorist organization in the region. It will accomplish nothing. The discontent and frustration will simmer among the population, ultimately arising in some new armed faction ready to renew the violence with the Israelis.

Why is there this underlying unrest among the Muslim Middle East? Why are they so ready to turn to violence against Israel and the Western World? Those who would dismiss Islam as a barbaric, violent religion or the terrorists and the populations from which they arise as merely cardboard cutout “bad guys” perhaps have yet to examine the facts. For Israelis and their defenders to hyperbolically write the situation off as anti-Judaism or an evil quest for world domination is inaccurate, and unproductive. Things might not be as simple and one-sided as they might want to believe.

I myself have not been to Israel or Palestine, so I cannot speak from personal experience. But who have with whom I’ve spoken have been very dismayed at the manner in which Palestinians are treated in Israel. Those visitors claim that the Palestinians (or, more technically correct, “Muslim Arab-Israelis”) are often treated as second-class citizens, and seem to fall primarily in the lower socio-economic classes of Israel.

Rabbi Lerner notes:

Israel is the military power occupying the West Bank and surrounding Gaza. By all international standards it has no right to do either, but if it does so it has an absolute obligation to treat the civilian population with certain respect and basic human rights. Israel continually fails to do this and has become one (not the worst, but one) of the world’s major human rights (“When Will They Ever Learn?”).

Given the fact that Israel has maintained a chokehold on the borders of Gaza, carefully controlling the transportation of goods into and out of Gaza, their supposed support for Palestinian autonomy seems disingenuous.

The Association of Forty is an Israeli political organization advocating the rights of 40 unrecognized Muslim-Israeli villages in Israel.

Even though these Arab Villages existed tens and hundreds of years ago, The Israeli consecutive governments ignored the existence of these villages and the inhabitants were denied their rights as citizens of the country. Since this time, these villages have not appeared on any map and there is still no plan for their development.

As a result of this unrecognizing, the villages are still lack the basic infrastructure: Today, there are approximately 100,000 people who are dispossessed or denied any basic services such as running water, electricity, proper education and health services and access roads – constituting a gross violation of human rights and opposing the values of a modern and democratic state.

Pax Christi International, a Catholic non-profit peace advocacy organization, explains a number of ways in which the Palestinians, both within and without Israel, are subject to unjust treatment by Israel.

Rabbi Lerner has observed the irony of Israel’s outrage over the kidnapping of a few soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah.

…virtually every human rights group including the various Israeli human rights organizations has chronicled tens of thousands of acts of “kidnap” of this sort by the IDF against Palestinian civilians, who are then kept in detention for as long as six months without a trial, often facing brutal torture, and then released without ever having been charged with any crime (“Israel Has Crossed a Moral Boundary,”).

We might even go back further and examine the means by which Israel was founded. When Hamas won a sweeping victory in the last Palestinian election, Israel was hardly pleased. It made very clear that cooperation with Hamas would hinge upon a few important issues. One of those were a public and thoroughly acknowledgement of Israel’s “right to exist.” I gave quite a bit of reflection to that right. In modern, mainstream political thought, the right of any given nation to exist is derived from the consent of the governed. In other words, all people who are to be subject to the government are allowed a hand in creating the government and given a voice in the adoption of that government. As best I can determine, the Palestinians within the borders of Israel, who may have comprised a majority of the people in the eventual state of Israel, were given no such participation. How then can it be said that the government is based upon their consent? If it does not, does that not raise serious objections to Israel’s moral right to exist?

Considering the type of government Israel’s Muslim opponents endorse, they cannot lay claim to those objections. But that does not mean that we should not acknowledge those questions ourselves.

We should not fall into the mistake of labeling any such questions as anti-Judaic. There are Jewish organizations which themselves question or even oppose the State of Israel. Neturei Karta is “a group of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who refused (and still refuse) to recognize the existence or authority of the so-called ‘State of Israel,’ and made (and still make) a point of publicly demonstrating their position, the position of the Torah and authentic unadulterated Judaism (Neteurei Karta: About Us).” Primarily composed of Jewish Palestinians who had lived in harmony with Muslim Palestinians for generations prior to creation of Israel, members claim that the sovereign nation of Israel is contrary to Jewish law, and that the establishment of the nation did great wrong to the Muslim Palestinians living there. One does not have to be anti-Jewish to raise questions about Israel any more than one must be anti-Islamic to challenge the morality of various regimes in Muslim nations.

Of course, all of that is philosophical. Philosophy must often give way to the conditions in reality. Whether or not Israel has a moral right to exist, the fact remains that it does exist. The Israeli population has burgeoned. Several generations have grown up and established roots in the modern state of Israel. There can be no question that Israel has a de facto right to exist. To eliminate the political entity that is Israel and impose upon the current population a new government (likely necessitating the evacuation of many current inhabitants) would be just as gross a crime as it was for Israel to be imposed upon the original denizens. Two wrongs do not make a right. Yet that still does not eliminate the fact that the founding of Israel was problematic at best.

None of the alleged mistreatment and abuse by Israel justifies a single act of violence upon an innocent citizen of Israel, any more than the Hezbollah kidnapping justifies the violence born by the innocent citizens of Lebanon. This is not an effort to establish some moral equivalence. But if there is substance to these accusations, can we not understand the indignation felt by the Palestinians and their Muslim brethren? Should we not at least examine these claims rather than giving such unreserved support for Israel and their actions?

How would we react were the U.N. to declare that Utah should become the sovereign nation of the Native American tribes? What if they imposed upon us a new, specifically Native American government without our consent?

How would we feel were a foreign government to maintain firm control over the commerce of our state, blocking it as they saw fit?

What would we do if, as a result of criminal actions by some militia organization tenuously connected with the LDS Church, some foreign government were to cut off water or power to large portions of Utah, seizing and imprisoning a large number of LDS legislators on the grounds that they could be collaborators?

Would we not be outraged? Is there not the possibility that members of our state would resort to violence?

Regarding we Christians, Christian activist Jim Wallis of the Sojourners is right:

It’s time to challenge the theology of Christian Zionism advanced by many of the American Religious Right who are completely uncritical of Israel’s behavior and totally oblivious to the sufferings (or even the existence) of Arab Christians in the Middle East (“The Body of Christ in Lebanon,” ).

If Israel wants to finally obtain the peace it so dearly desires, it must be willing to give up the old failed scripts by which its acted for so long. It must give up the arrogance and paranoia through which it has interacted in the past. I truly believe that if they in humility and sincerity open a dialogue with their enemies, things will begin to change. They must show that they truly want what is best for all inhabitants of the Middle-East. They must show that they are willing to go down a new path alongside their Muslim brothers and sisters. They must show that they are willing to use their considerable wealth (much of it granted them by the U.S.) to help lift their Muslim neighbors out of the poverty and squalor so many of them live in. As they do, the anger and discontent within the Muslim Middle-East will begin to dissipate. Those Muslims will then no longer be so easily swayed by demagogues and other manipulators who want the bloodshed to continue for their own purposes.

This is admittedly a great deal to ask of Israel. It will take courage for Israel to open up. They will feel vulnerable. It will not be easy. Progress will be slow. There will be some stumbling along the way. Yet it is crucial that they find the courage to take this path. Until they do so, Israel will continue to find its hopes dashed.

Two peoples, locked in an insane perpetual cycle of bloodshed and tragedy. Will either party ever tire of their violent dance?

Until they do, I say a pox on both their houses.

A Pox on both their Houses: I – Islamic Extremists

July 26, 2006

Last year, following the withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip, I felt a small bit of hope for the prospects of peace in the Middle-East. It was a small step only—indeed, little but a shuffle. But even if they were only inching along, it seemed to me a step in the right direction; the first real bit of positive progress in perhaps the entire Middle-East in several years.

In speaking with a Muslim acquaintance—one of Palestinian descent, no less—I asked him about his opinion of the prospects for peace in the Middle-East. My friend was cynical. He held no “illusions.” There could be no hope for peace.

In retrospect, I should have listened to my friend. As the events of the previous few weeks have unfolded, my hopes have been dashed. I’ve felt disillusioned and betrayed.

I probably shouldn’t be so emotionally invested in the issue. At first glance, it would seem to have little direct impact on my community or my life. But, given the manner in which the U.S. has inextricably tied its fate to the Middle East, I cannot help suspecting that the repurcussions will be felt here at home. Nor can I disregard the importance of the region in context of Christian (and even more specifically, LDS) theology.

My anger is not exclusive to either party in this conflict. Rather, I feel betrayed by both sides.

I feel betrayed by the Muslim community every time I hear of some new villany by radical elements of Hamas, by Hezbollah, or by any of the radical Muslim communities throughout the world. I have spent some time studying Islam. There is great beauty in that faith. Many wonderful things have been achieved by the Muslim world. A good case can be made that while Europe was reverting to virtual barbarism after the fall of the Roman Empire, Islam was responsible for maintaining the torch of civilization. The Muslim world maintained the Greek works lost to the West for centuries. Muslim scholars advanced such fields as chemistry, medical science, mathematics (al-gebra), and astronomy. While Christian history overflows with swordpoint conversion, warfare over points of doctrine, and wholesale slaughter in the name of orthodoxy, Islam has a much greater history of tolerance and acceptance. The Koran specifically commands Muslims to protect and respect “people of the book,” traditionally interpreted as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. There are comparatively few historical examples of coerced conversions or religious violence until the modern era. Spanish History provides a typical example. In the centuries of the Ummayad caliphate in Iberia (Spain), Christians and Jews were typically freely permitted to follow their religion. They could rise to economic prominence or hold high political office in the Muslim Government. The Catholic Church was allowed to operate with little interference. Following the completion of the Reconquista (the Christian conquest of Spain), all Jews were immediately expelled on pain of death, while Muslims were subjected to a rapid succession of forced conversions and expulsions. The Inquisition worked vehemently to enforce orthodoxy and root out Judaism, Islam, and Christian Protestantism.

Yet despite all this, the image of Islam to which the West is most exposed is that of the violent fanatic. The fundamentalist elements dominate the world scene with their terrorist affiliations, their hyperbolic rhetoric, and their fatwas against authors and cartoonists. They seem to be permitted by the rest of Islam to stand as representatives of Islam to the world. Fundamentalists and dangerous radicals exist in all religions of course, but none seem to be so prominent as they are in the Muslim world.

Honest evaluation would force us to acknowledge that Western society (Europe and the U.S.) is partially responsible. The Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, has very legitimate grievances against the past imperialist policies of the West, the current economic and cultural imperialism of the U.S, and against Israel. When people are not provided a legitimate avenue by which to seek redress for grievances, it is only natural that they will turn to illegitimate avenues—such as terrorist violence.

Yet none of that justifies the evil done under the banner of Islam. Two wrongs do not make a right. They have been wronged, but they still can control how they react to their circumstances. They can choose to use their imagination, hope, and agency to rise above their situation and choose a better course than that of bloodshed.

Why is it that radical Islam has remained stuck in a paradigm of brutality and force? Why is it that they stubbornly cling to old methods of violence when those methods have consistently proven impotent? Over half a century of kidnapping, hijacking, murder, and outright warfare has done nothing to further their goals. Albert Einstein insisted that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Is there some strain of Islam which holds the seeds of such insanity? Every time some Muslim extremist organization issues an illiberal and reactionary fatwa, they reinforce outside attitudes against their cause. Every time they engage in any sort of terrorist activity, they steel the resolve of their foes to maintain their hard-line approaches. No headway can be made under such conditions. Surely their methods contain madness.

And yet if there is madness in their method, there may be method to their madness. Not only do they undermine their own goals, but by acting so malevolently, they goad their adversaries to respond in kind. And as their adversaries answer violence with violence—typically in disproportionate measure—that retaliation stokes the flames of anger in the Muslim community, creating a ripe crop for the extremists to harvest. The extremists should be recognized as either true madmen or else traitors to their own alleged causes, concerned merely with accumulating power.

Many muslims around the world insist that the terrorists and radicals are not representative of the Muslim world, that they are truly extremists. I sincerely believe them. And that simply increases the culpability of the mainstream Muslim world in this tragedy. I would ask my Muslim brethren: Why have you allowed radical extremist elements to dominate events in the Middle East and around the world? Why have moderate, mainstream elements not been very visibly active in repudiating their extremist elements? Christianity has pretty successfully marginalized the extremist elements within their ranks. Few take seriously the White Supremicists or Fred Phelps (Pat Robertson aside…). Why is the Muslim world unable or unwilling to marginalize their violent and radical elements? How can they be so apparently complacent in allowing the radicals to control the destiny of the Islamic world? At the risk of falling victim to ethnocentrism, is Islam somehow lagging behind the cultural and philosophical development of other religions, such that it can find the bloodshed of innocents morally acceptable?

I do not believe that the Muslim Middle East must relent in its quest for justice and respect. To attempt to ignore the seething discontent of millions of Muslims would be foolish and counterproductive. It would eventually burst forth again in violence. On the contrary, the Muslim World must instead provide an alternative method with which to pursue their goals, one based on humane principles. Islam find a more enlightened, more morally persuasive voice if it is to successfully stand against those who have abused them. It must to find its Gandhi, its Martin Luther King jr. Those icons proved that nonviolent resistance will ultimately be successful where violence can only lead to ruin. Muslims must use those tactics not only against the international influences who take advantage of them, but against their own extremist elements. They must show the rank-and-file of Muslim society that there is a more viable alternative to suicide bombings and attacking schoolyards. As they do so, public opinion around the world will, as it did with India, rally around them, and the enemies of Islam will be pressured by their own ethical sensitivities as well as world opinion to change their approach. The grievances of the Muslim community will begin to be taken seriously, and their enemies will be forced to give way.

This is admittedly a great deal to ask of the Muslim community. It can be dangerous to challenge the established powers in the Muslim World, particularly in the violent political environment of the Middle East. The path will not be easy. It will entail a great deal of hardship. Progress will be slow. Yet it is crucial that they find the courage to take this path. Until Muslims do this, they will find their hopes perpetually foiled by themselves.

Condition Red! Air Quality Problems

July 20, 2006

Don’t worry, I haven’t died, nor given up social pontification. In addition to the general business of life, I’ve been composing an entry on a subject that is very thorny, and about which I want to express myself very carefully. Hopefully it will be ready soon.

In the meantime:

The Utah Division of Air Quality declared today yet another red air pollution day for Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, and Weber counties. I haven’t kept an exact count, but I believe we’ve had about a week straight of red alert days.

The innate climate and geography of the Wasatch Front create an environment ripe for this situation. The bowl created by our high mountains make it difficult for air to circulate and disperse.

But the cause of the hazardous air quality? Our extremely decentralized communities, our dependence on automobiles and our highly mobile and independent lifestyle.

How can we possibly insist that the decentralization, transportation system, and lifestyle are perfectly legitimate if they cause periods in which we are encouraged not to breath the air?

If we value the health of ourselves and our children—if we believe that our bodies are temples and that we should take care what we put into them—we should carefully reflect upon our communities and lifestyles and their impact on our particular environment. If they are not conducive to those things we really consider valuable (such as breathable air), we must show some small measure of responsibility by considering long-term solutions and changes rather than mindlessly perpetuating poor choices.

Obama at Call to Renewal

July 11, 2006

As has already been mentioned on this blog a couple of times, Senator Barack Obama gave a speech at the Call to Renewal conference a couple of weeks back. I have very much enjoyed reading his speech a number of times since then. Simply brilliant. I could relate on a personal level to his experience in having his faith challenged by conservative elements (in his case, senatorial challenger Alan Keyes). I relished the phrase he used (one which I gather from some quick research originated from Pope John Paul) to describe what I had called “the glorification or worship of capitalism”: the idolatry of the free market. The speech was a very profound exploration of the way religion should shape our discourse on the public sphere, as well as how we stand by our religious values in a religiously pluralist society like the U.S. He provides keen insights on standing up for our faith with our words and beliefs while still warning against the superficial professions I criticized in a previous entry.

He addressed issues I have myself found rather frustrating. I am drawn to the liberal ideology because of my religious faith. And yet, all too often, religious faith and language has been avoided, downplayed, or even derided by many advocates of the Left. Granted, the Religious Right has given Liberals ample reason to be suspicious of religious action. And the derision is greatly exaggerated in the hysterics of conservative pundits. That exaggeration notwithstanding, the derision does occur, and can make religious people like myself uncomfortable allying ourselves with the Left. That has very much played into the hands of the Right. It has allowed them to be very successful in deceitfully and wrongly portraying liberalism as anathema to religion.

This is a primary reason I started this blog; to show very clearly and pointedly that the Right’s characterization of the Left is wrong, and that liberalism is very much in line with religion, the LDS religion in particular. And I am very much enthused to hear such spiritual people as Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Bishop Carolyn Tanner, Senator Dennis Kucinich, and Senator Barack Obama stand up and demand both that the liberal respect our religiosity and that the religious respect our liberalism.

Obama made another crucial point about being fair-minded about those who differ. This is an important thing to consider for people of all political stripes. I’m sure I’ve been an offender in this regard a fair number of times. I am a very passionate person, an admirer of the strength and passion of such firebrands as John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ralph Nader. It is something of which I must be careful.

But the need to be fair-minded does not obviate the need for honesty. When public officials have proven themselves to be dishonest or to have broken the public trust by their words or actions, we are certainly justified in calling attention to that fact. The Savior was as fair-minded as can be, and yet he had no qualms in calling the supposed religious leaders of his day “hypocrites and “vipers (Matt 23).” We should be fair, but also recognize truth.

Reflections on Patriotism

July 3, 2006

(Edited slightly to correct a few minor spelling and grammatical errors, and adding a few lines strengthening previous thoughts)

We (here in America; apologies to any international readers) have come to that time of the year in which we see a great show of patriotism on display. Flags sprout from lawns, siding, car antennas, and even ballcaps. Patriotic tunes fill the air. Public professions of patriotism become common. “I’m so proud to be an American,” we hear again and again; at civic lectures, in our Church services (particularly our LDS testimony meetings), and in public prayers of all sorts. “This is the greatest nation on God’s Green Earth.” People speak effusively about the accomplishments and wonderful attributes of our nation, the great abundance of blessings which the Lord has rained down upon us.

At times, I wonder if we aren’t somewhat similar to a Book of Mormon people. I’m not talking about the Ammonites, or the civilization following the visit of the Savior, or the People of Zarahemla.

No, I’m referring to the Zoramites of Antionum, visited by Alma the Younger during his ministry (Alma 31-35).

The Zoramites are renowned, among other things, for building a platform or podium, the Rameumptom, upon which they would stand to give their prayers as they “worshipped.”

15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen (Alma 31:15-18).

Now I would certainly not be so foolish as to suggest that we as a nation are denying the Savior, particularly in our Church services. But much of the rest of it seems uncomfortably familiar. Are we claiming that we, as Americans, are chosen above all the other nations and people? Don’t many of our words suggest that we feel God favors us? Do we take the abundance that we as Americans enjoy is some sign of the Lord’s favor or grace? Is this really patriotism, or is it nothing more than chauvinism?

A bit of clarification may be in order. Chauvinism has come to be synonymous with “misogyny” or “sexism.” But that is a fairly recent connotation, a shortening of the phrase “male chauvinism.” Chauvinism actually comes from the Napoleonic soldier, Nicolas Chauvin. Reputed to have been excessively zealous in supporting all things French, Chauvin’s name has become associated with “Prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group, or kind.”

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about apparent examples of chauvinism. At every level, it seems natural for us humans to want to put our own locale or group at the top of the pecking order. “Millville Elementary is the greatest school in the world!” “Kaysville is the best city in the world!” “Davis High School is the greatest school in the world!” “Utah is the greatest state in the nation/place in the world!” “The Anaheim mission is the greatest mission in the world ( and “our zone is the greatest zone in the mission!”, and so on down the line), “Acme, inc is the greatest workplace in the world!” and, of course, “America is the greatest nation in the world!”

Why would we say so? What quantitative evidence can we give? We make those claims simply because those are the places in which we currently are. If we were somewhere else, we’d be saying the same thing about that area. And in many cases, our association with those locals or entities (our k-12 school, where we serve a mission, where we grow up, and to a large extent, in which nation we live) is one in which we have little or no choice! Aren’t these claims then rather silly? What purpose does it serve to set our nation (or community at any level) above all others? Is that honest, sincere evaluation and praise? Or merely self-congratulatory boasting?

Aaron, one of the sons of King Mosiah, was wary about pride. He and his brothers were party to great miracles of conversion among the Lamanites. Yet as his brother Ammon gloried in the miracles, Aaron was cautious. “I fear that they joy does carry thee away unto boasting (Alma 26:10).

Ammon could honestly allay his brother’s fears (Alma 26:11). The Zoramites less so. Alma was greatly disturbed by the prayers of the Zoramites. He noted that “their hearts were set upon gold” and the other examples of abundance which the Zoramites enjoyed. He “saw that their hearts were lifted up unto great boasting, in their pride.” He lamented the fact that “they cry unto thee with their mouths, even while they are puffed up, even to greatness, with the vain things of the world (Alma 31:24-26).

The Lord is not the God of the U.S. He is the God of the entire world—even the entire universe. We are more alike as humans and children of God than we are different based on our national citizenship. We generally all want the same things. As He declared in his visit to the Book of Mormon peoples, our Savior is “the God of the whole earth (3 Nephi 11:14).” He is Lord of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. He loves the citizen of Argentina, Togo, or Mongolia no less than he loves us in the U.S. He is, after all, “No respecter of persons: but in every nation that fears Him, and works righteousness, is accepted with Him (Acts 10:34-35).” He will grant us no special favors or indulgences because we are American.

Many nations throughout history have considered themselves favored in the sight of the Lord (or whatever deity they worship). But that belief can lead to very dangerous paths. From the subjugation of the entire Mediterranean world by the Romans, to the widespread appropriation of Native American lands and the destruction of Native populations under the banner of “Manifest Destiny,” to the plundering of native cultures in the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America by the U.S. and the European Powers during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, such hubris leads unerringly to the betrayal of all truly spiritual and humanitarian values.

There can be no doubt that this nation enjoys a great abundance. We currently enjoy an undisputed economic, military, and political advantage over every other nation on the planet. But we should be cautious about taking this as some sign of the Lord’s pleasure or favor. The Zoramites were blessed with an apparent abundance of material blessings, yet they could hardly be accused of pleasing God.

No, the abundance we enjoy is not a gift from our Lord in which to indulge (“hey, you guys are great. Here’s some money; have a night on the town on me”). Rather, that abundance and those blessings should be seen as evidence of a great responsibility. For “of him unto whom much is given much is required (D&C 82:3).” Or, to quote a more modern sage “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” 😉 It is incumbent upon us and our nation to promote through principled means the values upon which our nation was founded; to help secure peace, liberty, and democracy; to spread that abundance among all who lack. If we betray that responsibility through self-serving warmongering, and support of tyranny, and restricting true liberty, then we have great cause for alarm by virtue of the very fact that we have been so abundantly blessed: “he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation (D&C 82:3).”

In other words, we are “elect,” in the words of the Zoramites, not by virtue of the wealth and influence itself, but only inasmuch as we use that wealth and influence to help other nations and promote moral principles.

I do not wish to sound like a Jehovah’s Witness. I respect their beliefs regarding nationalism, and do empathize with their philosophy in that regard to some degree. But I believe that there is nothing wrong with principled patriotism. The key is understanding the true nature of patriotism.

Real patriotism is so much more than simply adorning your body, home, or car with flags. As Bill Maher, political comedian, astutely pointed out, putting a flag on your car is literally the least you can do to support your nation. Displaying the flag makes one a patriot no more than simply having a cross on a necklace, a CTR ring on a finger, or a fish on one’s car makes one a Christian. Patriots with integrity should be less concerned with such overt, superficial gestures, and be more concerned with more meaningful expressions of patriotism.

There is value in recognizing and appreciating the positive aspects of any given place or institution, including the United States. This was perhaps the first nation on earth to be founded not on the basis of culture or race, but on moral principles. It firmly established the principles of the modern representative democracy, which include among others the idea of civil/human rights, governing authority derived from and accountable to the governed, and specific delineation of powers under that authority. It is likely due largely to the example of the United States that these principles have been spread throughout the world. The Lord has revealed through his prophets that the establishment of this nation and those principles was crucial to the restoration of the Gospel. And the U.S. has played a crucial role in preventing international catastrophe in a number of instances in recent history (such as WWII). It is indeed a land of great abundance and blessings.

But unlike chauvinists, truly principled patriots should be honest and realistic in their evaluations. They should not be carried away in grandiosity. Are there any freedoms we now enjoy not similarly enjoyed by the citizens of the other Western Democracies (Canada, Japan, Western or Northern Europe)? Yes, we know from the Book of Mormon and modern revelation that the U.S. is a land of Promise. But the Promised land of the Book of Mormon was hardly restricted to the land North of the Rio Grande and South of the Columbia River. Canada, Mexico, and the nations of South America are just as much a part of the Promised Land of the Book of Mormon as the U.S.

True patriotism does not entail glossing over the real negative aspects of our nation. While the U.S. may have been integral in the rise of the principles of the modern democratic republic and liberty, it lagged behind other developed nations in ending slavery and often in expanding civil rights and suffrage. Native populations have been cheated, betrayed, abused, displaced, dispossessed, and even actively slaughtered. Great industries and fortunes have been built on the backs and blood of labor and poor communities. While the U.S. has played an active role at times in spreading peace and civilization, it has also played a role in spreading violence and supporting governments antithetical to the values upon which this nation was founded, aiding and abetting—even itself committing—terrible crimes in other nations. We need to come to terms with those tragic and evil actions, and resolve through being informed and politically engaged not to permit those sins from being committed in our name in the future.

If we carefully preserve a sense of humility in our appreciation for our nation, are respectful of other nations and our place within the community of nations, seek to understand the nature of the principles this nation was established to protect, and avoid the sense of entitlement regarding our nation, we can through our integrity make the United States into the nation so many believe it to be.

Or we can succumb to the hubris which has led to the downfall of so many peoples before us.

The choice is ours.