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Appalachian Spirituality: “Proper Patriot”


This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).

I remember sitting in my seventh-grade social studies class watching Sergeant York (1941). An Appalachian pacifist, Alvin York, finds himself drafted into World War I, forcing him to reconcile his pacifist beliefs with the realities of war. (York would go on to become one of the most decorated and celebrated heroes of the war.) In the film, Gary Cooper portrays the questioning and anguished York. Walter Brennan plays the charismatic Pastor Rosier Pile who leads York to the Lord and away from his menacing ways. A late-night ride finds York on horseback being struck by lightning. The reality that the lightning struck his gun, sparing his life, precipitates an Appalachian conversion experience. Pile helps York reconcile the frightful event with the purpose to which God is calling him. A call, mind you, which entails York leaving behind his violent ways for the peaceful ways of God.

Then comes the news, trickling over the mountain ridge, about the entrance of the United States into World War I. Soon after, news of the draft crests the mountaintop. The anguished York confides to his pastor, “I ain’t a-goin’ to war. War’s killin’, and the book’s [the Bible’s] agin’ killin’! So war is agin’ the book!”

Through a series of conversations and great anguish, York enters boot camp where he meets Major Buxton (played by Stanley Ridges). Below is an excerpt of one of their several conversations in which York wrestles aloud with his conscience:

Alvin: You see, I believe in the Bible, and I’m a believin’ that this here life we’re living is something the Lord done give us, and we got to be a-living it as best we can — and I’m figuring that killing other folks is no part of what he was intending us to be a-doing here.

Major Buxton: York, what do you suppose Boone was looking for when he went out into the wilderness?

Alvin: Well, I never thought much on it.

Major Buxton: Was he looking for new lands?

Alvin: Might be.

Major Buxton: Maybe, maybe for something more, something that a man just can’t see with his eyes or hold in his hands. Something that some men don’t even know they have until they’ve lost it.

Alvin: Yes, sir?

Major Buxton: To be free. Now that’s quite a word, “Freedom” — I think that’s what he wanted. I think that’s what sent Boone into your Tennessee country.

Alvin: That… that what this here book’s about? [pointing down at a book on American history]

Major Buxton: Yep. That’s the story of a whole people’s struggle for freedom, from the very beginning until now — for we’re still struggling. It’s quite a story York, how they all got together and set up a government, whereby all men were pledged to defend the rights of each man, and each man to defend the rights of all men. We call that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

York ends up reconciling his beliefs with his interpretation of Jesus’ words to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21, KJV). We can discuss the rightness of his interpretation and justification for war another day. All this goes to show an interpretive hermeneutic that is as Appalachian as “hollars” and “moonshine.”  As Jones notes, “Appalachians have a special feeling about the flag of the United States. This is the land that gave them freedom to be themselves, and when that freedom was threatened, they led in seeking independence” (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 244-251).

Patriotism is different than nationalism for Appalachian culture. I never grew up with an idolized understanding of America. My family was sweat off the brow people of the land. Land, mind you, that had been in the family for generations. Freedom was less ethereal than nationalist sentiments. Freedom was the liberty to live in peace, to manage your garden, and to take care of one’s family.

While York’s story is one of abandoning pacifism, it also serves as a corrective to the incorrect usage of the word “patriotism.” Nationalism worships nation. It sees national identity as the preeminent identity of a people. It cannot coexist with competing nationalisms. It makes the gospel civil religion and god becomes the nation-state. I would like to argue that nationalism, in all its forms, is evil and counter to the kingdom of God. It calls for all to “sacrifice,” notice the theological language, the blood of our youth in the endless bloodbath that is war. Nationalism needs war to sustain its identity. Peace is it’s enemy. Without the tyranny of war, we come to our senses and recognize the truth of nationalism—a blood hungry machine that requires blood of endless generations to grease the gears of its churning engine.

Patriotism, I believe, even as one who holds a doctrine of nonresistance, is different. As Rodney Clapp wrote in an editorial for “The Christian Century” in 2011:

We owe our country of origin patriotism. But not just any kind of patriotism. The term patriot drives from the Latin word for father, pater. The proper patriot realizes and expresses gratitude to her fatherland. Just as our biological mothers and fathers gift us with life and nurture, so too does the country of our origin gift and nurture us—giving us a language to speak and stories to tell and songs to sing. And just as we don’t choose our parents, neither do we choose our country of origin.

Notice the logic of patriotism. It is very much like the love for parents. We don’t choose our parents, but they have marked us. We love not just parents in general, but particularly our own parents, and so too do we love a specific country. Take the similarity another step: in loving our parents, we do not deny others the right to love their parents.

Patriotism is inwardly focused on one’s own country.

As such, and perhaps surprisingly, true patriotism does not find its essence in war. War, with its terrible demands to kill and die, can exact sacrifices that test the mettle of a citizen’s patriotism and maturity. But in its all-consuming nature it can also tempt the patriot to revert to a childlike state, become totally dependent on the state/father, and regress to a savage primal unity shriven of all responsibility and discernment. Thus, a true and properly circumspect patriotism is born of blood but not of bloodshed. (Clapp 2011, 53)

I hear the response already: “Isn’t patriotism just as bloody as nationalism?” I would argue that when patriotism takes the form of bloodshed, we have wandered into the realm of nationalism. Case in point, there is a world of difference between the egotistical soldier who goes, overly confident, off to war and the veteran who returns wrestling with the demons of what was expected of them. Nationalism exploits patriotism. Nationalism continues to take our young men and women and, with a distortion of their patriotism, sacrifices them on the altar of war. I thank God for our men and women in service and for our numerous veterans. They did not go into conflict because they wanted to kill people. They went into conflict because they wanted to protect. My frustration is not with them. It is with the nationalist spirit, which is as old as humanity, that continues to demand blood because the gods of war are never appeased.

Patriotism is my Appalachian grandfather who out of love of his family and place went into World War II. Nationalism chewed him up and left him with ravaging PTSD the rest of his life. Patriotism was his gift to me of a family and place in which I was raised. Nationalism was the shell of a man who though he returned from combat, never really returned. If you love those in military, never celebrate nationalism.

Augustine called for all soldiers who returned from war to go through a period of confession and repentance before they were allowed back into the life of the church. Our militarized society cannot fathom such a request. Might I suggest that Augustine’s call was the church’s earliest quest to address the PTSD of war. We were not made to kill. Some of us find ourselves in that situation. Violence, in all its forms, is a product of the fall. The church testifies to the kingdom by her witness. Violence has no place in the church. As blood spills on all of us in our quest to grease the nationalist machine, the proper patriot recognizes a deep love of their fatherland all while knowing that we are not fully to be of this world. Repentance and confession remind us of our true Fatherland all while we get dirty from the streets of our mountain highways and by-ways.

As Augustine said so well in his Confessions, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in [God].” May we love our fatherland as a gift from our Father. For those who kill in the name of the land, may Christ’s mercy extend. For those of us who feel that we cannot participate in the violence of this world, may Christ’s mercy extend. May both have a love of their fatherland and may both coexist in the same hollar.

Next Post: “Simple Beauty”

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