by. Dale E. Lehman
Originally published on March 28, 2003 on http://www.planetbahai.org
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, patriotism is defined as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” It’s a very simple definition that most of us intuitively understand. But since love and devotion are inward conditions, in practice we tend to define patriotism not so much in these essential terms as in terms of how it is manifested in behavior. In other words, patriotism is as patriotism does.
In different countries, patriotism may manifest itself in slightly different ways, but usually certain kinds of behavior are taken as indicative of true patriotism. A person who flies the nation’s flag, who wears the nation’s colors, who joins or otherwise energetically supports the nation’s military forces, and who takes an active part in the government of the nation (be it through elections or displaying posters of the ruling dictator or anything in between, depending on the nature of the government) is regarded as a patriot.
The Baha’i Faith upholds this general notion. After all, Baha’u'llah taught, ”Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.” But His teachings go well beyond this to broaden and deepen the very concept of patriotism.
We first need to understand that patriotism is not an end in itself. It has a purpose, namely to foster a spirit of unity and cooperation among a group of people. Love of one’s country is not, in and of itself, of much value. Its value is seen when it motivates the citizens of a country to band together for their collective advancement and security. Although such displays as are usually considered patriotic may be inspirational, the true patriot is not content to simply wave a flag. Rather, the true patriot plays an active role in the life of the nation and seeks to find ways, no matter how small, to make it a better place for its people.
It is one of the paradoxes of our times that nations compete with each other on many levels, yet find themselves increasingly drawn into a web of interdependencies. Political, economic, and environmental factors demand growing levels of cooperation on a global scale. Humanity is advancing towards a level of organization that supersedes the national. In the context of such advancement, national patriotism, while still valuable in its own right, is no longer sufficient to provide the necessary social cohesion. If the world’s future can only be served by embracing the unity of humanity, a love and a loyalty that embraces all of humanity must emerge. The Universal House of Justice, the world governing council of the Baha’i Faith, has put it this way:
Unbridled nationalism, as distinguished from a sane and legitimate patriotism, must give way to a wider loyalty, to the love of humanity as a whole. Baha’u'llah’s statement is: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” The concept of world citizenship is a direct result of the contraction of the world into a single neighbourhood through scientific advances and of the indisputable interdependence of nations. Love of all the world’s peoples does not exclude love of one’s country. The advantage of the part in a world society is best served by promoting the advantage of the whole. Current international activities in various fields which nurture mutual affection and a sense of solidarity among peoples need greatly to be increased.
(The Promise of World Peace, para. 31)
I can’t stress enough the hierarchical nature of the loyalties spoken of here and elsewhere in the Baha’i Writings. Although Baha’u'llah did state, ”It is not his to boast who loveth his country, but it is his who loveth the world,” this should not be taken to mean that He regarded love of one’s country as unimportant or illegitimate. Far from it! Rather, He is calling us to embrace a wider loyalty than any we have previously embraced, without giving up the narrower loyalties which we all have. We are loyal to our families, for example, as well as to our countries, and we find no contradiction in this even though sometimes duties to family and country can appear to conflict. The soldier, answering the call of his government, leaves behind his family to defend his nation, and the family understands and accepts the sacrifice.
In this day, then, Baha’u'llah calls us to a loyalty that embraces all of humanity, without asking us to give up a sane and legitimate patriotism for our respective countries. Indeed, He instructed His followers,
In every country where any of this people reside, they must behave towards the government of that country with loyalty, honesty and truthfulness. This is that which hath been revealed at the behest of Him Who is the Ordainer, the Ancient of Days.
(Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, p. 22)
Baha’is are bound to support and obey their governments, to engage in true acts of patriotism by serving their country and their fellow citizens (albeit in nonpartisan ways), and to pray for their leaders. At the same time, they are patriots of the world, striving to serve humanity as a whole and to strengthen the bonds of love and unity between all peoples. Although this can sometimes be a difficult line to walk and may entail some sacrifices, there is nothing inherently contradictory in these two levels of loyalty.