Patriotism has always made me uncomfortable. Growing up as a U.S. American in Latin America where ancient, local oligarchies and modern U.S. corporations collude for power and wealth, I distrust the Puritan national myth. Though my family’s whitening was much too successful for us to claim Native American heritage (though this did not keep my grandfather from telling all about his ¼ roots), I know enough to disbelieve the myth of the moral foundation of our country. I avoid church on holidays like July Fourth and Memorial Day. I can’t tolerate the religion of nation; it seems idolatrous to me. This discomfort comes, I suppose, with the territory, with being raised a wanderer.
I don’t fault Pat her love of country. We’ve all been taught to love our homeland. And, when asked, “Where are you from?,” most of us answer without hesitation. Some of us, though, simply don’t know how to respond because we are truly from nowhere.
During college and the few years after, I would reply, “I’m a citizen of the world.” I stopped when a friend told me she thought I was one of the most pretentious persons she’d ever met, solely based on my answer to that question. No one likes a cosmopolitan; especially of the braggart kind. For me, though, that answer was shorthand. It got us quickly to “born in Italy, raised in Latin America” without my having to respond with questions rather than answers. However, there have been times, when asked, that I’ve responded with a barrage of my own, “What do you mean? Do you want to know where I was born? Where I last lived? My ethnicity? Where I consider home? Whether or not I am citizen of these United States and whether I was naturalized or born one?”
People want simple answers. In my case, simple is specious.
Now when it’s asked, I cut to the chase and say, “Italy… Latin America… American parents.”
Regardless what answer I give, more questions follow.
“Were you military?”
“No… medical missionaries.”
The curious will further ask, “In Italy? Aren’t they already Christian?”
“Yes. Well, we’re Protestants; my grandfather fought in Italy in WWII; he felt he had to go back.”
Some will then inquire about denominational affiliation. Those that know something of American religious groups forged in the 19th century, will, when I tell them, further ask, “Are you instrumental or noninstrumental?” We were noninstrumental. To this some will add, “Y’all can really sing… four part harmony and all.” And, it’s true; we can.
We still do, when the whole family gets together, sing, and sing, and sing for hours. This is the case whether at my parents’ house with my siblings and their growing families when they come up from Chile or Mexico or down from Oklahoma, or with my aunts and uncles and cousins, the lot of us gathered from Alaska, Austria, Brazil, the Caribbean in the mountains north of Santa Fe. Songs, gospel songs, are how we spend our time. No session would ever be complete without the family breaking out into a down-home, countrified, low-church, a cappella, tent-revival version of “This World Is Not My Home.”
I am the son of the son of the son of an itinerant church of Christ preacher. Yes, with a small “c.” Yes, we are the ones who do not dance (and we did not), do not drink (though our family, going back at least to my grandfather, did), and we do not sing with instruments. We are the group who throughout the 20th century debated Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and any other Christian denomination foolish enough to think they were going to heaven.
Being from nowhere has always been a point of pride in my family. Church, not nation, has always been our true home. Though biography certainly does a play a part (neither parents nor siblings were born in the continental U.S.), our cosmopolitanism is principally theological in nature. Christianity has always been cosmopolitan. “Paul did not go to hamlets and villages but to cities: Rome, Corinth, Athens,” my father would remind us. “Jesus did not kneel before Caesar or Herod, but in the garden, in prayer.” That we all are positioned at an angle to national, patriotic narratives is one of those felicitous accidents where belief truly did organize biography in such a way as to reinforce the conviction that this world is not our home. No, we are just a passing through, and it doesn’t matter where we live. Our treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, and those are the ones that matter. And let’s not forget, we simply can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
In fact, we never have.