Patriotism and the Minority Experience
By Howard Brown
A millennial black man and woman voting at a voting booth in an election.

I love my country?! That’s not a typo. Patriotism is complicated, like me. I am a Black American who can trace my family heritage to the 18th century when family members from Sierra Leone served as slaves on a tea plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Though my genealogy also includes French Huguenots escaping severe persecution, I am a Black American, a descendant of African slaves.

Patriotism can be defined as an intentional embrace, pride, and joy for your country. In my case, patriotism is complicated. It requires loving a country that used your ancestors to build prosperity for others while excluding those same ancestors from sharing in it. How can you find joy and pride in a place that rejected your family and failed to acknowledge their God-given dignity?

Despite all this, most Black Americans I know are patriotic. We are patriotic, not because America has always been good to us. Rather, we love our country because we experienced God’s goodness in a unique way here.

The “Gift” of America

My father was a professional tour guide and local historian. From my earliest days, he instilled in his children an interest in knowing where we came from. If you took one of his tours, he would highlight the significant and lasting contributions of Black people to the growth of America. But these contributions were by compulsion. African Americans were forced to be faithful, compelled to contribute to the greatness of America, all while being excluded from liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What America’s founders and slave owners intended against my family for evil, God intended for good. He used the sufferings of my ancestors to train us to look to him as our only source of hope. Though America didn’t treat us as full citizens, it forced us to find comfort and confidence that we are citizens of a better kingdom that cannot be shaken. God in his providence used the experience of my forefathers to shed his grace on us and give us a deeper understanding of what it means to be his adopted children.

God gave Black people a unique patriotism. Our patriotism – our sense of place, gratitude, and worth as Americans – springs up from the soils of inequity. We serve our country, fly the American flag, and celebrate the Fourth of July. We send our sons and daughters into the military, sing the national anthem, and say the pledge of allegiance.

But why? Because God is great. He set us in this place and has shown his goodness to us here. Our willful participation in our country’s systems and pride in our national identity have often occurred despite the motivation of our founders and the methods of the majority in leadership.

Our patriotic cookouts celebrate the survival of heart, mind, and soul in places and spaces that tried and tested us. The Fourth of July celebrations for African Americans are similar to the Passover. They involve bittersweet and unleavened, yet joyful, remembrances around food. We celebrate being able to celebrate, having survived the American experience. At these cookouts, we share and hear stories of what living here has meant, passed down from generation to generation.

It was at these gatherings where I heard from the elders how Black men who served this country in the military were refused equal veteran compensation, access to wealth-building and education opportunities, and equal respect as their counterparts. When they returned home from wars and service overseas, our country did not give them the equity they had earned from their sacrificial patriotism.

The Pattern of Scripture

Patriotism should never be a blind appreciation for your nation. Instead, our patriotism means clearly looking at all our country’s flaws and failures and choosing to honor God and love our fellow citizens. As a Black American, my patriotism is often intertwined with love and sorrow. But I find great affinity for my brand of patriotism in the stories and message of Scripture.

Black patriotism resembles Moses and Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Esther in Persia. Black Americans, as a minority, were under-represented in the halls of power. But, like these biblical characters, we have still been influential in shaping our country even while we’ve had to wait, pray, and hope that the majority culture will see and treat us justly.

The stories of the Bible teach us that God’s people, always a minority among the world’s powers, were most often exiles and slaves. They had to trust that God was with them and heard their voices. They had to exercise faith in God’s promises that he would care for them when the ruling and oppressive powers did otherwise.

Though committed and faithful to God, Daniel was a forced servant of King Nebuchadnezzar. He longed to return home to a place where his sense of worth was not degraded by the pagan, nationalistic self-worship of Babylon and its king. Daniel learned their language, history, systems, and religion better than many Babylonians. He was fruitful and beneficial to Babylon’s bottom line. Even then, it did not mean he was called to be patriotic like the Babylonians.

Just because Joseph rose in the ranks to a high place in government in a way that helped the Egyptian economy did not mean that Egypt was the best situation for Joseph’s view of self and God. Although Joseph’s position meant that his family could escape hardship in their home country, it did not mean they should be blindly grateful to Egypt and its Pharaohs. We know the treatment they endured as slaves.

The Bible frees me to be a Black patriot because God chose, called, and sent my ancestors here to have me born here in America.

The Bible frees me to be a Black patriot because God chose, called, and sent my ancestors here to have me born here in America. Like Daniel or Joseph, I’ve learned to love my country, love my neighbor, and respect my God-given worth not because of my country’s track record of righteousness, but on account of God’s providence. Unlike Daniel and Joseph, Black Americans are called by God to make the place, this land, a home where they can flourish.

I am Black and patriotic because it was here that God showed, in our struggle for equality, that we are worthy of equal treatment under the law, despite what a majority might do or think. I am Black and patriotic because it was here in our American story that God showed nothing can stop the unique God-given beauty, taste, and intelligence possessed by African Americans.

Like Joseph, Daniel, and Esther, our country is better because of us, though it should have treated us better by God’s command. America is great, not because it has always been great for us or to us, but because God has done great things in America for us and to us. This country is not and will never be our promised land. That would be unbiblical. This has been a place and space of exile and, at best, temporary citizenship. We want and long for more as we seek, fight, and wait for God’s best for us.

Hope for the Future

The average Christian in the world today is an oppressed minority in their country. They are socially and economically isolated, excluded from sharing in power and prosperity. Christians in America are now realizing this may be their future as well. In that regard, Christians have much to learn from their Black brothers and sisters. Our hymns, sermons, and prayers can serve as a resource as we learn how to cry out to God for justice and righteousness.

My purpose isn’t to convince you that you’ve done something wrong when it comes to race relations. But I wholeheartedly believe something wrong happened. And I believe our country’s future can be better than its past, though that future may feel like a loss or shift of power for many. We should neither delight in or dismiss the treatment of minorities throughout American history. I believe the way my ancestors were treated serves as a national “thorn in the flesh” to keep America from unnecessary conceit about its own greatness.

Whenever you speak as a member of a particular group, readers will often presume you speak for the entire group. African Americans are not a monolith. I speak for Howard Brown. I do not want to be used as a tool to debate the thoughts, presuppositions, or experiences of other Black brothers and sisters concerning the complicated topic of patriotism. I long for justice and righteousness for all people, but I have a particular heart and vision for my kinsmen according to the flesh.

As an American and a Christian, I am committed to my country because I believe there is yet more justice and righteousness to be delivered to and through his Black sons and daughters here. I hope King Jesus will yet shed more of his grace on me and my offspring. And I pray that he will also shed His grace on you and your family for generations to come.

Howard Brown is the pastor of Kindred Hope Church (PCA) in Atlanta, Georgia.

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