Patriotism as Ethnocentrism? A Mystical Perspective

Should we encourage patriotism in and for our country? What might mysticism say about that?

It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.


I attended a patriotic program at my 5th grade son’s elementary school this morning. It was all about national pride, singing songs like “America the Beautiful,” about our extensive military and those who’ve died for our freedoms, Americans working the standard 40-hour workweek and all they provide to our society, and how much we love the United States of America as the best country on Earth, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Many of the parents were in tears.

But it made me think. Is all this national pride a good thing, or is it a new form of ethnocentrism which leads to the kind of nationalism as Trump is parading today in our country? What makes this kind of patriotism different from Nazism, from absolute loyalty to a particular country, a party, a place, a people? Is it a distraction from universal human values which know no borders, no particular people, no superior place, no ultimate or “best” culture? Is it just another form of ethnocentrism and tribalism that we are striving to transcend?

Patriotism is often contrasted with nationalism. As George Orwell once said:

By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

-Orwell, George Essays, John Carey, Ed., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002

It would seem, then, that patriotism is the right way to go, to have loving devotion and loyalty to a particular place and way of life, to one’s own national family, to one’s own country and people, not forcing it upon anyone else, but believing it to be the “best.” What could be the matter with that?

The problem is perhaps that this kind of national pride is not too far removed from the nationalism that Orwell warned of, which is rooted in power and control, superiority and prestige, authority and oppression. One believes one’s own country is so good, so “best,” so superior to every other, that one will begin to go to any lengths to impose it on others. Surely, if our country is the “best” then it would be “best” for all other people to have it too. Right? What’s wrong with that? We are just bringing our goodness to them, converting them to the right, bringing them into the fold, helping them see the light, giving them the freedoms we hold so dear. Right?

So it perhaps begins in an innocent patriotism, but can devolve quickly into nationalism. A military built for providing the common defense can too easily and quickly be flipped around and made into an offensive, to police the world to make sure everyone else is doing things our way, into a kind of imperialism of pushing one’s own way into every other place. It is our way or no way. We have the “best,” and so should you.

This seems to be a form of ethnocentrism, of thinking that one’s own culture, own people, own ways of life, own standards, language, customs, behavior, religion, etc., are the “best” for all humanity, and so we should do everything we can to proselytize them across the world, spreading “American values.” American sociologist William Sumner described it as

the technical name for the view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.

-Sumner, Folkways, 1906

It includes such things as pride, vanity, one’s superiority, and contempt for others. Social theorist Theodore Adorno further says that it

combines a positive attitude toward one’s own ethnic/cultural group (the in-group) with a negative attitude toward the other ethnic/cultural group (the out-group)

-Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality

Christopher Heath Wellman, a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, says that a “patriotist” feels a sense of robust obligations to compatriots but “only minimal samaritan responsibilities to foreigners.” He makes the distinction between “patriotist” and “nationalist” only in terms of territory versus culture.

Both patriotism and nationalism, these ethnocentrisms, seem to be just enlarged forms of egocentrism, collective egos, egos which have expanded beyond individual persons to include one’s “tribe,” one’s national “family,” one’s geographic or political borders or government institutions. It can, and often does, cause bigotry towards other peoples, places, countries, customs, religions, politics, ways, etc. It is this sort of thing that causes imperialistic genocide of entire peoples, such as the Native Americans. We white Europeans thought our way was the “best,” and said to hell with the Native Americans’ way of life. That was evil! And so we ran them over with a steamroller, shot them to pieces with our guns, running them out of their lands, their places, their ways, their customs, their livelihood.

The ego takes many different forms, and this, I suggest, is a major one, and a major blindspot for many people. Should we not feel any sense of pride for our nation, our people, our freedoms? Should we not be patriots for our way of life? Should we not feel a sense of gratitude for those who have given their lives to secure our freedoms and liberties? Is all patriotism bad? Is it all egoic, tribalistic, prideful, and vain?

No. I think there is a time and a place for everything under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3). I think boundaries are necessary for life to be protected, and to allow it to thrive. As Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has so well noted, life creates such structures, always, but we also are called to transcend the very same:

David Steindl-Rast

Life creates structures. Think of the ingenious constructions life invents to protect its seeds, of all those husks and hulls and pods, the shucks and burrs and capsules found in an autumn hedgerow. Come spring, the new life within cracks these containers (even walnut shells!) and bursts forth. Crust, rind, and chaff split open and are discarded. Our social structures, however, have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. Religious institutions [as well as political institutions such as nations] are less likely than seed pods to yield to the new life stirring within. And although life (over and over again) creates structures, structures do not create life.

Those who are closest to the life that created the structures will have the greatest respect for them; they will also be the first ones, however, to demand that structures that no longer support but encumber life must be changed [or transcended and included]. Those closest to the mystical core of religion [and the egalitarian, classically liberal, core of democratic nations] will often be uncomfortable agitators within the system. How genuine they are will show itself by their compassionate understanding for those whom they must oppose; after all, mystics come from a realm where “we” and “they” are one.

-Steindl-Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion”

The key is in that last line: “we” and “they” are one. This does not apply merely to mystics and religious institutions, or between different religions, but between different nations. We are not separate beings on this planet. We are all humans, made up of one humanity. If we go into outer space and look down on our planet, we will not see borders dividing us up into different people, different lands, with different ways. We only see one single planet, one landmass, one Earth. This is a kind of overview effect that many astronauts get when they actually do go into outer space and look down. They realize, in a profoundly transformative way, that we are One!

It is also the feeling that mystics get when they realize oceanic nondual consciousness, a global consciousness, a cosmic consciousness. They realize, in a radical degree, that we are not actually all separate from one another, but that we are all part of One giant system, One Great Whole, a Holy (Wholly) One, a Singularity, a Uni-verse (“One Song”). Our divisions, our separations, our boundaries, our borders, our individual personhoods, they are all a kind of illusion, a mirage, a convenience, a necessity, but not Reality as it really is, not in its most transcendent sense.

So should we eliminate all borders then, and just go to a New World Order that is all the same, so we all conform to the same ways, one government, one language, etc? No! That is not what I’m saying. Unity in nonduality is not the same as conformity in duality. In fact, such coercion and forcing people all into the very same system is the very kind of nationalism that I am speaking against. That is not what we want. We don’t need everyone to be just like us!

What we want is a mentality, a consciousness, which transcends and includes, to borrow a phrase that philosopher Ken Wilber likes to use. We must have borders, we must have differentiation, we must have differences, we must have skins. Diversity is a good thing! It is beautiful! A rainbow is not beautiful because it is all the same color. No! It is beautiful because of its diversity, because of its plurality, because of its multiplicity, expressing many different ways that color can take. Its beauty is found there, not in a drab sameness and conformity, not in a singularity that is simply one color, one language, one way, one ideology. No.

Mystical nonduality transcends and includes. It recognizes borders, boundaries, differences, but it does not set up tall walls, hardline divisions, unbridgeable separations, which sees only its own as the “best” and “superior,” and all “others” are inferior and therefore bad, less than, and need to be converted or changed or nationalized to our way of being, or otherwise rejected, ostracized, othered, exiled, removed, eliminated, corralled, killed.

Nonduality transcends its own borders and boundaries to honor and respect and give space to the “other,” even to deeply appreciate and love with holy envy this “br-other,” realizing that ultimately “they” are not at all “other,” while including its own way as perhaps its preferred way, its particular preference. It is not as Martin Buber noted, an “I-It” relationship, but an “I-Thou.” It sees the full beauty in the so-called “other,” the humanity, the dignity, the Divinity, the shared Being. It realizes the ultimate Reality, that in an ultimate sense the “other” and I are One, that what you do unto the “other,” you really do unto me (Matthew 25:40). Or as the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi put it when asked how we should treat others: “there are no others.”

We belong to the same race, the same planet Earth, the same ecosystem, the same economy, the same biology, the same universal system, the same consciousness, the same universe, the same humanity, the same brotherhood and sisterhood, the same whole (Holy), the same species, the same world, the same life.

We are not “better” than any other people, any other nation. Should we have a military to protect us, to defend us against bad actors, rogue nations, other dictators? Perhaps, but nonviolent resistance is always preferred, whenever possible. We should not use our military to go on an offensive elsewhere, unless perhaps it means saving innocent lives who would be killed otherwise. Such scenarios become very complex and intricate, even paradoxical, which is why it is vital that we have wise, intelligent, conscious, nondual, compassionate leaders at the helm of our nations, religions, institutions, companies, and organizations.

I recently came across the statistic that only 3% of the United States military annual budget would be enough to end starvation in the entire world. Yes, $30 billion would do it, while the U.S. annual military budget is actively spending $1 trillion (see here for details). Imagine that! Just 3%!! If other countries participated, global military spending is $2 trillion, and so $30 billion would be only 1.5% of that. It is clear we all have our priorities totally backwards, upside down, reversed. We have forgotten our humanity which is our divinity. Instead of reaching out to help and lift our fellow humans out of their severe suffering, their hunger, this most basic physiological need to live for Christ’s sake, we are building more shields, walls at our borders, more powerful bombs, planes, missiles, aircraft carriers, jets, drones, nuclear weapons, training camps, etc.

Jesus once said:

Put away your missiles. Those who use the missile will die by the missile.

-Jesus, Matthew 26:52, BHT

I think he was right. When he said that he brought not peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34), I don’t think he meant to a stockpile, accumulating as many arms as possible, but rather I think he was referring to not bringing peace to the ego in humanity, this dualistic separate sense of self, which causes us to divide ourselves, alienate ourselves, push everything away in isolation, in our collective egotism and tribalism. The true “Christ consciousness” cuts through all those egos as with a sword. We must impale our egos on this flaming sword if we wish to re-enter the Garden of Eden from which we’ve come. That is what is blocking our path, that is our stumbling block, keeping us from the Tree of Life. We have met the enemy, and it is us (see also this).

My son’s 5th grade Patriotic Program in Riverton, Utah, 20 February 2020. The kids are each waving their own U.S. flag, while singing “God Bless the U.S.A.

Unfortunately, our children are still not being taught this kind of world-centric, global-centric, cosmo-centric, humanity-centric, transcendent worldview in our public schools. They are continuing the traditional patriotism we’ve had in this country for a long time, singing the praises of the United States of America as perhaps superior to all others.

Again, I want to be very clear, I’m not saying that we should not want to defend our land and liberties, that we should not want to honor our fallen soldiers who have sacrificed their lives defending it, who have secured our freedoms here locally, that we should not love this land we live on and this community in which we live together. But if “God blesses the USA,” we should wish with our whole heart that God also bless everyone else and every other land equally well.

The USA is not special to God, not that special. Everyone else is a “child” of God too! We should desire to transcend our loyalties for this particular land to realize it for all the land we live on, which is Earth itself, including all humans and other sentient beings. In other words, we should want to grow our devotion to be inclusive of the totality, for all humanity, for the whole planet, for every lifeform, for one and all. This is true love and devotion.

No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.

-Ursula K. Le Guin

Patriotism is even right now today expressing itself as a dangerous nationalism in our highest branches of government, which wants to build higher walls, cage immigrants, tear families apart, deport illegal aliens, destroy alliances with other countries, exit multinational unions and pacts and accords, end free international trade, and “Make America Great Again.” No. This is not the patriotism, the nationalism, the ethnocentrism, we want. We are being called to transcend and include the past, not return to it. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Let’s not regress, but evolve, transcend, to a higher synthesis.

Times are changing. They are always changing. This is the beauty of the impermanence of life itself. Wisdom is changing and evolving with life, with the Tao, at-one in God, in cooperation with Reality and Nature, not trying to maintain an institution indefinitely. That never happens.

I pray that we may each be a part of this change, that we may start first with changing ourselves, our minds (see metanoia), our hearts, our consciousness, our families, our communities, our religions, our cities, our states, our companies, and our country. This is an inner radical change and transformation of mind/being that spreads outward naturally. It is not a change of the “other.”

Be the change you want to see in the world, and others will follow. If it is good change, others will want to follow. There is no need to force, to compel, to convert, to proselytize, to imperialize, to conquer and destroy, to triumph over the “other,” to be the “best” or the “greatest.” We can be a light on a hill, shining in the darkness, and others will want to know where our light comes from, and how they can also have that light, that Love, that compassion, that pluralism, that universalism, that humanity, that inclusivity, that unity, that ecumenism, that egalitarianism, that equality that says that truly “all humans are created equal,” not just those who belong to our Constitution, that cooperation, that comm-unity, that globalism, that beauty, that goodness.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments here or on Facebook.

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2 thoughts on “Patriotism as Ethnocentrism? A Mystical Perspective

  1. Bryce, this was very well written and quite comprehensive. I agree with everything you said and the way you have said it. I might add that mystics’ higher regard is for the commonality, community and communion among all.

    1. Thank you, Ron. I agree that mystics seek commonality, community, communion, communication, the communal, while still honoring and respecting each individual. Of course, no mystic wants to violate another, for that is not Love. It is often a very difficult thing to achieve this with the right balance.

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