My Country – Love it or Leave it

James E. Copple

I have no idea what kind of patriot quarterback Colin Kaepernick might be, but we know he believes this country has taken a wrong turn on race-relations and that justice-for-all is elusive.

Remember that mantra from the ‘60s and ‘70s: My country – love it or leave it?

It was the blanket response of the white middle-class, critical of dissent and protests challenging the war and policies that contributed to segregation. It became an effective put-down of people who dared raise a voice.

I was a senior at Eastern Nazarene College when I decided to act on my opposition to the Vietnam War, and I did several things: I refused to pay the excise tax on my phone bill, because it went directly to support an unjust and illegal war; I participated in demonstrations; I refused military deferment; and I wrote letters, disrupted political events and much more. Further, I chose not to stand during the National Anthem.

Regarding the excise tax, I wrote to the state of Massachusetts and explained my actions. I heard nothing back. When I moved to Kansas City and started seminary, I also sent a letter to the state of Kansas, explaining why I wouldn’t pay the excise tax. Within a week, I received a call from the Kansas Attorney General’s office, and the assistant-AG was very clear (and I summarize):

“Mr. Copple, I see you didn’t pay this tax in Massachusetts. I bet you were one of thousands in Massachusetts who refused to pay this tax. Well, Mr. Copple, in Kansas, you are the only one.”

That led to an interesting discussion of what the AG in Kansas was going to do to me. It was intimidating to say the least – protest in a group is much easier than dissenting alone. I prevailed, however, and the courts threw out the complaint filed against me by the State of Kansas.

I love my country, and I am loyal to my country. I refused to go to Canada to avoid the draft, and I refused a ministerial deferment. I took the stance of J. William Fulbright, then-senator from Arkansas and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “The greatest form of love and passion for your country is the ability to criticize it when it is wrong.” (Arrogance of Power)

We may not agree with the actions of the quarterback from San Francisco who refuses to stand for the National Anthem. But maybe, just maybe, that action is about a man’s love and passion for his country.

We have a long tradition of going after the symbols of power. After all, our founding fathers refused to drink British tea – now, that was a sacrificial dissent!

Organizers like Saul Alinsky, in “Rules for Radicals,” suggested political and economic dissent is usually directed first at the symbols of power. Every major social and political change, from the abolition of slavery to a woman’s right to vote, began with attacks on the cultural symbols of power.

And as Fulbright would later ask in “Arrogance of Power,” and I paraphrase:
Who is the greater patriot – he who is willing to rise in protest when they feel their country is wrong, or the masses who blindly salute the actions of an unjust and often oppressive government?

I can’t speak to the patriotism of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but maybe he hopes our nation might become worthy of a song celebrating the stars-and-stripes. Maybe he hopes all of us can accurately affirm the United States as the “land of the free and home of the brave,” and our reality will come to reflect the inspiration and ideals of American symbolism.

My country: Love it or leave it? I prefer to love it and be willing to criticize to make it better.

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