These Olympic games, for the first time ever, will feature an all-refugee team. They are athletes without a country. They'll always, on the other hand, have a nation. Spend a few moments perusing an old atlas to remember just how much countries come and go. While many citizens are delighted to represent a nation, it's possible to be less than proud of their former country.
Our identification with nation can be enduring. Jews are proof of this. But few people are content to completely subsume their affiliation with nation in order to identify with country, particularly if the country dishonors their nation. When discussing India's liberation from Britain, the viceroy and friend of Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten, told Gandhi, "If we leave, there will be chaos." Gandhi's reply? "Yes, but it will be our chaos."
While speaking with university students during a visit to Gugulethu, South Africa, I asked how it felt, as Africans, to know that the world looks at their governments as corrupt and failing. The reply was, "At least you are paying attention," reflecting on how the same powers turned a blind eye to the pillaging of their continent, along with atrocities, under colonial rule. People do not want to part of a country that dishonors their nation.
When Canadians refer to aboriginal peoples as "First Nations" and not "Indians" or "Native Americans," they are at the very least offering a gesture of respect. It's ennobling. Instead of questioning their Canadian patriotism, or calling them what they do not ask to be called, Canada chooses, on some level, to show respect. There are no "Eskimos," there, only "Inuit."
There rages a debate in the United States over whether we are a Christian nation. The answer has to be "no" but not for the usual reasons. We cannot be a Christian nation because we are, simply stated, no nation at all. We are a country of many nations, some of whom feel honored enough.
"Nation" is closely related to "ethnicity". To Jews we are goyim. Each year, during Yom Kippur, Jews read the story of Jonah, in their Scriptures. Jonah is the prophet whom G-d sent to get the attention of their enemy people, the Assyrians. Jonah, instead, traveled in the opposite direction, bearing national offense.
National offense can be a heavy burden and yet hard to release, especially if it's informed with long and tortuous histories. Jews remind themselves each year to release any national offense, and turn their hearts to the nations, the goyim.
Refugees and exiles are manifestly country-less, but let us not gloss over the populations who reside within their countries to find themselves shamed. We have never been "one nation, under God", and will continue to come apart at the seams, not even being "one country," with so many grudges. If we want more people to express pride of country, we have to find the pathway to providing them with the strength to be proud. Maybe we need an American Day of Atonement so we can release these oh-so-heavy burdens.
After being stripped of his title and forbidden to leave the country, the late great Muhammad Ali watched the 1968 Olympics on television. In his memoir, he noted,
I saw George Foreman parade around the ring waving an American flag after his Olympic victory. Not that George usually went around waving American flags. I've never heard of him waving a flag before or since. But he had been put up to it to offset black athletes like Tommy Smith and Carlos Jones, who dramatized before the world their objections to American injustice with their Black Power salute. There was hardly a black or fair-minded white who did not admire Smith and Jones, or who did admire Foreman. And despite his considerable ability as a fighter, his image as an Uncle Tom stuck with him.
This is the same Ali who refused to renounce his American citizenship. His conscience would not let him kill the Viet Cong, and his conscience would later be vindicated. Muhammad Ali was a patriot. Muhammad Ali was also a proud citizen of the world.