Sailing Between Scylla & Charybdis: A Discussion Regarding Patriotism

By Leroy A. Hill


August 6, 2019

Appropriate love for country must sail between the Scylla and Charybdis of our times: cynicism and jingoism. In Greek mythology, “Scylla and Charybdis were thought to inhabit the Straits of Messina, the narrow sea between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Preying on passing mariners, Scylla was a terrible creature with six heads and twelve feet, while Charybdis, living on the opposite side of the straits, was another monster who, over time, was transformed in the imagination of the ancients into a more rational, but no less lethal, whirlpool. Odysseus famously had to negotiate a passage through their deadly clutches in Homer’s Odyssey.”[1] Scylla and Charybdis in popular parlance came to mean navigating between two evils. Appropriate love for country must navigate between the two evils which threaten our unity and future.

In our times, we are faced with a cynicism so deep that it would have future generations hating their country and unable to appreciate all of its good despite its deep flaws. On the other side lurks the danger of jingoism; an extreme form of patriotism which approves of everything our country does without considering its actions critically. The cynics look back and focus their attention on our sinful past, whose blight they project into our future. The jingoists, blinded by an extreme love for country, can see none of its faults and are willing to repeat the gross errors of the past in search of national glory. Both views are dangerous and should be rejected. We can love our country while acknowledging its warts and sins in the same way that one loves a family member or a neighbor.  We may view their behavior as despicable but our love for them remains undiminished. We can and should tell our country’s stories, the good ones and the bad ones. We should consider the times in which men and women lived and lament that they were not better. We can also regard the good works that they did, not with a jaundiced eye, but with applause.

We must look to the ideals that they upheld even if they were unable to live up to those ideals themselves. I am reminded by the words of the late great R.C. Sproul who argued, that Pastors are called to preach a message higher than themselves.[2] Their failures do not diminish the truth of the gospel, even if they diminish how the gospel may be received. The character Boromir from the Lord of the Rings was overcome with greed and lust for the power of the one ring. He tried to take the ring from Frodo by force but was unable to do it. Yet moments later, he fought valiantly to help Frodo escape an Orc army, ultimately, exchanging his life for Frodo’s. That’s in a literary work, but Tolkien was perceptive in showing the complex nature of the desire to do good equally present with the desire to do evil existing within the same man. I’m also reminded of Frederick Douglass’ words. Douglass, in his now famous 4th of July address, lambasted those who sought to celebrate their independence while simultaneously holding others as slaves. Douglas minces no words. His tone was acerbic and dripping with irony. Douglass drew the country’s hypocrisy in stark relief. His words were biting and electric but there was also something else present within them. Douglass’ words were filled with hope. Douglass did not hate America, nor did he believe that the people who wrote the Constitution would continue practicing slavery,

Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain.[3]

Douglass’ words weaved through the waters between Scylla and Charybdis and are a model for our times. Yes, point out that so and so did this bad thing, but also point out that so and so did this good thing that we benefit from. The world is complex as are its inhabitants from great to small. A flat and simplistic reading of history serves only the immature and biased. For example, recent stories emerged elaborating a civil rights hero’s gross philandering. I don’t know if they are true. I don’t want them to be true. This man is a towering figure in my thoughts and a man whose sacrifice helped shape the nation and liberate a people. But what can I say? I am thankful that that man lived. If what is written is true, on the one hand, I am horrified. These are despicable allegations that must be thoughtfully adjudicated when taking in the totality of the man. But on the other hand, I am thankful for his efforts on behalf of black people. Can we erase him from history? Can America’s rich history be accurately told if he or his great work were expunged? How can we erase his efforts and sacrifice from our memories? Do we pull down his statue too?  We need to have a sober estimation of our heroes. Yes, we tell our children that this man did a great thing, but we also tell them his story is full of serious conflicts and flaws. Erasing people from history would leave tremendous gaps in it and would ultimately, leave us all bereft of heroes.

In the same way, we must be on our guard against a form of nationalism which exalts worship of country and whose self-superiority is demonic at its root. There is nothing inherently wrong with nationalism or loving one’s own country, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill were all nationalists. But history is replete with examples where nationalism, taken to an extreme, wrought horrible consequences. For example, the extreme nationalist desires of the German and Japanese leadership plunged the world into a war that killed 27,000 people every day between September 1, 1939 and September 2, 1945.[4] That was a deadly form of nationalism. We are experiencing a more benign version in our times. The nationalists in our times chant for a return to American values to retrieve the greatness of America’s past. They believe that leadership in America, for too long, has taken its eye off of the welfare of the American people. They long for a time when America and its people’s needs are the primary focus of its leaders. Such longings are not evil. The concern for the welfare of one’s people has driven men to achieve greatness on their behalf, but unchecked, such loves can and have become extremely dangerous. C.S. Lewis distinguishes between what he calls weak patriotism and extreme patriotism. According to Lewis, weak patriotism is something that every man should have for his nation:

This kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination, it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?[5]

Lewis recognizes that there is a right love for country that recognizes and respects the love that another might have for his own country. But Lewis, in his inimitable style, demonstrates that unchecked, the nature of love for one’s country in the end is demonic. In the next form of patriotism Lewis argues that its past lives in our imaginations not in reality. He warns against indoctrination into the falsities of the past. These falsities are like nostalgia which washes away our memories of the filth and grime of the past leaving only the bright, colorful, and rosy parts:

The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. I mean to that past as it lives in popular imagination; the great deeds of our ancestors…This feeling have not quite such good credentials as the sheer love of home. The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.[6]

When people have been indoctrinated into the falsities of the past, the false belief of superiority follows not far behind.  Lewis argues:

If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century, the English became very conscious of such duties: the “white man’s burden.” What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians… And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best.

If one were truly superior to another, the idea of duty toward the other should be exalted, rather than rights over the other. The former considers what is best for the other and acts on the lesser behalf while the latter sees what benefits they can receive through exploiting the other and acts on its own behalf. Lewis argues that this idea leads to the worst kind of patriotism:

Finally, we reach the stage where patriotism in its demonic form unconsciously denies itself. “No man,” said one of the Greeks, “loves his city because it is great, but because it is his,” A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degeneration “England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.” She will be to him “a poor thing but mine own.” He may think her good and great, when she is not, because he loves her; the delusion is up to a point pardonable.[7]

Past that pardonable point exists a blind, unwarranted, and unchecked love for country that is destructive. We must see our country for what it is and also hold it to account for what it can be. We must call things as they are rather than how we would like them to be. The final form has become demonic because it moved from patriotism to worship. Worship is meant for God alone. When lesser entities are worshiped, they must be appeased. Their needs must be met at the expense of everything else, even dignity and honor.

Both the cynic and the jingoist have something in common. Both look to the past to chart their way toward what they believe is a brighter future. At best, the cynic assesses the past in order to learn from it and not repeat its mistakes.  At best, the jingoist assesses the past in order to recreate its successes. Neither is wrong to draw a connection to the past, but both suffer from a skewed estimation of the past. If progress is the goal, the past must be liberated from linear and flat perspectives about its people and events. This will allow a more complex multidimensional and high-definitional view that reflects reality rather than ideology to take its place.

If future success is the goal, then a proper assessment of the cost of past glories should sober our zeal and temper our passions toward recreating future glory.  A brighter future might draw on the commonalities that both hope to draw from the past. A brighter future would result from respecting the past and pursuing an accurate understanding of it, sans ideology. A brighter future that draws on commonalities and contains an accurate view of the past can aid us in our future endeavors and is a worthwhile pursuit. We’ve worked together in the past, albeit imperfectly. But it isn’t the past that needs our togetherness, it is our future.

Failing to adopt a unified and accurate perspective of the past will lead to shipwreck by Scylla or Charybdis. But it won’t be a mythical ship sunk by mythical monsters that will be lost. What will be lost is our very real unity and our future together, which is worth preserving.


[1] Mark Cartwright, Scylla and Charybdis, Ancient History Encyclopedia, Accessed on July 7th, 2019,

[2] R.C. Sproul, Our Highest Calling, Ligonier Ministries, Accessed on July 7/27/19,

[3] Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, The Collected Works of Frederick Douglass, 2018, Kindle.

[4] Victor Davis Hanson,  A War Like Many Others, National Review, Accessed July 27, 2019,

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Accessed on July 31, 2019, Project Gutenberg,

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Lewis, Accessed on July 31, 2019,


About the Author

By Leroy A. Hill

Leroy A. Hill is a Pastor and currently a Seminarian. He is a full time graduate student who is finishing a Th.M degree in Spring 2020. Leroy grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, Pa. and always wondered why life was the way that it was. He didn’t find any answers in the Church and found few answers in society but always believed that there were answers to the big questions of life. After serving several years and a combat tour in the Marines, he settled into life, content with the idea that everyone wrestled with the big questions of life but few found answers. One day, his daughter gave him a book to read, Mere Christianity and soon everything changed. He realized that there was a whole world of ideas, perspectives, and truths that were barely tapped by the average Christian. Acquainting people with the truth of God and how those truths apply to their lives is the end to which he and his wife Margaret have been oriented since 1998. Leroy is currently the Senior Admissions Officer at Southern California Seminary where he graduated with a B.A. in Bible Studies in 2012, and an M.A. in Philosophy and Apologetics in 2015. Leroy is married to Margaret, they have two married daughters. Natalie and Lynsey are married to Joe and Jordan respectively. They have five grandchildren Gage, Avery, Talan, Ezra, and Micah.