Jul 8, 2013

Toward a Biblical Patriotism

On the occasion of American Independence Day the past several years, the trend has been toward Christian cultural observers reminding us, as citizens of heaven and not of this world, to be careful of our patriotism.

While my tendency is to dismiss this as unwarranted hand-wringing, it is impossible to ignore the truths that motivate these warnings. Last week, for example, Michael Wear noted that a "misappropriated patriotism is one that ties our faith to our national identity." It's hard to argue with that, particularly given its prevalence in some parts of evangelicalism. Similarly, Ed Stetzer wrote last year at Christianity Today of the problem of "patriotic worship," where churches sing more about American than about Jesus. As Byron Borger tweeted on the 4th of July: "A friend of mine visited a church and all the slides of hymns and praise songs were decorated in USA patriotic symbols. Bad worship."

It is good to address the faulty "Christian America" ideal and to question the close association between faith and country among many America Evangelicals.  No quarrel there.

Yet it is one thing to say that there is no such thing as a Christian country, that patriotism can be misappropriated, or that it is bad worship to say the pledge of allegiance in church. It is quite another, however, to say that there is no biblical warrant for patriotism. In the words of Brian Walsh, writing last week at Empire Remixed: 
There is no biblical warrant for nationalism. We are not first and foremost citizens of nations and we owe no fundamental allegiance to nation because we are citizens of the Kingdom of God.
He doesn't define what he means by "nationalism," but I take it to mean simply devotion or loyalty to country; that is, patriotism. (He might have something else in mind, say the sort of "misappropriated patriotism" that Michael Wear notes. If so, I submit this post as a suggestion as to what is and what is not "misappropriated.") Walsh is certainly right that we are not "first and foremost" citizens of nations.  But we do owe some-- not primary, not ultimate, not unconditional-- allegiance to a particular nation, depending on where God has placed us in this world. We do, in fact, under God, owe allegiance and loyalty to our nation.

For example, we are called to obedience of human authorities (Rom. 13:1). We are called to give them what is due them (Matt. 22:21, Rom. 13:7). To pay taxes to them (Rom. 13.6, Matt. 22). We are to pray for those in authority in our particular country (1 Tim. 2). We are to proclaim the truth to the nations (Matt. 28, 1 Tim 3) and its leaders about what justice is and how it should be carried out. We are to confront nations. And we are to disciple nations (Matt. 28). 

I'm not sure this can be squared with "we owe no fundamental allegiance to nation." Sure we do. If we pay taxes to one nation and not to others, if we obey some civil authorities and not others, we owe some fundamental allegiance to one nation over others. Not over God, but above all others.

And the nature of our true citizenship doesn't fully answer the question. Jesus is the true Bridegroom. Nonetheless, brides everywhere recognize some subsidiary allegiance to their earthly grooms.

In short, it is not the patriotism that is the problem, it is the misplacement of patriotism within the context of worship, the confusion of the civic and the ecclesiastical, and the elevation of nation to empire as a fundamental instrument of God's will on earth. As Ray Pennings summarized over at Cardus on July 4:
[T]he misuse of something does not prevent its proper use. An informed patriotism, which honestly acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of the country of which we find ourselves to be citizens in the course of God’s providence is, I would suggest, a healthy posture for a Christian. Part of “rendering to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s” is the duty of love, loyalty and respect. As with all of our loves, this needs to be a rightly ordered love that is subservient to the love owed to God and neighbour, including the neighbour who expresses a different patriotism than our own. But love for country is a good and necessary part of Christian citizenship and is something to be celebrated, not apologized for.
We are actually, by God's providence, citizens of both the kingdom of heaven and a particular state that exists in this world, into which the kingdom of heaven has broken. To say that our role in our particular state is irrelevant-- which "non-citizen" status does-- is to reject both the cultural mandate (Gen. 1) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28). Our calling involves participation in God's work in the created order, including building, critiquing, obeying, reforming, and serving human institutions, including the civil state itself.  We have specific cultural tasks with regard to "our" state-- not another's state or one of our choosing. It is "ours" because God in his providence has placed us in it and has given us duties to it and it to us. We celebrate it when it "does good" and mourn when it fails to do justice.

While there is no such thing as a "Christian country," and it is improper to pledge allegiance to the flag in the congregation at worship, the blessings and provision of our country are worth celebrating.  Christians in particular can enjoy a celebration of God's gifts, through the state, of freedom and relative prosperity right alongside our duties to exercise them for the good of others. Civic pride, demonstrated in its proper context and limited to the civil realm, is not a sin.

Perhaps all those who have written about the dangers of "nationalism" and the celebration of Independence Day are simply trying to search out, with me and the rest of the Church, what the "proper context" might be for civic pride and what its limits might be. But there is indeed a biblical warrant for dual citizenship and for the truth that the Kingdom of Jesus has broken into this world and has plans for the nations.

I am called to be an American, so I shall seek to be a good and grateful one, while submitting fully to God as my creator and ultimate master, to Whom I owe all allegiance, for I am called first to be His.

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