A theology of patriotism

Today is the Fourth of July.

Which means fireworks and Tchaikovsky. Hot dogs and… more hot dogs. Church sanctuaries draped in red, white and blue.

It’s always that last bit that leaves me feeling a little uneasy this time of year.

On the one hand… there are many things I love about this country—most of all, the fact that it’s my home. Whenever I travel abroad—whether it’s overseas or just over the border to Canada—the return trip always feels appropriately like a homecoming of sorts. It’s like something inside me says, “This is where I belong,” as I wait for the customs official to wave me past the security checkpoint. (It doesn’t even matter that the customs officials I’ve met in other parts of the world are almost always politer than the ones I’ve met in my own country.)

Also, I’m enchanted by the American story, warts and all. I’ve always been a fan of history—an interest faithfully cultivated by my parents. And I think the American Revolutionary War is one of the most fascinating periods in history—one that inspired some of the greatest innovations in government since the Greeks first experimented with democracy.

There were many reasons for the Revolution—some more compelling than others. But ultimately, the quest for independence came down to this: (1) a basic (and well-founded) distrust of monarchy without accountability and (2) a belief that if a parliament in London was to decide how Americans would be taxed, then there ought to be an American voice in that parliament to represent the interests of the American people. In other words, “no taxation without representation,” as the revolutionary motto said.

It was not democracy in the purest sense that the founding fathers championed (even though we toss that word around a lot today). Rather, it was the idea that someone who speaks for and is accountable to the people ought to have a say in the governing of that people—the decisions made, the laws passed, the taxes levied.

But perhaps the greatest moment of the Revolution came after it was over. George Washington, the first great American hero (whose integrity made up for his lack of tactical military skill), was offered the reward customarily given to those who have successfully thrown off the yoke of an oppressor: he was given the chance to rule in place of the oppressor he had defeated. To become the first king of America. To begin a dynasty that might have lasted to this day.

Few in history have been given the chance at absolute (or near absolute) power and managed to decline the offer. (Though one such person can be found in the New Testament.) But at the very moment when General Washington could have become King George the American, he did the unthinkable. He resigned his commission and returned to private life.

Six years later, Washington was elected president; but in this role he once more resisted the temptation of limitless power. Long before there was a law requiring him to do so, Washington stood down after just two terms in office. He set a precedent that all but one of his successors would follow. He laid the foundation for a peaceful transition from one government to the next—a rare blessing in this world of ours, and one that few of us appreciate as much as we should.

Another thing I love about this country: America has often used its power and influence for good—investing in a daring and massive reconstruction effort after World War II, without which Western Europe might still be recovering from the devastation. And in our own time, leading the rich countries of the world in the fight against AIDS in Africa.

In short, there is much to love about this country.

On the other hand… I always feel a deep sense of conflict whenever I see the church wrap itself in the flag or get caught up in a wave of patriotic fervor. The marriage of Christianity and patriotism seems to me anything but a match made in heaven. Whether it’s the televised church service with a massive stars-and-stripes backdrop or the “American Christian” t-shirt I saw in Denver last year, with a cross superimposed onto a flag—I’m not sure that our modern notion of patriotism is compatible with the scriptures.

It’s tempting to think the founding fathers were Bible-believing Christians. It is true that many of them invoked the name of God repeatedly as they made their case for revolution. It’s also true that quite a lot of people in history have used God’s name to sanctify their chosen course of action—sometimes for good and noble purposes, and often for not-so-good-and-noble purposes.

But if we are supposed to be a “Christian nation,” then shouldn’t the Bible be the standard by which we judge our history, including our revolution? If it is, we may find ourselves with something of a dilemma on our hands.

Peter once wrote the following words to persecuted Christians living under the thumb of Nero (or perhaps Domitian), a ruler far more tyrannical than any king of England:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

—1 Peter 2:12-17 (NIV)

Jesus, much like the founding fathers, grew up in a land that was ruled by a distant monarch. At home in Galilee, the messiah was surrounded by revolutionary zeal. He spent most of his adult life a few miles from the birthplace of the Jewish Zealot movement—a movement whose tactics were comparable to those of the “Swamp Fox” of American revolutionary lore and even the insurgents who have wreaked so much havoc in Iraq today.

But Jesus categorically, unequivocally resisted and rejected Zealot ideology. In what may have been his most politically charged sermon, Jesus articulated an alternative to the way of the Zealot:

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

— Matthew 5:39-41 (NIV)

For himself and for his followers, Jesus took an uncompromising stand against military resistance—even if it’s against the cruelest of tyrants.

What’s more, Jesus practiced what he preached—even (and especially) when it counted most. When Jesus was arrested outside Jerusalem, Peter reacted like a true Zealot: he began swinging his sword. Perhaps he thought this was the moment they’d been waiting for—the moment the revolution would finally begin. (After all, it’s no secret that the disciples consistently failed to grasp the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ movement.) But instead of rallying the disciples to himself, Jesus stunned Peter with this rebuke:

Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

— Matthew 26:52 (NIV)

The fate of anyone who chooses to raise the sword, Jesus taught, is sealed: it is to be cut down by another sword. Military revolution breeds only more military revolution. Insurgency breeds counterinsurgency. Peace—lasting peace, that is—does not come by force. If it did, we would all speak Latin today, for “peace through victory” was the mantra of the greatest empire the world has ever known… yet even Rome ultimately succumbed to someone else’s bloody path to victory.

So… I am grateful for the freedoms that we enjoy in America. I am grateful for the country I live in. I am grateful for leaders of all stripes who, whatever faults and vices they may have, willingly and peacefully hand over power when their term has ended. I am grateful for the many good things this country has done for the world. But I will not glorify the events that are celebrated on this day by baptizing them in a faith which, in reality, teaches a very different response to oppression and injustice.

I am fortunate—and thankful—to live in a country where I can freely pledge my allegiance to Christ without fear of persecution. (And those who characterize the minor hardships faced by Christians in America as persecution insult, albeit inadvertently, the sacrifices made by those in other parts of the world who’ve known what real persecution feels like.) But this freedom I have does not necessarily mean that allegiance to my God and allegiance to my country are perfectly compatible.

So what does all this mean practically? The answer might vary from one person to another. These are not easy issues with black-and-white answers. Some may choose not to join the military, not wanting to bind their conscience to the government and let others decide for them when it’s all right to kill another human being. Others, having searched their conscience, will join the military and do their utmost to serve with honor—out of a desire to do good, not to inflict harm. Both impulses are, I believe, honorable.

The Bible does not encourage military service. To the best of my understanding, the scriptures advocate a nonviolent alternative to the idea of “peace through victory.”

If that’s all the Bible had to say, the answer to this question might be pretty simple. But the fact is, we meet more than one soldier when we read the New Testament (Roman soldiers, no less!), and not one of them was commanded to leave their post in order to follow Jesus. Even though the Roman military was anything but a force for good, Jesus did not make desertion a prerequisite for joining his movement. And neither should we.

Instead—no matter what country we live in, no matter what emblem is stamped on the front of our passports—as members of God’s kingdom, I hope we all learn to be good citizens of whatever earthly kingdom we find ourselves in. I hope we always remember that we can only serve one master, and that loyalty to God always trumps loyalty to country. And I hope we resist the temptation to give simplistic answers (on both sides) when asked what it means to be a good citizen of two kingdoms.

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