A theology of patriotism (updated)

This is a shortened version of a post I wrote five years ago…


Today is July 4, the day Americans light fireworks at ungodly hours and listen to the music of Lee Greenwood.

Many church sanctuaries will be draped in red, white, and blue this week; and many Christian thought leaders will argue once more that America was founded as a Christian nation.

There is, in fact, lots to admire about our revolutionary history. Many of our founding fathers, like John Adams, were men of great moral character. Others (*cough* Jefferson, *cough* Franklin) were not.

For me, perhaps the finest moment of the American Revolution came when it was over. General Washington, fresh from his triumph over Lord Cornwallis, had the chance to become America’s first king. Instead, he resigned his commission and went home.

Several years later, Washington was elected America’s first president, but he voluntarily stood down after just two terms, setting a precedent that was later enshrined in the Constitution. He laid the foundation for a peaceful transition from one government to the next — something many countries would kill (and have killed) for.

And yet… for me, the marriage of Christianity and nationalism isn’t exactly a match made in heaven.

While it’s true many of the founding fathers invoked God as they gave the call to arms (providing fodder for the Christian Identity movement), that wasn’t not exactly a new idea. Plenty of people — from revolutionaries to despots — have used God’s name to sanctify their chosen course of action. Sometimes for noble purposes, sometimes not.

The real question is whether it’s legitimate to invoke the name of God to justify our revolutionary past. If we are (or were) a Christian nation, then the Bible should be the standard by which we judge our history, right?

If it is, then how do we reconcile our violent beginnings with these words from the Apostle Peter?

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify Godon 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.

Bear in mind Peter was addressing Christians living under the thumb of the Roman Emperor Nero (or perhaps Domitian), a ruler far more tyrannical than any 18th-century British monarch. Peter himself would be executed by Rome, not long after writing this letter.

And then there’s Jesus. Much like the founding fathers, he grew up in a land ruled by a distant monarch. Many of his countrymen were caught up with revolutionary zeal, determined to overthrow their oppressors by force.

Jesus spent most of his adult life within a few miles of the birthplace of the Zealots — a movement whose tactics could be compared to those of the “Swamp Fox” of American revolutionary lore.

But in one of his most politically charged sermons, Jesus categorically rejected 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.

To his listeners, Jesus articulated an uncompromising stand against military resistance, even against the cruelest of tyrants.

What’s more, Jesus practiced what he preached, even (and especially) when his own back was against the wall. When Jesus was arrested outside Jerusalem, Peter reacted like a Zealot: he began swinging his sword. Instead of urging him on, Jesus stunned Peter with this rebuke:

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

The fate of anyone who raises a sword is sealed, says Jesus. They will be cut down by yet another sword.

Revolution breeds only more revolution. Insurgency breeds counterinsurgency. Peace — lasting peace, that is — does not come by force. If it did, we would all speak Latin today. “Peace through victory” was the mantra of history’s mightiest empire, yet even Rome succumbed to someone else’s bloody path to victory.

Sorting out what all this means for us today isn’t necessarily easy. After all, the Bible doesn’t always fit neatly into our predefined categories (which I would argue forces us to take it more seriously). Along with the stubbornly nonviolent Jesus and Peter (who learned his lesson following the incident in the garden), the New Testament also mentions more than one soldier who wasn’t required to abandon his post as a prerequisite for following Jesus.

Some Christians today have come to the conclusion that military service is incompatible with our faith — perhaps (like Derek Webb) not wanting to surrender their conscience to the government, letting someone else decide for them when it’s OK to kill another human being.The New Testament may not forbid military service, but it doesn’t quite encourage it either. Either way, the scriptures call us to embrace a distinctly nonviolent alternative to the notion of “peace through victory.”

No matter what path we choose, and no matter what emblem is stamped on the front of our passports, may we always strive to be good citizens of God’s kingdom first and foremost. May we remember that we can only serve one master, and that loyalty to God always trumps loyalty to country.


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