For God and Country

It’s often said everyone has two primary allegiances in life, one to God and one to one’s country. We all have other loyalties, of course: family, friends, schools, sports teams, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with any of them (unless you cheer for the University of Tennessee, Duke, or the Yankees, in which case I will pray for your salvation and invite you to be baptized). Loyalties and allegiances create communities, and we as human beings created in the image of God are hardwired for community. God designed us to forge those connections and relationships. But today I want to focus on the dynamic between those first two: God and country.

I see nothing wrong with patriotism. When our nation is in the will of God, we should be proud of it; when it is not, we should help it to be so; and at all times, we should pray for it and seek its good. The success of our country is in the best interests of every single one of its citizens, including its Christian citizenry. Part of the Christian love for our neighbor is manifested in good citizenship. We help those around us in direct ways, yes, but also by speaking out on their behalf in the public forum. If Christians refuse to be advocates for the poor, the abused, the sex worker, and the immigrant — the disenfranchised, the minority, and the voiceless in general — then we’ve ignored a significant portion of what Our Lord commanded us to do. Of course, we can’t all be lobbyists, which is why I personally believe we have a Christian obligation to vote and to be a voice for our sisters and brothers in that way. And if God chooses you for political office, that office is for servant leadership in much the same way.

But political engagement is only one arena of civic duty. Community aid organizations are another. So is military service (although that’s another blog for the future). Simply keeping up with current events can be a matter of citizenship — and so can knowing history (after all, what’s on the test to become a naturalized citizen?). We must obey all just laws which do not conflict with God’s law. We carefully steward our treasures and resources, natural and otherwise. And yes, we even pay our taxes. These are all indicative of the patriotic Christian.

Christian patriotism, however, must never morph into jingoism — which is never Christian.

Jingoism is an excessive patriotism. The strict definition deals with an overly-aggressive (dare I say neoconservative?) foreign policy which prefers the use of force, or the threat thereof, to peaceful negotiations. It’s generally limited to things of national interest or national security. In a broader sense, jingoism is rampant, unchecked patriotism which places love of country above all else. A jingoist, for example, might want to build a wall on the border or deport everyone of a specific race or religion, all in the name of national security or making the country great (again). This perversion of patriotism ignores the Christian duty to the Other, yet any Christian who says as much is instantly labeled by jingoists as an unpatriotic, treasonous communist (or socialist — if you’re American, at any rate; other places may accuse you of being a capitalistic democrat). Jingoists will hear no bad about their country, especially if the criticism is valid.

The main concern for many Christian (and practically all pastors) on this front is American civil religion, otherwise stated as “how many flags can I put in my sanctuary.” The nation itself becomes sacred, an object of worship and devotion. Its monuments become holy symbols, its key figures priests and gods. This sense of “holiness” frequently gets imported into churches. George Washington goes on the wall alongside Moses, and the Bible shares a lectern with the Constitution.

My friends, this ought not to be.

When our love of country overrides our love of God, many things happen. First and foremost, we sin. We sin the sin of idolatry, and the Stars and Stripes receives our worship. Next we distort the word of God, twisting it to accommodate and support flatly unbiblical ideas like xenophobia (and excessive patriotism/jingoism). Sermons go from the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the declaration of the greatness of the United States (and the lament of its woes). We focus on maintaining political power and cultural clout instead of preparing to become pariahs and martyrs — the latter of which being far more biblical than the former. Our military becomes the priests of the new covenant of country (a phenomenon known as the sacralization of the military). In short, we worship U-S-A instead of G-O-D. And that’s idolatry. That’s sin. And sin requires repentance.

Let me be transparent for a moment. I have no problems with an American flag in the sanctuary, as the church should celebrate the good of this land and our freedom to worship — but it had better be accompanied by a Christian flag, otherwise it’s right out. If I could, I would even (illegally) fly a Christian flag above the American one; the church’s allegiance is to God over all, even country. I rarely put my hand over my heart during the pledge of allegiance, as I am firmly convinced my heart belongs solely to the Lord who bought it with his blood, not the only empire since Rome to require that particular gesture. While I spoke against the sacralization of the military, I still hold our servicemen and servicewomen in the highest (appropriate) regard. I myself was one failed medical evaluation from becoming an Army chaplain, wanting to be a shepherd who went with his flock to face the wolves. Theirs is a sacrifice and a service I am literally incapable of making, and I truly love them for it. But in all these things, I must keep the proper perspective of patriotism and Christianity. I know which one must always be kept first, especially when it collides with the other. My citizenship truly resides in a country not of this world, an eternal country with God Himself as ruler. One day I will be home, and I will never stop singing the praises of that land.

All of this to say: obey God and honor the king. Love your country, pray for it, serve it, and be a good citizen of it. But don’t let that override your faith in God. He is our God, not America. He watches over us, not our guns and our walls. He, not our politicians, died for us, loves us, forgives our sins and makes us new. And He is the Alpha and Omega, the One who was before all countries began — and who will stand when the last empire falls.

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