Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Can a Christian be Patriotic (and Still be a Faithful Disciple)? (Update)

 Sunday is Independence Day, celebrating that day in 1776 when the British colonists of 13 colonies in North America declared themselves to be an independent nation known as the United States of America. People will barbecue and wave flags and there will be parades that celebrate the greatness of the country.  Love of one’s country is fairly natural, but at times in our history, much of the U.S. has felt the need to show that love by putting down other nations–by not only singing our nation’s praises, but refusing to learn from other countries or ever admit to any of our faults.  Disturbingly, many U.S. Christians embrace a “civil religion” which identifies the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” (there is no such thing–just nations that have  Christian majorities and/or in which Christianity has been influential).  When (in my pre-pacifist days) I was in the U.S. army, guns, rifles, and other munitions were strictly forbidden in base chapels, but I have been horrified to see civilian churches (and not just fundamentalist ones) celebrate the Sunday closest to some patriotic holiday with ARMED COLOR GUARDS from local military or national guard units!  Christian faith and the commitment to the global, ecumenical, church as the New/Renewed People of God scattered among the nations are confused with patriotic love for the homeland.

But can a Christian be a patriot while being a faithful disciple of Jesus?  An honest study of the New Testament would incline one to the answer “no.”  I think one can give a qualified–and very cautious–“yes,” but I want us to hear the “NO” pretty strongly first.  Against perspectives like Jerry Falwell’s Listen America, or Peter Marshall’s 3 volume re-write of U.S. history (The Light and the Glory, 1492-1793; From Sea to Shining Sea, 1787-1837; Sounding Forth the Trumpet, 1838-1860;–all with the same subtitle of “God’s Plan for America”), the Bible never describes any nation other than ancient Israel (later Israel and Judah) as an elect nation. In the New Testament, it is the Church as the new people of God which inherits the promises of Israel–and not any earthly nation.  In the Great Commission (Matt. 28-1920), the Risen Christ sends his disciples forth to make disciples from all the nations.  In both 1 Peter and Revelation, the Church is seen to be the people of God called from every tribe and tongue and nation.  A Christian in the U.S. should have more in common than a Christian in Iraq (there were over a million Christians in Iraq before the war and occupation displaced most of them) or North Korea or Venezuela than with the non-Christians who share the same homeland.  As the great Christian philosopher of the Enlightenment era, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put it “Patriotism may be a good thing, but why should love stop at the border?”  Or, again from Pascal, “Can anything be stupider than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

One of the reasons the early church was pacifist and one reason I became a pacifist was the realization that Christianity is a global faith and that our ultimate loyalty is to God in Christ (not any earthly government) and that our loyalty to the global church should override national loyalties. If a Christian from one nation is in the military and asked by the government to kill members of a different military, how does the Christian know that s/he is not aiming at fellow Christians?  And if the person whom s/he kills for his or her government is not a Christian, then is s/he prepared to cut off that person’s chance to repent and convert?

Nation-states are part of what the apostle Paul refers to as “Principalities and Powers” or “Powers and Authorities,” i.e., earthly, created forces (depicted in mythical terms) with their own spiritualities which are fallen and rebellious toward God and which seek to enslave humans–but which God nevertheless uses for good purposes and which can be (possibly) redeemed.  Paul spends much time warning about the dangers of these Powers, including “thrones and dominions,” (i.e., nations and governments), not singing their praises.  The Kingdom of God is the revolutionary new order inaugurated by the work of Jesus Christ–and never to be identified with any earthly government or ideology or political party or causes. 

The early church knew this well–and so did their pagan neighbors.  In The Letter to Diognetus (c. 195 C.E.), an anonymous Christian writes to a pagan interested in the faith and says:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric form of life. . . . They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything [i.e., in all responsibilities] as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their fatherland and, yet, for them, every fatherland is a foreign land.  . . . They obey the established laws, but in their own lives go far beyond what the laws require.  They love all and by all are persecuted.  . . . They are poor, yet make many rich. . . .

This is a perspective that was largely lost after Constantine when, under the influence of Eusebius, Christians began to endorse the empire in order to get special privileges.  It is one we do well to recover today. 

Yet, must one hate or be indifferent to one’s own country?  If one cheers for one’s homeland during the Olympics or World Cup, should one feel guilty? I don’t think so.  Patriotism has often degenerated into jingoistic, militaristic, nationalism, but it need not be so.  Though he reached out to Roman soldiers (in peacemaking initiatives), Jesus identified with his fellow Palestinian Jews and the zealot (terrorist) option of using guerilla violence to repel the occupiers from the Holy Land was one he understood–and evidently encountered as a real temptation. Among his followers were patriotic rebels and/or sympathizers and Rome crucified Jesus as a would be revolutionary (not understanding the nonviolent nature of his Kingdom, but correctly identifying his movement as a threat even if for the wrong reasons).  The Apostle Paul, though later counting it all “dung,” identified strongly as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and evidently also prized his Roman citizenship.

I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu was and is a better South African patriot than were those who championed apartheid. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though forced by circumstances to pray for the defeat of his own country during World War II, was a better German patriot than were the “German Christians,” who tried to combine Hitlerism and Christianity.  I think Martin Luther King, Jr., even when condemning the U. S. as “the largest purveyor of violence in the world,” in 1967, was a better American patriot than either the defenders of segregation or the unthinking supporters of the Vietnam War. 

We Christians can love our countries and be loyal to them–but we can never be uncritically loyal. We cannot confuse our countries with the Rule of God. We can never say, “for God and country,” because we remember that God is a jealous God and will not be reduced to a tribal deity, nor tolerate any idolotrous rivals.  We should not have national flags in our churches (and there is no such thing as a Christian flag–flags are for armies; Christians have a cross–which we bear and follow unarmed), nor pledge allegiance to any nation state (since, in baptism, our allegiance is already pledged elsewhere and since we are forbidden in the Sermon on the Mount from taking oaths).  We would not want visiting Christians from other nations to come into our sanctuaries and see a flag of our nation and wonder if they belong!  We can never say, “my country, right or wrong.”  And we must not allow love for our homeland to become contempt or hatred (or even a feeling of superiority) to others’ homelands.

I plan on grilling out this 4th of July.  I will celebrate the good things of my country–and call that patriotism.  But I will not pretend that my country has never had sins and faults. I will criticize its shortcomings today and seek to learn from other nations.  We Christians can be qualified, critical patriots–but never nationalists and never militarists.  Remembering the difference is crucial around national holidays.

UPDATE: As I mention in comments to my friend Daniel (Haitian Ministries), it is probably harder for Christians to be patriotic WITHOUT falling into jingoistic nationalism here in the U.S. than in other countries.  After WWII, Christians in Germany and Italy and Japan had periods of profound soul-searching concerning the way they supported the war–their tendency to be captured by nationalist ideology.  Both the churches and the wider national cultures underwent periods of repentance for past sins.  Nothing comparable has ever happened in the U.S.

The Civil War ended slavery, but there was no repentance.  In the South there arose the “Religion of the Lost Cause” which glorified the Confederacy and turned slavery into a footnote. In the North, the Civil War became seen as a righteous crusade with no mention of the utter failure of the Northern political culture to have found a way to abolish slavery without war, no mention of the continued racism (even of many white abolitionists!), nor of the war-profiteering of the Yankees.  The U.S. has become the nation that never sees a reason to repent and certainly not to apologize.  When Pres. Jimmy Carter renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty in a more just fashion (Teddy Roosevelt had simply used the U.S. military to back a revolution in northern Colombia, creating Panama in exchange for the right to build the canal!), the rightwing hue and cry went up that “Jimmy Carter is giving away our canal!” Many were even outraged that Carter spoke Spanish when in Latin America rather than forcing everyone else to speak English!  Americans never apologized for the genocide of Native Americans, or for the Japanese internment camps or for turning away boatloads of Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.  And this heretical view that our nation never does evil pervades the churches, too.

So patriotism is more dangerous, harder to tame, in the U.S. than elsewhere.  Our churches often fail to portray a view of the Church that is global and fail to foster greater loyalty to the global Church than to any earthly nationality.  Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the failure to distinguish the nation from the Kingdom of God greater than in the majority of U.S. churches.  Given that reality, the skepticism that Paul F. and Daniel have toward the possibility of a humble (truly Christian) form of patriotism is well-founded. Maybe most U.S. churches should commemorate 04 July 1776 by holding days of repentance and confession of our national sins?

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July 2, 2010 - Posted by | ecclesiology, ecumenism, ethics, moral discernment, nationalism, peace, theology

10 Comments »

  1. I would have to side with Hauerwas on this one. Most Americans, including American Christians, lack the necessary virtues to be “qualified, critical patriots.” Furthermore, modern nation-states don’t want their citizens to stop with mere “hey, I like living here.” They want their total allegiance.

    I would dare anyone, while grilling with friends on the Fourth, to start talking about their country, and say something like this:

    “Yeah, I like the fact that we invented baseball and football, rock and roll, that a lot of us go out of our way to help one another out…[etc, etc]…but I also don’t like the fact that, according to the International Red Cross, we’ve tortured approximately 100 people to death in U.S. Custody since the beginning of the War on Terror, or the fact that we’re engaging in two futile and costly wars of aggression, or we continue to live in materialistic abundance, and scoff at climate change alarmists when they say our lifestyles will cause unspeakable suffering to most of the rest of the world’s citizens…”

    Say something like that, and cap it off with “I’m just trying to be a critical, morally responsible patriot”, and see what happens.

    The stars and stripes is a powerful yet ambiguous image, representing different feelings and ideas for different people. Such ambiguity is dangerous, so American anthems have no place in a house of worship. Furthermore, I would urge all Christians in America to be as “wise as serpents” tomorrow, whatever your plans are.

    Comment by Paul F. | July 3, 2010 | Reply

    • I don’t disagree, Paul. In fact, I think it is up to the churches to form those kind of virtues. I HAVE such conversations many times a week.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 3, 2010 | Reply

    • I also don’t see anything in my post with which Stanley Hauerwas would disagree. I know him slightly and know his writings well. We’ve had discussions over this.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 3, 2010 | Reply

  2. I would read your qualified patriotism the same way I read Just War Theory: It sounds good on paper but I question whether or not it’s workable in practice as aptly illustrated by Paul F. above.

    By the way, are you planning to be at Peace Camp next week? Just wondering.

    Comment by haitianministries | July 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Daniel, we cannot afford to go to peace camp this year. Maybe next year.

      Unlike JWT, I think there are numerous examples (some of which I gave) of Christians holding to humble, critical patriotism. JWT is a theory that has never worked in practice, but even Jesus and Paul seemed to share the love of country that is natural to all people. However, the USA has such a culture of triumphalism (“We’re number one!” ) and nationalistic civil religion so pervades most U.S. churches, that it is probably harder to have an non-jingoist, non-militarist patriotism here than in most other nations.

      Because patriotism can be so twisted and warped into nationalism, it is always a dangerous thing (but mother love can be just as warped, yet we don’t try to stamp out mother love). It is probably more dangerous here in the USA than in, say, Costa Rica (which has no standing army) or Switzerland (which has avoided war for centuries).

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. Helpful post, Michael.

    Comment by Josh Rowley | July 5, 2010 | Reply

    • Thank you, Mr. Rowley.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 6, 2010 | Reply

  4. Like many, I spent my fourth avoiding parades and fireworks and focused on interacting with my neighbors and family. The fourth is truely a day of interdependence not just independence. Nice article.

    Comment by Fish | July 8, 2010 | Reply

  5. […] I’ve been wanting to link up to this post by Michael Westmoreland-Smith since it was first published over at his blog Pilgrim Pathways about a year ago. I was going to do so last weekend since it was around the 4th, but I just never got around to doing it. It’s entitled “Can A Christian be Patriotic and (still be a faithful disciple). […]

    Pingback by Can a Christian be both patriotic AND a faithful follower of Christ? | unique styles away | August 9, 2011 | Reply

    • My name is Michael Westmoreland-White, not “Westmoreland-Smith.”

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 9, 2011 | Reply


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