Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Independence Day Meditation: Can a Christian Be a Patriot?

Can a Christian be a patriot? I suppose that depends on the definitions of “Christian” and “patriot.”  If “Christian” refers to Constantinian Christians, that is, those who, since the Emperor Constantine conquered the Roman Empire “in the sign of the cross,” have assumed that there can be Christian rulers, then there appears to be no problem. Constantinian Christians show their patriotism by supporting the Christian emperor or king or queen or the “Christian nation” with the elected “Christian leaders” of the “correct” political party that God has chosen.  But this perspective took the way of Jesus Christ, a way of nonviolence, economic sharing, mutual servanthood and equality, and love of enemies which spread by evangelism and martyrdom and turned it into a religion of domination, economic competition, hoarding, hatred and killing of the enemies of the state–which spreads by military conquest and coerced conversions.  After the break-up of Medieval “Christendom” into modern nation states, Constantinian Christians were often drafted into wars with other “Christian nations.” Thus, they showed their patriotism by placing loyalty to the state above loyalty to Christ or to the Body of Christ and killed fellow believers in the name of God.

I am not a Constantinian Christian. I consider Constantine’s distortion to be a heresy that has haunted Christianity for over 16 centuries, now. I belong to that strand of nonviolent Christianity that was there from the beginnings of the Jesus movement and dominated for the first 3 & 1/2 centuries of church history, was recovered by some monastic movements (e.g., the Franciscans) and some Medieval sects (e.g., the Unitas Fratrum) and the Anabaptists, Quakers, Dunkers/Brethren, some Baptists, many early Pentecostals.  For this kind of Christian, the question of “patriotism” is far more problematic.

For the nonviolent Christian, one’s primary loyalty is to God in Christ; one’s “national loyalty” is to the Kingdom or Rule of God.  One sees God’s redeeming work in history as primarily working through the Church, scattered among ALL nations.  There are NO “Christian nations,” although there may be nations with large numbers of Christians whose history and culture has been influenced by Christian values.

Having “pledged allegiance” to the Kingdom/Rule of God in baptism, the non-Constantinian Christian cannot give ultimate loyalty to any earthly flag, republic, or government.  But is the Christian forbidden to have any feelings of affection for her homeland? I don’t think this necessarily follows.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem for killing the prophets and not knowing the “things which make for peace.” Matt. 23:36-38; Luke 13:33-35.  Although well aware of Rome’s injustices (crucifying Christ and eventually executing many of the apostles), the Apostle Paul seemed proud of his Roman citizenship and did not hesitate to make use of it in getting a hearing for the gospel.

I sincerely doubt that Christians are forbidden from cheering on their national teams in the Olympic games or from being proud of the best of their nation’s history and accomplishments.  I love the U.S.A. and cherish my citizenship and the best of our history, legal system, struggles for justice, our accomplishments in many areas. But no Christian (that is, no non-Constantinian Christian) can have an uncritical love of country or any form of national chauvenism, much less any jingoistic nationalism.  One has to acknowledge that every nation (most definitely including the U.S.A.) also has its national sins and many shortcomings.  The U.S., for instance, began as a contradiction in terms–a group of English colonies protesting unjust treatment by the mother country while simultaneously practicing far worse injustices against the indigenous peoples (so-called “Indians”) and slaves brought over from Africa.  Our beloved Constitution which set us up as a democratic republic, simultaneously engraved race-based slavery into the heart of the nation’s laws–and it took a terrible civil war and occupation of the rebellious Southern states before the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution could dissolve our slaveocracy and rebuild the republic on a more moral basis.  Even then, women were denied the right to vote until 1920 and, to this day, there is no guarantee of equal rights for women.  We all-but-exterminated the Native Americans in expanding the nation Westward and most of what we call the Southwest was land stolen from Mexico in an illegal war never approved by Congress.  It wasn’t until the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that the legal basis for segregation (approved by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) was overturned and it took the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the victories resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the U.S. version of legal apartheid was dissolved.

The U.S. has also committed crimes against other nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia–often backing tyrannies and dictatorships instead of democratic movements because of a narrowly perceived national interest. The U.S. lags behind many nations in legal protections for the accused, in abolishing the death penalty, in prison reform, in universal healthcare, in education of all citizens, and many other areas. We have much to learn from the mistakes and the successes of others.

If one’s definition of patriotism includes this kind of critical love which hopes for the best for one’s nation and wants to see it repent and do better, then, in this limited sense, I think even a non-Constantinian Christian may be a patriot.  But if by patriotism one means that one must always think one’s nation is “number one,” and “exceptional,” and that international law is only for other nations, or that one’s nation is justified in hurting other nations–either economically or militarily, then no non-Constantinian Christian may be a that kind of “patriot.” Nor may a Christian believe that “our freedoms” are given to us by military might–because freedom in the gospel has a different meaning than the individualistic egoism of our national self-centeredness and because as Christians we reject the way of the sword for the way of suffering love. Military service to a nation state is forbidden for those who part of the “army that sheds no blood” as the Church Father Clement of Alexandria described the universal Church.  We lay down arms and take up our crosses and follow Jesus.  As Lee Camp suggests in Mere Discipleship, Christian disciples do not make for “good Americans” (or good Britishers, good Germans, good Brazilians, good Zimbabweans, good New Zealanders, good Japanese, etc.).  Doubtless the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans would call this perspective treason. So be it.

Christians need a cosmopolitan viewpoint and need to be in solidarity with the oppressed all over the world.  If the gospel is true, then those of us united in Christ have more in common with fellow Christians in nations designated as “enemy” by our respective governments than we do with the non-Christian fellow citizens of our nation.  That’s not to mean that we should see those non-Christians as enemies, either. They, too, are created in God’s image and Christ died for them, too. All people are either fellow disciples or potential fellow disciples–so we may neither hate nor kill anyone.

I’ll cheer on the U.S. in the Olympic games. I’ll celebrate what is good in our nation’s history and laws–and that we gave the world baseball, of course. But if “patriotism” means celebrating war or defying international law or putting down other peoples so as to feel good about ourselves–or if “patriotism” means putting loyalty to one’s nation above loyalty to God’s in-breaking Rule (with its VERY different value system), then count me out. My religion forbids it.

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July 4, 2011 Posted by | Church, ecclesiology, nationalism, pacifism, politics, theology | Leave a comment

The Dangers of the Military Industrial Complex

Today, 17 January 2011, is the 50th Anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the American people.  In it, he warned of the dangers of a foreign policy dominated by the military industrial complex.  He was not heeded and today we are more dominated by it than ever. Manufacturers of weapons and military-related hardware build pieces of items in every Congressional district in the nation so that it is almost impossible to vote to cancel even weapons the military doesn’t want.  “When all you have are hammers, every problem looks like a nail.”

Ike also warned that the military industrial complex sucked up money that could be used to solve poverty; he boldly called it theft from the poor and the hungry.  The biblical prophets had the same outlook which is why they dreamed of the conversion of instruments of war into farming tools.

We drastically need a national conversation, today, about Eisenhower’s warnings.  After all, the man who led the Allies to victory in World War II is owed a hearing on the dangers of overmilitarism, don’t you think?

January 17, 2011 Posted by | Just Peacemaking, nationalism, peace | Leave a comment

O God of All the Nations

In response to my last post, Paul F. rightly notes that few U.S.  Christians today have the virtues to display the kind of humble, critical patriotism that I believe is compatible with faithful Christian discipleship. Lacking such virtues, they all too easily fall into the jingoistic, militaristic nationalism, hubris, national chauvenism, and triumphalism that most U. S. Christians mean by “patriotism.” (It’s a warped form of patriotism, just as co-dependency is a warped form of romantic or familial love.) So, how do churches form members in the kind of virtues that can display humble, critical patriotism and resist jingoistic nationalist distortions?  It takes more than good sermons. I would suggest that one resource is good hymns.  That which we sing regularly is what we truly believe (which is why Charles Wesley, Fannie Crosby, and Isaac Watts may be the most influential theologians in the Anglo-American world–and why parents who worry about what music their children listen to and sing are not just old curmudgeons).  Today, tomorrow, and Monday, I shall print some hymns that I think are helpful in forming the kind of virtues that display the international concern and humble patriotism appropriate for citizens of the Rule of God.

Today’s is listed in different hymnals variously as “This is My Song, ” “O God of All the Nations, ” and “A Song of Peace,” all of which are appropriate titles.  The tune is the Finlandia hymn melody composed by Jean Sebelius.  The words of the first two verses were composed in 1934 by Lloyd Stone (1912-1993) and the 3rd verse was added by the great U.S. Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness (1891-1974).

This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.
May truth and freedom come to every nation;

may peace abound where strife has raged so long;

that each may seek to love and build together,

a world united, righting every wrong;

a world united in its love for freedom,

proclaiming peace together in one song.

People who gather to sing like that on national holidays such as Independence Day will have a far different outlook from those who are moved by Lee Greenwood’s military recruiting tool, “God Bless the U.S.A.” or Toby Keith’s poisonously oblivious “American Soldier.”

July 3, 2010 Posted by | hymns, nationalism, peace, theology, worship | 2 Comments

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?

July 2, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, ecumenism, ethics, moral discernment, nationalism, peace, theology | 10 Comments