Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Brief Reflections on Patriotism and Christian Faith

As I write this, it is already 04 July 2009. It’s Independence Day, the anniversary of the day (04 July 1776) when American colonists declared their independence from the U.K. It’s the birthday of this republic, the United States of America, although our current form of government did not set until 1790.  Throughout this land on Sunday, churches will be filled with pastors giving sermons on freedom or on “God and country,” etc. Most of them will be pretty bad. Some of them will be positively idolatrous–reducing the God of all creation to a tribal deity that somehow cares more for this nation than others–a truly blasphemous idea.

Some preachers will do better. My brother-in-law, Rev. Bill Westmoreland, a Presbyterian minister in Cincinnatti, OH, will be preaching on the differences between freedom in Christ (e.g., Gal. 5) and the individualistic, consumerist versions of “freedom” that most of the nation will celebrate this weekend.

But let’s skip the idolatrous perversions.  What of patriotism itself? Can Christians be patriots?  Some would be highly skeptical of the idea.  The great Pascal said that patriotism as love of country is a great idea but why should my love stop at an artificial border? Good question, Blaise.  Others have noted that patriotism is the last refuge (or excuse) of the scoundrel. (I am reminded of the scene from the hilarious  play and film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas where a TX Sen. was caught at the brothel–and immediately claimed that he had been drugged and kidnapped and taken there against his will by his enemies–all because they KNEW he was the fiercest anti-Communist in the Senate. Yeah, right.) Huge evil has been done in the name of patriotism–by the patriots of many nations.  Can a Christian, who believes that the saints are called out from among all nations, really be a patriot?

I think so if we define “patriotism” differently than “nationalism” or “militarism.”  Love of one’s native land is natural,  like love of one’s family.  It doesn’t have to mean hatred or contempt for others’ nations anymore than quiet pride in one’s family means the hatred of other families.  The Apostle Paul, with dual citizenship,  both bragged on his heritage as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and on his Roman citizenship–though he knew the shortcomings of both.  The Sanhedrin would eventually arrest Paul and turn him over to Rome–where tradition says he was martyred.  So, Paul had to have a critical love of country.  It could not be the kind of blind patriotism which ignores the faults of one’s nation. It had to  point out those faults and seek to correct them.

The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler–which led to his arrest by the Gestapo and eventual execution by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer was partially motivated by his ecumenical commitments to the church universal.  But I would contend that Bonhoeffer was a greater patriot than those “German Christians” who lavished praise on Hitler, flew Swastikas in their sanctuaries,  and supported the Third Reich’s agenda.

I would similarly claim that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–who once called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” to be a better patriot than the “God and country” Jerry Falwell types.  I would say that Rev. William Sloan Coffin, or Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who were leading resisters to the Vietnam War were also patriotic Americans–genuinely so.

A Christian patriotism must be an “eyes wide open” critical patriotism that is always calling for repentence and reform. Because Christians can never forget that no nation, no government, is anywhere close to the standards of the Rule of God. Our first loyalty is to that other “kingdom” (forgive the patriarchal language,  the political meaning comes through better) which is not from this world–but which will overthrow the Powers and Authorities  of this world.  We are loyal first to the “God Revolution,” and second to the global church (the scattered People of God) and third to the whole world, in and out of the church, as God’s beloved creation. Only after that, as a lesser loyalty, can we be lovers of our own nation and government.

Nationalists and jingoists, therefore, will always find Christians to be suspect. We will not appear patriotic enough for them.  Too bad.

On a more secular note, I link to this great forum on patriotism by the online version of The Nation.

July 4, 2009 - Posted by | church-state separation, citizenship, ecumenism, politics, theology

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