OR, Why I Can’t Seem to be Patriotic, Even on July 4.
It’s no secret that it’s “Independence Day;” you can tell by the number of American flags and patriotic posts on social media sites. Most of my closest friends have posted something patriotic or something about loving their country.
And I love my country, too. By that I mean I love the people of this country (as much as it makes sense to talk about loving an entire group of people even though I don’t know them and probably would have difficulty liking many of them). And I really love the place of this country. North America is where I was born, it’s where I have lived, and, most likely, it is where I will die. It’s a beautiful place.
But, when we talk about “love of our country” we’re generally not speaking of loving the people of a nation or the place of the nation. We are talking about loving the nation itself. And that is my difficulty. What is a “nation?” When we say we love the “U.S.,” what do we mean?
Most of the time, I think, people understand themselves to be saying that they love the benefits of being in the nation they are in. What comes to mind are the constant references to “liberty” and “freedom” that I hear on talk shows, in conversations, on memes, on the radio, etc. But, it is not clear to me that we all have the same idea about what that “freedom” and “liberty” is. What is “being free?” Free from religious persecution? Free from taxation without representation? Free from illegal search and seizure? Free to pursue profit? All these things? Or something else? It all depends on who you ask.
However, based on the rhetoric I hear and read on a near daily basis, American Christians have done a thorough job at confusing their faith in God through his Son Jesus with their patriotism using the language of “religious freedom.” This term is broadly understood as the right to practice religion free from persecution.
The nebulous nature of the term “freedom” is not something to be taken lightly. I am told over and over again that my “freedom” came at a cost—the cost of countless brave soldiers who fought to earn and protect it. I am told that people still fight for my freedom. Yet, it is not clear to me which of my freedoms the current wars are protecting. And it is not clear to me that fighting for freedom from religious persecution (which is what so many people seem to believe the Revolutionary War was about) is something the New Testament allows Christians to consider. In fact, if we read Romans 13 the way most evangelicals do, it seems like the events leading up to the American Revolution were as unchristian as they could be. I mean, wasn’t the Boston Tea Party actually theft, vandalism, and the framing of American Indians for the act?
However, the notion that “soldiers bought our ‘religious freedom’” is a very dangerous and powerful concept. If “religious freedom” is the right to practice faith free from persecution, and if we believe it was given to us by humans, then we are always going to be tempted to worship those humans as our messiahs over the actual Messiah who actually promised that our faith would bring us persecution. And that has caused American Christians to forget who it was who actually bought their freedom and what freedom really is. The reason the American flag ends up on our podiums in our churches is that we believe it isn’t possible to be a Christian without that flag. For that reason, we venerate the flag more than we venerate the cross. And we turn a blind eye to the ways that the nation is at odds with our Lord.
When we say we “love our nation,” are we not, therefore, endorsing that nation’s activities and values? Are we not saying we support the things it has done, as a nation, which would put us in conflict with the person we have called our Lord and King (it is assumed that the reader is a Christian)? The truth is, so much of what passes for patriotism is our willingness to forget the things that the nation has done which are immoral and retell a fictitious story.
At any rate, the 4th of July is when the nation celebrates its independence from Britain. And I find myself feeling very much in the minority because I just can’t bring myself to be patriotic, as much as I love the land and the people who live on it. There are multiple reasons. One is that my belief in God causes me to think that the very notion of “independence” may be the greatest example of wishful thinking the world has yet known (truly a product of the fall).
Another is that my understanding of Jesus’ Kingdom is that Christians are not permitted to love one person over another; they must love even enemies as brothers. Therefore, it seems contradictory, to me, for me to choose a “favorite nation” which I will love and support above all others, even if that nation is the one I was born in. This belief has made me skeptical of the language we use to talk about nation because I see the way we forget the less-pretty parts of its history. My understanding of the way Jesus responded to the Rome of his day makes me look at our nation as the Rome of our day. It’s not exactly the same. But it’s not totally different.
Another is that I’m convinced that pride is never a good thing. My nationality is given to me by virtue of my birth. I was born an American citizen. I will most likely die one. I didn’t do anything to “earn” this (other than pay taxes—which I would do in most any nation). How is it that I can be “proud” to be an American? Isn’t pride considered a deadly sin? How would my pride in my nation be any different than my pride in my race or my hair color? It is an accidental quality and says nothing about who I am as a person. Doesn’t that pride mean I consider “our side” more valuable than people in other nations?
And my citizenship…do I agree with the New Testament that my citizenship is no longer in this world (or a nation in this world), but that my citizenship is in heaven (as we are told in Ephesians)? Have we forgotten that when the writers of the New Testament referred to Jesus’ Kingdom as a “kingdom,” they were attempting to supplant worldly kingdom allegiances? Can’t we remember how subversive all that talk was? Why was it that Rome persecuted Christians? Because they REFUSED to give Rome and Caesar their allegiance. Why, then, are we so unaffected when someone asks us to pledge allegiance to a flag?
Just as Rome claimed to be the bringer of peace and prosperity, so our nation does. Just as Caesar claimed to be the world’s benefactor, so our nation does. Just as Rome called its citizens to kill to protect its interests, so does our nation. And just as Rome was guilty of horrible atrocities, so is America.
That’s why, in the same way that pagans may still love to get presents on Christmas, I can’t seem to see “Independence Day” as anything more than an opportunity to take time off work, cook out, and blow stuff up.
Do I think that is entirely fair? I’m torn. On the one hand, I see the argument. In fact, there was a time when the argument was ALL I could see. That symbol had been associated with the right to buy and own human beings as slaves. It had been associated with the belief that some people, based on the color of their skin, were not fully human. It had been associated with all kinds of horrible evils associated with slavery and with the latent racism and persecution that followed the Civil War.
So, for a time, I agreed completely. In fact, I used to think that flying the Confederate Flag was akin to displaying a swastika.
On the other hand, I also saw that it represented a culture that was MORE than slavery. It represented the South and its heritage. There was much about the South that was noble and beautiful. It now seems sad to me to try to erase its symbols from history because of that single atrocity, no matter how great it was. It’s like saying, “By virtue of the evils done under this flag, the people who used it no longer exist.”
What turned my thinking on that (so that I saw the “other hand” of the argument) was the realization I had one day that the “Confederate Flag” wasn’t the only American symbol associated with slavery or other atrocities. In fact, it was the American Flag itself that flew overhead when slaves first started being kidnapped, shipped across an ocean, and sold in marketplaces in the U.S. The American flag, itself, has been associated with many evils. To name a few:
The American flag is associated with religious persecution. Though it is often stated that the people who came to this land came here for religious freedom, ironically what tended to happen in the colonies was the establishing of “state religions” and the persecution of anyone who was not of that state religion.
The American flag is associated with religious pluralism. No, America is NOT a Christian nation, nor was it ever intended to be.
The American flag is associated with the notion of “manifest destiny,” or the doctrine that God had given the white race this land and it was up to that race to take it through any and all means necessary. This meant the slaughtering of entire people-groups, forced relocations, the “Trail of Tears,” repeated massacres and violence against the native people of this country, shady acquisitions of land that had previously belonged to other places (such as Mexico)—all for the pursuit of exploitable resources…wealth.
The American flag is associated with the continued persecution and hatred over race that endured long after American slaves were “freed.” Murder, rape, terrorism, poverty—all of these were ignored for decades.
The American flag is associated with war after war which should, on some level, cause all American Christians to grieve.
The American flag is associated with the mass-murders that happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The American flag is associated greed and over-consumption of resources.
The American flag is associated with abortion.
The list could go on, but you get the point.
That’s why I have such a hard time, when Christians post pictures of the American flag and speak of being “proud” or of celebrating “independence.” I just see it very differently.
How is it that a Christian can love a country? I do love my country. I love its people, despite the fact that they are sinful like every other people in every other country. I love this place, despite the fact that it is only one place that God has created with its own beauty and gifts. I love my freedom, despite the fact that I do not believe it can be given to me or taken away by humans—freedom is only given by God and can only be taken by him. They may put me in a cage, but I am still free in my mind to worship God. No one can take that from me. And if they kill me, God has promised to give me back my body in the resurrection.
Only he can take or give freedom.
So, how is it that a Christian can love a country? There are many things I love about America. I love its heritage. I love Americana. I love its farms, its rivers, its covered bridges. I love its plains and its mountains. I love its deserts and its oceans and lakes. I love its games and its schools. I love its diversity of people and places. I love its creativity and its hardiness. I love its regions and its languages (yes, there are many).
But I cannot speak about America with pride. For that would be to love it more than God would have me to love it. I am not permitted to love America more than Russia, England, or Uzbekistan. I am not permitted to value its people above anyone else. And I am not permitted to venerate my freedom or those who claim to give it to me. For that would be to honor Caesar above my Lord. And I cannot. And I am not permitted to tell its story in a way that forgets the ugly parts of what it has done, for that would be a lie. And I cannot venerate the flag. For that would be to associate it with the cross. These two are mutually exclusive.
From a Christian perspective, to love a country means to see it with the eyes that Jesus does. When he sees America, I do not think he sees a place of “freedom” that he can endorse. I think he sees a sinful people worth dying for. He sees a people whom he wants to unite with others from every other nation into a single kingdom without national boundaries. But he sees all the people in all nations that way. He loves them all. So must I.
To love a nation means to love a nation as any other nation, the same way you are not permitted to love a child over another child but must love all your children the same amount.
To love a child means that you cannot worship that child. For to worship that child would be to tell the child a lie about herself. To love a child means you must tell the truth about that child and must call that child out on her mistakes. To love that child means to attempt to show that child the right way to live and to be. It means to introduce her to the real Lord.
To love a country means that you cannot worship that country. For to worship that country would be to tell that country a lie about itself. To love a country means you must tell the truth about that country and must call that country out on its mistakes. To love that country means to attempt to show that country the right way to live and be. It means to introduce it to the real Lord.
To love a person means you must be willing to die for that person. You must be willing to sacrifice your pride and your life to be truthful and honest. Do we love our country enough to speak the gospel to it—the gospel that says that our nation is our nation and not our God? Do we love our country enough to admit that it is not our savior?