Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The 4 Sins of Patriotism & Nationalism

If you keep up with me on here, on facebook, or in real life, you might have noticed that I don't exactly scream red, white, and blue. I'm a rather unpatriotic, non-nationalistic person, and to some that is offensive, especially to some Christians. Christianity in the United States has been deeply connected to American pride and ideals for quite some time, and so I understand the alarming nature of seeing a Christian "not be patriotic" nor "proud to be an American." At one point in my life, this kind of thing alarmed me too, and I could not understand why some didn't rep the bald eagle and appreciate The American Dream like I did. So, I sympathize a good deal and furthermore would like to offer an explanation for why I believe what I believe in hopes to open up a dialogue on the topic. 

Brief background first. Church and state were far from being connected up until the 4th century when Constantine legalized Christianity. Before this, Christians were fed to lions and martyred, because it was illegal. Some of the most genuine faith heroes we know about, and even ones we never will, came out of this time period because they chose to follow Christ in the face of such adversity. Once Constantine came along, all of this changed, as well as the church at large. There are people who say that we cannot begin to understand what the first century church was like because of a prescription lens that we, the church, got from Constantine. 

Go through 1700 years of history and you can see the impact this shift has made. The pope was as powerful as many emperors and battled for supremacy because church and state were hardly separable. In the name of Christ, crusaders sought to reclaim the holy land, acting on behalf of the state and slaughtering thousands of people in the name of the church. Come down a few years later and you have American colonists with political freedom in their hearts and religious freedom on their lips throwing off their british oppressors (much like the Zealots wished to do with Rome, but with no backing from Jesus to do so). Such patterns of political oppression (far less than any Christians bore peacefully during the first three centuries of the church) have been equated with God given rights and have put a spark in patriots' hearts for years. 

Now a days, it's common to see "Proud to be an American" t-shirts in church as much as anywhere else in the world. It's not even uncommon for flags to be found in churches as well as for preachers and teachers alike to speak on the price paid for religious freedom. Based on our history as a church, it really is not surprising. Everything makes sense in context, and it is clear to see why the church is so patriotic. 

But should this be the case? Church, I hold that patriotism and nationalism are behaviors that have no business in our churches. And if you'll bear with me, I'll explain. 

1. The Church Is The New Israel

Once upon a time, church and state were essentially the same thing and this was approved by God. The Israelites were God's chosen people. They were His nation. What's interesting is that even Israel was commanded to take in outsiders.

These days, the book of Ephesians lets me know that the Church is the new Israel, and so God's chosen people are no longer associated with a nation. And this chosen people is now inclusive of both Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, American and Iraqi. For Christians then, this would seem to thwart such a strong identity being found in anything but the Body of Christ. 

2. It Labels "Us" And "Them"

Having a strong sense of nationalism unavoidably begins to label people outside the cultural norm as "others" for reasons of skin color, language, and a slew of other markers. When we were attacked on 9/11, I remember someone close to me saying that "we should just nuke the entire Middle East." Hopefully that statement is as shocking and disgusting to you as it would be to Jesus. Unfortunately, I know of several Christians that if pressured might say something very similar. 

Somehow the whole "love your enemies" gig that Jesus commands goes out the window when it comes to national identity. We can't even love Christians on the other side of the border. Soldiers in both the north and south during the Civil War prayed to the same God for success and protection before filling their fellow brothers in Christ with lead. Church goers in Germany followed their "Christian Nation" into battle during WWII and thought very little of it. 

There should not be a prayer offered up in a Christian church for "our troops" because the church does not have troops. As Mark Twain eloquently put it in his lesser known writing War Prayer, one cannot pray for victory on their side without praying for failure and death on the other.

We have more in common with Christians of enemy nations than we do with the soldiers of our own nation who cause those Christians to suffer. Jesus destroyed all concepts of "them" and we should not be so quick to start drawing lines in the sand. 

3. It Divides Our Allegiance

The city of Philippi was a major part of battles waged by the Roman empire during the time leading up to Christ's birth. Because of this, the victors of the battle gave the entire city a huge honor - Roman citizenship. In that day, being a Roman citizen was much like being an American today. It was the most advanced and powerful society in the world. When Paul wrote to the church there, he called them Citizens of Heaven, differentiating this citizenship from the earthly one that they held. 

The language surrounding Jesus was not new language. Lord and Savior were common titles used for Caesar, for he was essentially their deity. When writers of the New Testament call Jesus Lord and Savior...there is a faint echo of "and Caesar is not" that follows close behind. 

This is why Christians were fed to lions. Their allegiance was dedicated solely to Christ and there was nothing left for Caesar. 

The idea that one could have allegiance to any person or institution other than Christ would have been a ridiculous idea to first century Christians, they would have called it idolatry. In today's world we say the pledge of allegiance in Christian assemblies and think nothing of it. 

4. It Loves "The World"

When Jesus replies to Pilate's question of "Are You A King?", He replies with the line "My kingdom is not of this world." I touched on this in my last post pretty heavily, but this line is not a reference to some metaphysical experience. Not Of This World specifically refers to the idea that The Kingdom of God does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. He differentiates His kingdom from the institutions and systems of this world. 

Nationalism and Patriotism do the exact opposite. They applaud and take pride in the institutions of this world that Jesus so clearly wanted to differentiate Himself from. 

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are the shining lights of Christianity they are so often held up to be. There is no "God party" when measured up to the teachings of Jesus. Nor will there ever be. The way of Jesus simply isn't compatible with The World. 


I speak almost exclusively of American Christianity because it is what I live in and know, but the principles apply to any and all nations where Christ's church resides. 

There should be no church with any nation's flag sharing space with emblems of worship. There should never be patriotic hymns sung in church. No communion thought should ever compare the sacrifice of Jesus with acts done in war. 

I understand that some of this doesn't even make sense because the acceptance of Patriotism and Nationalism is foundationally and systemically rooted in American Christianity. It's like having a cataract that renders you to see the world through a blue tint, and never realizing that the world is not blue. It has been engrained within so many of us. 

However, I ask you to question your lens, read scripture, and challenge your value positions accordingly. If you want to discuss any of this, I am more than willing to do that. But I can't sit by and leave the church to wallow in the sins of Babylon without even realizing it. I challenge the church to "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins" (Revelation 18:4)

Works Cited:

Most of this comes from a working knowledge of things I've read and have adapted with my personal stance on issues, namely

Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003. Print. 

Sprinkle, Preston. Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013. Print.