July 2, 2022 - Patriotism

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Last time we saw how Jeremiah’s message about submitting to Babylon raises the issue of patriotism. Does God expect us to love our country? What does it mean to love our country? Does that mean “My country, right or wrong”? Can we love our country but hate what it does? Why should we prioritize the needs of our own country over the needs of others? At what point do we cross the line into disloyalty to our country? Can it be patriotic to surrender to the rule of another country, like Jeremiah did? What does the Bible teach us on the subject of patriotism?


The first time I ever thought about that question was almost 40 years ago when I was listening to a missionary couple who were serving in the Philippines. They told us that they did Vacation Bible School for Filipino children, and one of the lessons they said they taught their children was to be patriotic and love their country. I can remember thinking, “Wait a minute! Where are we commanded to do that? Loving our country is good, but where is that a command from God? Where in the Bible is that?” I wondered. What business do we have teaching kids to be patriotic? Does God really want Christian kids to be good flag-waving Germans, zealots for Mother Russia, and defenders of China and Iran? Or flag-waving Americans, either?


The Bible offers us a lot of different perspectives on patriotism. Peter and Paul both urge their readers to honor an emperor Nero that would make any modern president look like a Boy Scout, even though that same emperor ended up executing both of them. Yet the NT drew the line on patriotism at burning a pinch of incense to Caesar. God’s word teaches that the State must never usurp the place of God. (Of course, partisans on both sides of our political spectrum have come up with creative ways of claiming that their government must be disobeyed at points where they claim that it has usurped the place of God.)


The Hebrew Bible has a number of characters who were traitors to their own country, but heroes to Israel because they switched sides to help the people of God. Rahab the harlot betrayed her king and her city (Joshua 2). Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite (in Judges 4:17–22) broke her husband’s treaty with the Canaanites and drove a tent peg through the Canaanite general’s skull. She showed loyalty to the God of Israel, but not to the treaty her husband had with the ruling power in the land at that time. There was the Canaanite from Bethel (Judges 1:23–26) who showed the Hebrew invaders the way into his city; his city gets completely slaughtered, but he escapes with his life. We also have the city-state of Gibeon and its neighbors (Joshua 9), who betrayed their nation and then tricked Israel into a peace treaty with them.


The Bible also at times endorses violent overthrow of the ruling power, including Ehud’s assassination of King Eglon of Moab (Judges 3:15–25), and Jehu’s assassination of the kings of both Israel and Judah at God’s command through the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 9:1–28). Several times God decrees that the king shall be overthrown, but only in the case of Jehu does God issue a command to do so through a prophet.


Jeremiah was taken to be a traitor by his people when he urged them to surrender to and obey the Babylonians (Jeremiah 38:1–4). Jeremiah cared about his people too much to let his nation commit suicide. Obviously, patriotism has its limits from a Biblical perspective. The Bible does not endorse the mentality “my country, right or wrong.”


However, I am troubled by what I perceive to be the hate-America crowd. Yes, I am painfully aware that America has a long list of sins (past and present) that I have no interest in defending. My prayer is from “America the Beautiful”: “God shed his grace on thee.” (We need mercy that we do not deserve, although we can’t all agree on which sins we need mercy for!) The song sings, “America, God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law! America, may God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.” We as a nation have plenty to rightly criticize.


But imagine someone who says, “I love my wife, but she’s ugly, she’s a whore, she’s a lazy slob, and she’s a pain to get along with.” What kind of love is that? Some people “love” an America that does not exist; their “love” looks just like hate to me. Other people, to borrow an image from Mary Daly, love America the way that a cannibal loves his/her lunch.


Connected to the issue of patriotism is the question of how do we define a “traitor.” Was Norwegian Nazi Vidkun Quisling a traitor, or did he simply have a different vision for Norway than his fellow Norwegians? And how do we apply that to today? What’s the difference between having a different vision for our nation, and handing our nation over to those who wish to destroy it? Do our intelligence agents have the right (or duty) to sabotage the administration they work for if they happen to disagree with it, in the name of patriotism? I don’t think so.


Part of me does not want to see China become the top economic power in the world. But part of me does want to see China in that position. Why? Because then the rest of the world might begin to bash China, the same way they have bashed America. If you think that America has a guilty conscience because of past injustice (and to some extent it does), wait till you see the world dominated by a power that has no conscience.


The flag is a subject on which I am neutral. One way to approach the issue of having a flag in our church sanctuary is to make it a reminder of the powers God has set up to whom we are to submit for the public good. The presence of a flag in the sanctuary is not a competing object of worship to me. To me, the flag’s presence could even be seen as a symbol of the state’s need to submit to God, as President Eisenhower recognized when he proposed to add the words “under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance. Look out for the nation that does not submit to God!


As for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, I am glad to participate in them, but I much prefer to do so outside of worship. But outside of worship, in public, outright opposition to the flag and/or the pledge sends a hostile message to me. I would be uncomfortable putting a person who rejects the Pledge and the flag in a place to defend our liberty or security.


I feel grateful for the freedom and opportunity that America offers its people. I don’t want to flush it down the drain. I don’t want to throw away, what hundreds of thousands of soldiers have given their lives to defend. But I do realize that ultimately, all that really matters is how useful America is to God in fulfilling God’s objectives for the world.


God wants to see us Americans share our blessings with the needy, defend justice, and spread the Gospel. Yes, only Christians can spread the Christian Gospel, but peace, freedom, and resources help make all that possible. Yes, God’s Spirit can overcome the lack of these blessings, but do we really want to create more obstacles to the Gospel? That’s why Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2 that we should pray for our rulers.


God does not expect us to love our country, right or wrong. But I believe that God does expect us to care about our country enough to pray and work for our country to be protected from all those who would seek to destroy it. To love our country is no more idolatrous than to love our family, because our country is our family, magnified.


Jeremiah 29 gives us some amazing advice about how to be a good citizen, even when living under a hostile regime, advice that totally contradicts the position of the false prophets in Babylon who predicted that the exiles would not be there for long. God commands the exiles to make their home in Babylon: “Seek the welfare (or well-being or shalom) of the city where I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” Wow! Seek the shalom of the Babylonian regime who ripped you out of your homeland, and pray for their welfare and not for their downfall. Don’t join the revolution against Babylon going on at that time. Only as Babylon thrives will you thrive.


God had commanded Jeremiah not to pray for his own people. But now God commands them to pray for Babylon! Prayer for the welfare of a foreign nation is a radical idea in the OT. But by the time of Jesus, one famous rabbi teaches that Jews should “pray for the peace/welfare of the ruling power”; he said this at a time when the ruling power was Rome (he may have had Jeremiah’s words in mind when he said this). Could we say the same if today’s Iranians or Chinese had hauled us away into exile? To command the exiles from Judah to pray for Babylon is definitely love of enemies in action.


What about the idea of “America First”? Is that unbiblical? Is it wrong for us to want to prioritize the needs of our own nation above those of other nations? No, not any more than it is wrong to seek the best for your own family. When it comes to public issues like trade, energy, or immigration, we can choose to be charitable in cases of legitimate need; we can put the needs of other nations above ours at times. I believe it’s wrong for us to enrich ourselves by impoverishing others. But I question whether we should put the needs of other nations first as long as we have people with the same needs in our own nation. I would hope that when we do what’s good for our own country, everyone can benefit. Much of the world looks to us as their last hope, and it would be sad if we threw their last hope away.


Back in Biblical times, the closest resemblance to Constitutional America was the old Roman Republic. I never used to understand why Brutus and his buddies stabbed Julius Caesar. Today, I understand. They saw that Julius’ rule was the death of freedom, and they tried to stop it, but they were quickly crushed by the mindless masses for resisting this new development.


Now I can understand Brutus’ sad last words: “O wretched Virtue! Is that the way it is? While you were just a name, I served you as something real!” (Dio Cassius, Roman History 47) Brutus became a victim of the new world order whose philosophy was: Forget the freedom thing. The empire is the way to get things done.


Notice that Jesus does not command the overthrow of the empire. Jesus does not waste one minute of his time on seeking political freedom. Nor do the apostles. They’ve got Good News that far outshines the evils of tyranny and economic exploitation. And that Good News is far from a fairy tale concocted to placate the masses. Only Jesus can set people truly free.


Keep in mind that the earliest Christians did not live in a world that positively reinforced Christian ethics. Far from it! Both the culture and the leaders of the Roman world would make even our slimiest government leaders today look virtuous by comparison. Rome’s leaders were out of control and were accountable to no one, far worse than anything we have seen in our nation.


To be sure, Paul declares in Romans 13:3-4 that government’s job is to reward good and punish evil. When a government rewards instead of punishing evil (as we see happening today), when government punishes instead of rewarding good, and when it ceases to protect the safety of its citizens, that government is no longer doing the #1 job for which God created it.


Yet Paul lived under a regime where lies, injustice, and outright violence by the state against its people reigned supreme and uncontested. What was Paul thinking when he tells the Roman believers to “be subject to the governing authorities”? How well does Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek work, when we see so many people who riot and always seem to get what they want? We have to remember to put Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” together with Jesus’ guarantee that no good deed will go unpunished (from an earthbound perspective).


Back in ancient Rome, Brutus lamented the death of a free republic, and the death of his belief that virtue rewards those who seek her. We all need to let go of that belief, in order to be truly free to serve our risen Lord without ulterior motives. We need to be willing to follow Jesus, knowing full well that we may never see the reward of doing so in this life.


Satan charged that Job served God because God shielded him from all harm (Job 1:9-11). No doubt Satan has had a similar conversation with God about the sincerity of today’s church. Will the American church continue to follow Jesus when the moral props of a free Christianized republic are knocked out from under us? Will we continue to follow Jesus in a nation where hatred and lies appear to reign supreme and seem to be accountable to no one? (We can debate about whose lies and hatred currently reign supreme, but the point is still valid either way.)


Politics is all about our beliefs on what is good for our country. There’s where we have profound disagreements. More than 160 years ago, it led to a bloody civil war, which could easily happen again. 90 years ago, Germans were deeply divided about what was good for their country, and the results were disastrous. But sometimes it is just too hard to see our political disputes from God’s perspective, because our vision is too clouded by our own point of view.


Think: which political party should we have sided with in Judah in the late 600’s BC? Back then, the issue was whether to side with Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. We look at it today and ask, “How much would it matter which nation we supported, from an eternal perspective?”


Or which candidate for Caesar should we have been rooting for in 68 AD when Nero died, and 3 different men all claimed the throne? And why should we have supported Vespasian, the fourth guy who finally won the struggle? When one of those 3 men (named Galba) was murdered, someone complained to a philosopher that because Galba had been murdered, they could no longer believe that the world was ruled by divine Providence. But the philosopher said, “Since when did I ever base my belief that the world is ruled by divine Providence on Galba?”


It doesn’t matter which political party is in power. God is in control, even if everything looks upside down. So we must not equate what’s happening to our country with what’s happening to God’s kingdom. Christians in Rome mourned for their country when Rome crashed and burned in the 400’s AD, but St. Augustine realized that God was working God’s agenda, no matter what happened to Rome. I represent Christ, not my political convictions. Pointing people to Christ is more important than any political issue I may care about or campaign about.


What happens to our country ultimately doesn’t matter. God’s kingdom is what really matters. The best we can do is seek what’s best for our country, the way we would seek what’s best for our family, to the extent that God shows us what’s best, and then leave it in God’s hands.


How does that translate into the options on today’s ballot when we go to the polls? People back in Biblical days didn’t get to pick or elect their kings or emperors. The fact that we can do so is a tremendous blessing, but it also gives us the responsibility to choose faithfully.


So how do we choose leaders who will be good for our country? Do gaps in character make a candidate unable to lead in the direction God wants? Does sterling morality necessarily translate into the ability to achieve results where needed? Who will do the most to help the poor with more than virtue signaling? Who is more likely to add to, or resolve, the moral confusion of our times? Who can best fulfill the purpose laid down for secular government in Romans 13: to be a terror not to good conduct, but to bad conduct?


It does not matter how we view our elected leaders. Even dictatorship is no excuse. For Christians, it does not matter whether Ahab, Josiah, Athaliah, Caligula, or Nero is in the seat of power. We are called, not to cave in to the ruling culture (as some people in both political parties would advise us to do), but to be counter-cultural, to embody and exemplify a better way to live, and ultimately to point people to the risen Jesus.


So how does God want us to pursue patriotism? The short answer is that God wants us to love our country and seek what is best for our country the same way we would do so for our own family, because our country is our family, magnified.


God’s word is our supreme authority. But how reliable is God’s word? Is God’s word without error? We’ll talk about Biblical authority next time on Biblical Words and World!