Would you describe yourself as patriotic?
The word “patriot” is a derivative of a Greek word that essentially means “of one’s fathers” (as in “forefathers”). In a more general sense, the Greek word from which we derive the word “patriotic” means “relating closely to those of one’s country.”
Based upon this foundational etymology, I feel very comfortable describing myself as “patriotic.” Even as I type these words, for example, I am cognizant of my profound gratitude for my forefathers and foremothers who sacrificed much—some their very lives—to create a land of liberty and hope. I am even more grateful that, in those seasons of moral blindness and failure, when America accommodated incomprehensible evils such as slavery, slaughter, and civil war, the nobler impulses at the heart of our nation’s identity inspired new and, at times, countercultural patriots to stand against accepted atrocities until others began to recognize the truth of their prophecy.
One of my dearest friends (who happens to be a soldier) has experienced several lengthy deployments in recent years. When I look into his eyes (and the eyes of his family), I am instantaneously reminded of the fact that patriots are alive and well. My friend, and thousands like him, are willingly placing themselves in harm’s way all around the world, laboring sacrificially for the freedom and integrity that America, at its best, dares to champion.
I am free to write these paragraphs on my own personal blog only because of those past patriots who have gone before me and those current patriots who protect me. I feel inseparably connected to their character and am ever grateful for their bravery. In short, their spirit of patriotism inspires me to love my country, its ideals, and its nobler principles.
I hope that what I have just written will help you to understand with greater sensitivity what I’m about to write.
As much as I love my country and as deeply as I respect its flag, I am frequently concerned about the church’s willingness (and perhaps even eagerness) to generate what I perceive to be a dangerous fusion of patriotism and discipleship. In the American church’s zeal to create what might be described as a nationalistic spirituality—a spirituality in which one can carry a cross in one arm and an American flag in the other—we have produced a “theology of the state” in which discipleship to Jesus Christ is inappropriately measured by the degree to which it produces good Americans (good citizens).
I am not suggesting, of course, that good discipleship and good citizenship are mutually exclusive. After all, history has proven time and time again that cross-carrying has a way of producing humble and selfless people (which has been crucial in the development of America’s moral center). My concern, however, is that Jesus never called people to a governmentally-defined citizenship. Nor did he establish the church as a bastion of nationalism. Rather, Jesus called (and calls) us into a new Kingdom—one that doesn’t negate our national identity but transcends it, thereby helping us to live in a transformed relationship with both nation and world.
Put simply, in the Kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the water of baptism is thicker even than the blood of the patriots. In that regard, our covenant relationship with the Christ-follower in Iraq is more defining for us than our connection with the American agnostic who is living right next door.
This Sunday, many churches will not think very deeply about the complexity and the importance of these realities. All across the land, American flags will be an eagerly-accepted portion of Sunday’s liturgical environment, as will be the pledge of allegiance and, in some cases, the national anthem. Am I suggesting that this is somehow unforgivable or unredeemable? Of course not. I do pray, however, that, during its 4th of July services, the Church does not lose sight of the fact that Trinitarian worship always bears witness to the Way of Christ—a Way that cannot be linked to any one nation’s interests nor contained by any one nation’s boundaries.
Back in the early 1990’s, I served a church in North Carolina that was 9 miles north of Fort Bragg. The congregation there was replete with current and former soldiers. The spirit of patriotism in that place was understandably strong, as was evidenced by the large American flag that was prominently located just inches from the altar.
One day, a faithful member of that church came to see me in the sanctuary. She was the well-educated, fifty-four-year-old wife of a career military man, and she was every bit as patriotic as her husband was. That day in the sanctuary, she was troubled about something.
After some pleasant conversation, she arrived at the heart of the matter. “I want to tell you something,” she said to me, “and I don’t want you to judge me for saying it.”
“O.K.,” I responded. “I promise that I won’t judge you.”
“Well,” she said, “it really troubles me to have THAT in our sanctuary.” She pointed to the altar space.
“Do you mean the altar,” I asked.
“No,” she said, “not the altar. The flag. I want you to know that, every Sunday, it bothers me to have the American flag so close to our altar.”
I had never encountered this sentiment before. I was momentarily dumbfounded and speechless.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I love my country and its flag. I really do. My husband has spent his entire life in the military because he loves this country so deeply and I’m proud of him for doing that. In fact, I can’t sing a single verse of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ without weeping.”
“O.K.,” I said, “so what’s the problem with the flag?”
“Well,” she said, “my husband and I have lived all over the world because of his military service. That means that I have friends all over the world. My two very best friends are from Germany and Italy. They come to visit me every year.”
I still wasn’t getting the point.
“When they come to visit me,” she continued, “I want them to come to church with me, since both of them are faithful Christians.”
All that I could think to do in the moment was to affirm her desire to invite people to church!
“Don’t you get it,” she said to me. “When I bring my German and Italian friends to this church, I want them to see the cross and the pulpit and the Bible and the stained-glass windows. But I don’t want them to see the American flag and the altar right next to one another.”
“Why would that be such a problem,” I asked.
“Because,” she said, “by putting them right next to one another, we change the meaning of both the cross and the flag. The flag can help us to remember our national identity, which is really important to me. But the cross is bigger than that. The cross is about salvation. It’s about eternal life. It’s about the whole world.”
She paused to reflect upon what she had just said.
“I guess it’s like this,” she continued. “When my foreign Christian friends walk into my church’s sanctuary, I don’t want them to feel like foreigners any more. I want them to feel like they’ve come to a home away from home. I want them to know that they are part of us.”
That conversation, which made its way into the journal that I kept at the time, initiated a struggle within me that continues even to this day. It is a struggle to discern the nature of patriotism, the nature of discipleship, the difference between the two, and the dangers of synthesizing them too quickly. I don’t want it to be a struggle that alienates those of you who might disagree with me on this issue. But I do want it to be a redemptive struggle—one that compels me to think more clearly about everything from nationalism to liturgical imagery.
At any rate, that conversation from the early 1990’s is part of the reason why my favorite patriotic hymn is “This Is My Song.” It is a hymn that enables me to be patriotic enough to acknowledge that “this is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.”
At the same time, the hymn helps me to guard against nationalistic idolatry by forcing me to remember that “other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”
May God bless America where it warrants a divine blessing. May God bless all the world’s nations in the same fashion. And may God bless the Church around the world as it continues to bear witness to the Kingdom in which our defining citizenship is to be found.