Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Dangers of Patriotic Christianity

So there's been an interesting discussion at Crooked Timber about a recent poll:

"Rightwing bloggers are making a big fuss about a poll in which 47 per cent of US Muslims stated that they thought of themselves first as Muslim, and only 28 per cent as Americans first (18 per cent volunteered “Both” and 7 per cent Don’t Know). By contrast, for self-described US Christians, the results were 48 per cent for American first, and only 42 per cent for Christian first, with 7 per cent saying “Both” and 3 per cent Don’t Know."

So here's the question: is it wrong for Christians to be patriotic? By patriotism I mean "love of country" or "devotion to country." Love and devotion in themselves are not wrong, but they can be if they are misdirected. I firmly believe that patriotism, in it's usual sense, is wrong for Christians. There are several reasons for this, the first being that we should serve no one and no thing before God. If our love of country trumps our love of God, then we are completely missing the mark in our relationship with Him. He (rightly) demands that we place our identity and all of our loyalties in Him and Him alone. 'No other God before me' wasn't a joke. If our country is our god, then we are in trouble.

Now the poll above could be interpreted in many different ways. Maybe Christians just think of themselves as American before Christian but they still place God before America. Well that's problematic in itself. If the first way you describe yourself is by your national identity then you've completely missed the point. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ we aren't supposed to see ourselves in worldly terms anymore, for we are all sons and daughters of the Lord. So why do the sheep continually discriminate amongst themselves?? How you think of yourself is reflective of how you live. So if you are an American first, then you occupy yourself with Americaness first, and only second do you bother with Godliness. You may think that your loyalties are first to God, but the actions of American Christians suggest otherwise. From what I can see, it looks like the poll was right on the mark.

Let's just say that you really do put God above country, but you still love your country. Is that bad? Well, it depends what you mean by love here. I love America in the sense that I feel very blessed to be able to live here and freely practice my love of God. I also love America because my living here is equipping me with the skills and resources to do more in the spiritual kingdom. My education and my resources are a wonderful gift, but they don't do anyone any good if I don't put them to good use. Luke 12:48 says, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” So while I love the gifts that I've received in virtue of living here, I must realize that they by no means my own. I am obligated to use them to benefit everyone, and everyone is not limited to my American neighbors. So while I may love this country, I don't love it in the sense that I'm proud to be American instead of Canadian, French or Japanese. My love is merely an appreciation of the opportunities afforded to me by growing up here. The real problem with love of country is that, while innocent enough on its own, it is often accompanied by neglect of other countries. God did not call us to love and serve America alone. We are here to make an impact on the world. We are called to bring justice, peace, love, and kindness to all peoples. If we love our own country too much, we will forget that God has commanded us to expand our horizon of service. Love of country should not mean complacency and ignorance in regards to the plight of the world.

Unfortunately, love of one’s country too often means love of one's country above other countries, which is especially bad. The ancient Israelites had this very problem, and look at how they treated the Samaritans. Christ came for all of that to change. Regrettably, remnants of that order are still alive and well, as evidenced by the poll (and more so by the rightwing response to it). The Muslims answered in the way Christians ought to answer (if by Muslim they meant the beliefs Islam holds and not just the cultural/tradition aspect...same here for answering Christian first, but that's a whole post in itself). Why the rightwingers are in a huff, I’m not sure. But then again, the Pharisees never did get it.

I think this excerpt from Prof B's comment hits the nail on the head (which makes me think he understands Christ's message better than a lot of American Christians):

"Christianity is a universalistic religion, with a God who loves all impartially. That’s in the new testament and nothing contradicts it. Putting country before God surely makes a mockery of one’s attitude to God. It is like putting one’s country before one’s spouse or one’s children. Who does that simply fails to love their spouse or kids in a morally right way. Now, putting justice, or good, before one’s spouse and kids, that’s a different matter. Perhaps, but one that doesn’t arise with respect to God (given what Christians believe about God)."

CS Lewis also had some interesting thoughts on this which appear in the Screwtape Letters. Here is an excerpt from what an elder demon told his nephew (who was in charge with leading a man away from God):

"Let him begin by treating Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of the partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion merely becomes part of the 'Cause'...Once you have made the World an end, and Faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing."

And if you're a Christian but you're still not convinced, take a look at these Biblical passages. This is a running list (by no means exhaustive) of just a few of the verses that warn us against putting faith in nations/worldly powers:

Psalm 33:16-18 : "No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those who hope in his unfailing love."

Matthew 8:20 : "Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" (In other words, Jesus didn't make himself at home anywhere, because he needed to go everywhere...)

Luke 10:28-37 : "[a man] asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?' insert Good Samaritan story... Jesus, 'Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?' The expert in the law replied, 'the one who had mercy on him.' Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'"

John 15:19 : "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. "

John 18:36 : "Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.'"

These are just a start. The Bible is full of warnings against trusting in worldly kingdoms. That's because we are called to trust in the one true King who reigns supreme over both the spiritual and physical kingdom. He remains constant while worldly powers rise and fall. He has also made it clear that his followers will come from all over the world, not just one nation. He has sent us to this world to live in this world but not be of this world. You get the idea. So patriotism? Really?

9 comments:

George said...

I'm a Christian, and an American, and I can't disagree with anything you say. It's entirely legitimate, well-reasoned and clearly deeply felt. But as I said at CT, if someone were to stop me on the street and ask whether I thought of myself as an American first or a Christian first, I'd probably say American. I certainly don't put country before God, which, as you say, would quite clearly be un-Christian, but I don't think that's the only possible motivation for answering the question in this way. On one level, it's simply not in the American nature (or at least, not in mine) to categorize ourselves by religion. But on another level, this reflects how I feel about my religion as well. Christianity is a very deep part of who I am, but it is not a source of pride to me. I don't think of my religion as marking me off categorically from other people who do not profess the same. I do believe in God, I do believe that Jesus is God and died to redeem our sins, but I also believe that we as humans are not capable of understanding the whole truth of either God or Jesus. He has shown us what He has shown us, but I cannot discount the possibility that He has used other signs to guide other people; as you say, God loves all impartially, but beyond that, the ways of God are a mystery to me.

The ways of men, on the other hand, are often all too plain. And on that score, I do believe that America has, on the whole, proven to be a better way than most to organize and support a large, diverse and dynamic group of human beings. Heaven knows it's not perfect, and on many counts we could stand to learn a thing or two from other nations as well. But in short, I *am* proud to be an American, and I hope I always work to make it, and the world, a better place.

I live in a multiconfessional household (my wife, also American, is by religion a Hindu) so I've had time to dwell on themes like this, and maybe that affects where I'm coming from. But I did want to communicate that patriotism for Christians may be dangerous, but it is possible.

Lindsey said...

George,
I understand your reasoning. I think that perhaps the patriotism that you have isn't quite the type that I'm worried about. So long as you aren't so proud to be American that you forget about the needs of the world, then you're right that it's not dangerous. However, for the majority of patriotic Christians I've encountered (which have been quite a few, and I was one of them until quite recently), patriotism can be quite dangerous. It's easy to believe that God has blessed America because we somehow deserve it, which is far from true. It's also very easy to start thinking that the countries that are struggling somehow deserve to be, which is an equally dangerous thought.

While I do think it's easy to become "proud" of one's religion (esp for Christians), I avoid it at all cost. I have nothing to be proud of, because I haven't earned a thing. I do, however, have every reason to be grateful, and my gratefulness for God's grace is something that I am acutely aware of everyday. So when asked what my identity is, I simply say "a beloved child of God." But you're very right to worry that we can just as easily fall into pride over our own salvation. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

Michael said...

Great post. I found my way here via Crooked Timber and I think I'll stay. :) You've been bookmarked.

Anonymous said...

Birhplace, family, intelligence, socical, educational, and economic opportunities are all gifts, which, whether we view them as from God, a god, or dumb luck, we would only be fooling ourselves to believe we possess by reason of our own merit, skill, or worth. When we forget that the concepts of ethnicity, tribe, and nation are human creations and afford them the same or greater power over our actions and thoughts than the imperative to use these gifts for the glorification of the giver through the betterment of all mankind, we confuse the rightful positions of the creator and the created and idolize a concept that, while not inherently evil on its own, can become a corrupting force on our mission.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today."

Thank you for making your constructive and encouraging voice heard. This message is one that desperately needs to be heard in America today and especially in many of our churches, where self-righteousness and contempt for humanity have taken hold and immunized many to the truth of the gospel.

EliRabett said...

Let me turn an old saw on its head:

Me for my brother, me and my brother for my cousins and me my brother and my cousins for my country. It is natural to help those closest to you first, to want to help your neighbors before helping those across the world. To do otherwise is to diffuse into ineffectuality.

Lindsey said...

Anon,
Your comment helped drive home an important point that I should have made more clear. One of the reasons I shouldn't boast in my country is that I did not choose to be born here. I am American in virtue of my parents' decision to have me and raise me in this country. It's a matter of circumstance, nothing I've earned. I might as well be proud of the color of my eyes. My being American is just as much a gift as my being alive at all...

Elirabett,
You bring up an excellent point. Of course we have an important duty to our immediate neighbors, and I hope my post didn't seem like we should neglect our fellow Americans who need help. Just so long as we don't forget about everyone else, which happens all too often.

Anonymous said...

Being patriotic merely upholds the christian values that this country was founded on. If we don't patriotically defend ourselves then the muslim will kill us and we'll have no need for a religion. We'll be dead. The God given common sense that is needed to understand this concept is paradoxically elusive to the overthinking aqnd under-spiritual liberal. God help us.

Lindsey said...

Anon, I sincerely hope that you're joking, or being sarcastic, or something. Need I remind you that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor[h] and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? e perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt 5: 42-48). If we respond in love, we build bridges, and the greatest witness you can have to a non-believer is to love them. Does hatred, war, and prejudice make them what to be like Christ if that's what they see in Christians? I sincerely doubt it.

And, by the way, I believe that if another country aggressively attacks us, we have the right to defend ourselves. If not, then we ought to be very cautious about our international bullying.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Christion and I am definately Patriotic for America. I believe America was founded on Christion principles and thats why we have to be patriotic. America is free and has been example of the rights and freedoms that God purposed for us as human beings. We are looseing alot thats what comes from the politically correctness that forgets what America really stands for.