Patriotism Revisited

I’m probably the worst person to ask about patriotism. With a Jamaican-American husband, a teenaged daughter who recently delivered a rhetorical speech on the evils of nationalism, a bagpipe-blowing son who is deeply disappointed over being too young to vote in Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum, and a youngest who still defines her national boundaries by the walls of whatever building we currently call home, I am pretty mixed up. For years I have felt a growing schizophrenia in myself over the question of loyalty to a particular country.

On one hand, I come from a military family and grew up in a military community, populated by men and women who have devoted their lives to serving their country with sacrifice and excellence. Love for them inspires me to love my country.

My neighbor is the person next to me. My obligation is to the nation with which I am connected, whether by birth or by residence or by media awareness.

On the other hand, I have spent most of my adult life abroad, living among and serving people of other nations. I have come to identify with their concerns and causes so fully that I often forget that I belong to somewhere else. Love for them compels me to love their countries.

But when there is a conflict of interest, whose side do I take? What does patriotism look like for a Christian?

Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
2 Kings 5:2-3

I am not alone in this dilemma. The Scriptures abound with examples of dual allegiances and competing loyalties. Often those who found themselves in these tricky positions were there apart from their own choice. For the Jewish slave girl who served Naaman the Syrian, the fact that her master had invaded her nation, killed many of her people, and carried her off as a captive did not stop her from legitimately caring about his needs. In fact, her compassionate attempt to help him find a cure for his leprosy almost resulted in another war between his nation and hers!

Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground.
“You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”
Genesis 47:23, 25

Joseph, another slave expatriated against his will, served his Egyptian masters so well that he effectively consolidated their political and economic position as a superpower. It would have been one thing to faithfully but passively do what Pharaoh asked of him. But Joseph carried out his duty with such excellence that soon he had all of Egypt and its neighboring nations, including his own, literally eating out of Pharaoh’s hand.

Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.
Daniel 6:3-4

Perhaps the clearest example comes in Daniel, noble patriot to his own country but dedicated servant to another. Carried off as a prisoner of war to Babylon, he never left behind his loyalty to his God or his people, but nor did that hinder his faithfulness in serving his conquering kings. Administering justice. Managing the economy. Interpreting dreams. Giving wise political advice. Daniel’s faithfulness to God compelled him to work hard for the cause of the country in which he had been planted, despite its status as his own country’s mortal enemy. And in time he, like Joseph and like Esther, was able to use his insider status to help his own people at a critical moment in their history, in a pivotal “such a time as this.”

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men…
Matthew 22:21, 39-40; Ephesians 6:5, 7

As I look at the life examples of these godly people, I see how they were each marked by the love that Jesus calls us all to exhibit towards our neighbors. I imagine Jesus’ instruction to pay taxes to Caesar rattled the patriotic pride of His fellow Jews. Assist the foreign oppressor in his rule of their nation? And yet that is precisely what He was telling them to do, twined with the perspective that everything done in love for others is ultimately done in service to God.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. … But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. … “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Luke 10:29-30, 33, 36

And this leads me right back to my question about patriotism. To whom do I belong? To whom am I obligated to love and serve, sacrifice and submit? I suppose the answer lies in Jesus response to the expert Jewish lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Interestingly, Jesus laid His finger right on the man’s patriotic bias by telling a story with a Samaritan hero. An unwelcome immigrant held up as a model of civic duty? But Jesus‘ point remains the same.

My neighbor is the person next to me. My obligation is to the individual whose needs I am aware of, the community whose dynamics I play a part in, the nation with which I am connected, whether by birth or by residence or by media awareness.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 2:19; 4:16

This Fourth of July I will celebrate the land where I was born, the country that so many of my loved ones have sacrificially served. But my love for the people of America does not eclipse my love for the people of the nations in the rest of the world. I am American, with all the pride and shame that comes with the history of my nation. But first and foremost, I am a member of the body of Christ, part of the holy nation that spans every political border and ethnic divide. To that I wholeheartedly pledge my allegiance.

6 thoughts on “Patriotism Revisited”

  1. Beautifully written, Tiffany. Beautiful thoughts as we enter a day of celebration. The true meaning of patriotism.

    1. Thank you, Bonnie. It’s a difficult tension to hold at times, love for our global neighbors and love for our country. I pray God will give us His heart and guide us in doing what is best for all.

  2. Amen. Love how you brought out the tension between where you live and where you’re from. It made me think of the reality that all believers have this tension in our dual citizenship–citizens of heaven (Phil.3:19-20) and whatever country we happen to live in. We are all ambassadors of our Father’s kingdom. Blessings.

    1. Thank you, Mel. I find it challenging to hold on to both ends of that tension – committed involvement in the kingdoms of this world and devoted loyalty to the kingdom of God. It would be easier to choose one or the other. I pray God’s Spirit will guide each of us in living out our dual citizenship in ways that honor Him.

  3. I can identify some now that my heart is split between two countries and my children are probably more in home in the land of South Africa rather than the US. My identification with citizenship is also from Phil. 3:20 as Mel also said as I encounter more and more subcultures in the American Northwest and South Africa.

    1. It is unsettling the way we view our former home-cultures through new eyes after living outside of them for so long. In some ways I feel more able to see things how they really are, and in other ways I feel like I no longer have an insider perspective. Thankfully, like you, it has gained for me a much deeper rootedness in my identity as a citizen of the kingdom of God. May He continue to live and work through you wherever you reside, Josh.

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