Should Christians Be Patriotic?
Hello, July! And welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast.
Before we jump into today’s episode I have a programing note. Pastor John and I will be taking next week off from the podcast — so no episodes all of next week. We’ve been at it for 182 consecutive weeks, and nearing episode #900, and so many of you listen in every day. Thank you. We will return July 11th with all new episodes.
Well, we are days away from July 4th in the States, Independence Day is what we call it. And the APJ inbox is loaded with political questions for you, Pastor John. Christians in America find ourselves in the middle of a bizarre political season, as you know. There’s an overall heightened partisan angst and divide in both major parties, and with it new levels of nationalism that we’ve not seen in a while. But as Christians, as we approach July 4, we are called to live as strangers, exiles, aliens, sojourners, and pilgrims on this earth. So Pastor John, we’ve talked about this before on the podcast, but talk to us again about the place and the role of patriotism in the Christian life.
We talked about this a couple of years ago and most of what I was thinking then as I reviewed it still needs to be said. But there are a few additional thoughts that I will weave in and put at the end in view of the heightened awareness today of possible conflicts — at least, this is the way I feel it — possible conflicts between patriotism and Christian commitment. So, let me just jump in.
“We are sojourners and pilgrims on the earth not because this world is created, but because it is fallen.”
We are pilgrims. We are exiles, sojourners, refugees ourselves in a very refugee-heightened culture. First Peter 2:11 says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles.” And Philippians 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” So, the question, I think, is being framed rightly. We are citizens of heaven. We are sojourners and pilgrims on the earth, and that is owing to the fact that this world is fallen, not the fact that it is created.
We are going to spend eternity in a created world. So, we are not aliens because earth is a bad thing, but Satan won’t be the god of that world anymore like he is the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). That is what makes us feel so alien here. It is that the god of this world is Satan, and he holds such extensive sway in the systems of this world.
The world is permeated with sin, and it makes us feel like we are not at home. We are aching that we would be done with sin and at home with Jesus in the presence of his holiness (2 Corinthians 5:8). Holiness is the native air a Christian wants to breathe.
When I say we are aliens and exiles and sojourners and pilgrims, I don’t mean that the earth is a place we despise. I mean that the structures we find ourselves in are so permeated with sin that we want something new.
Love for Your Home
However, I think God means for us to be enmeshed in the world in various ways. We are not to go out of the world. We are in the world. We are not supposed to be of the world (John 17:15–19). We are in a city. We are in a state. We are in a county or a country and a continent.
There are all kinds of these geographical and cultural allegiances or identifications that we have. And if I ask, now, what is patriotism in this kind of paradoxical enmeshment, my answer is that patriotism is a special love or affection, endearment for fatherland.
It could be a city. It could be a state, or even a neighborhood. It could be a tribe. It could be an ethnicity. And that love is different from the general love that Christians have for everybody or for the whole world. The reason I think that is true, and there are several reasons, but one is that there are these special affections indicated in the Bible in various ways.
Love for Your Neighbor
For example, in Galatians 6:10 it says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” It is as though there is this specialness about those who are close to you, who have a similar deep bond to you. We have a kind of affection for them that is different from the world.
“Only our heavenly Father, our heavenly patriotism, can order our earthly patriotism.”
Or 1 Timothy 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith.” So, it seems like it is right not only to have this general love for everybody that covers the world, covers our neighbors, covers our enemies, but also and especially for our families or those near to us.
Paul himself said in Romans 9:3 that he had a special burden for “my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” It doesn’t seem to me that he would have written like that if it weren’t appropriate for him to feel some kind of special affection for his fellow Jews, a kind of patriotism for his ethnicity of Jewishness.
So, there is something about this flesh, this close identity, that being bound together in a family way or a cultural way that makes us love them with an unusual kind or a special kind of affection.
I was trying to think through, now, is this legitimate? I mean I am pointing out that it exists, that we have got pointers in the Bible. But it was C.S. Lewis who helped me with some categories in his book The Four Loves.
He said that there is the love of philos, which is friendship, the love of eros, which is sex, and the love of agape, which is the love of God. Then he added there is this love called storge, which I find to be the most interesting one.
Storge is a kind of affection that you feel for a pair of slippers that you have worn way too many years and your wife wants you to throw them out. “No way you are going to throw these slippers out! They fit like a glove.” Or, for Noël it is sweaters that I wear until the elbows are gone because I sit here at my desk, rubbing my elbows all the time — and she wants to toss them out. And I say, “No! I love this sweater.” It has got associations.
This is what he means by storge, a little kid who has a rag doll that is just rags is what it is. They wouldn’t part with it for anything. That is a little kind of patriotism that is probably very, very good, very admissible. At least C.S. Lewis makes a case that it is.
There is an old tree that Noël and I carved our initials in. In fact it is gone now. It made me so mad. For decades, for three and a half decades, we went back to Wheaton and we walked to that tree and we could actually find 30 years later those initials just barely discernible as the bark was gnarling over. Well, we liked that tree. We like that tree more than other trees. And so on.
You get the idea that there is this kind of affection for a tree or a city or a fatherland or a language or a culture, and it is because it fits you. When you leave it, you get on a plane, you go to another country, yeah, there is an excitement and a challenge and a stimulation of going other places, but there is something inside that, when you come home, it just feels wonderful to eat the food and lie in your own bed and be in your own living room and walk your own streets and hear your own language. All that seems to be something that God puts his approval on.
Sweet Land of Liberty
I think, yes, there is such a thing, a good thing, as patriotism. With regard to nations, it seems like Romans 13:1, in calling us to be subject to the powers that wield the sword, implies that in some sense a country identity or a nation state identity has the right to use that sword to defend itself against aggression and, thus, in some sense preserve its right to exist and exist as it exists. And so, I think that implies that there is a proper place for patriotism at the national level.
“We are more closely bound to those in Christ from other cultures than to our closest unbelieving compatriots.”
Maybe we should wrap it up by saying: Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial to feel, I think. Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.
God is our King, not man. His kingdom is our final allegiance, but under that banner it is right to be thankful that God gave us our land freely. I am thinking now particularly of America. He gave this to us freely. I didn’t deserve to be born here. It wasn’t my choice. We don’t deserve this place any more than I deserve any other common grace or special grace. It is right to be thankful that people paid a high price to preserve our land with its freedoms and its cultural distinctives. And it is right to be thankful that we have all these cultural slippers to put on that we don’t want to throw away.
We Are Exiles
But I have to come back in closing to our alien-exile-sojourner status as the main thing. We are citizens of heaven before we are earthly patriots, which means that there are bound to be conflicts between the way Christ our King calls us to live and the ways our beloved homeland expects us to live from time to time.
The other reminder that the culture and ethos of the earthly homeland we love, the other reminder that I have to give is that it is not static. That is, the thing I love about America is that it is not static. It is changing. It is always changing. It always has been changing.
The America today is not the America of the 50s, which means that there is a sense of conflict, not only between our earthly homeland and other cultures, but also between what our earthly homeland was and what it is becoming.
And so, how do you do patriotism when what you regard as your own culture is in a process of transformation? And in both of those kinds of conflicts, the ones from outside, the ones from inside, our stance, I think, should be not primarily as earthly cultural preservers. That is my main job. My main mentality is to produce a preservation of my pure culture. Because I think that produced the horror of Nazi Germany where the Aryan race was the Germanic race and prized so highly and preserved so intensely, it resulted in the slaughter of other people.
So, we have got to be very careful about exalting our racial or ethnic or cultural patriotism or at-homeness, our slippers, to the point where we begin to demonize and actually hurt others.
“There is a sense of conflict between what our earthly homeland is and what it is becoming.”
Our stance should be, we are Christians first, and as challenges come to our culture from within and from without, we bring kingdom values to bear on these challenges, not just earthly preferences. I think C.S. Lewis might say: Agape, the love of God, orders storge. It orders philos. It orders eros.
In other words, these earthly loves of friend and sex and affections for country and for our favorite slippers are ordered and kept in their proper place by a superior allegiance to God. Our love for God is primary. Only the value of our King, God, Jesus can bring a right ordering of the value of our earthly loves. Only our heavenly Father, our heavenly patriotism, can order our earthly patriotism.