On this Sunday, one day removed from our national holiday, it occurred to me to meander a bit around the topic of patriotism. Specifically, I want to explore the question, Can one be a disciple of Christ and also a patriot? The immediate tendency is to answer quickly, “yes.” Our American culture teaches us that loving country is right up there with loving God as a desirable trait. But doesn’t it behoove us to consider what we mean by patriotism before we decide what Christian patriotism might look like? In popular culture, the conventional meaning of patriotism seems to be that one supports the troops and the wars we send them to fight, reveres the flag, and subscribes to some vague notion called American exceptionalism – the “we are the greatest” phenomenon. I would say that there are many Christians who, though they support our soldiers wholeheartedly, are not able to sign on to the rest of that definition. So if we are stuck with that definition of patriotism, which we are not, it follows that one might be hard pressed to reconcile one’s faith with patriotism. But this notion of patriotism which I think of as the “my mother drunk or sober” approach is not the patriotism that I believe we are called to either by the gospel or the founding fathers. It is rather more like nationalism run amok.
So what kind of patriotism can a thoughtful disciple of Jesus embrace? Well no less a patriot than Abraham Lincoln gives us a clue. He said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; but whether we are on God’s side.” Jim Wallis, the longtime editor of the magazine Sojourner, posits that there are two ways that religion is brought into public life. The first is the God is on our side approach – this leads sooner or later to triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology, and, too often, bad foreign policy. The second way that we can bring religion into public life is to ask the question “Are we on God’s side?” as Lincoln did. This approach leads to better sorts of outcomes – penitence, reflection, reconciliation, humility, and accountability.
So, maybe we are getting near to seeing what kind of patriotism is compatible with Christianity. It is a patriotism that dares to want our country to live up to its potential in terms of the values that we profess – justice, equality, freedom, and opportunity for all. It is a patriotism that values humility and shuns boasting. It is a patriotism that truly believes that we will be judged by how we care for the least among us. It is a patriotism that abhors violence and works to minimize it. It is a patriotism that honors the earth as God’s creation and is determined to be diligent in the protection of it. It is a patriotism that values all human life equally– whether the human life is a US citizen walking the streets of Newport or an unfortunate Pakistani living under the flight path of our drones.
We, as Christians, are called to build the kingdom, to work compassionately for peace and justice for all. This mandate trumps nationalistic fervor. So it would be inconsistent for us not to want our country to be doing the same thing for the country is us. But, like us, the country will screw up from time to time and work at counter purposes to peace, justice, and opportunity for all. This usually happens because of greed of one sort or another. And that is when our patriotism is most important – not to blindly support policies or actions that are clearly un-Christian, but to vocally oppose them. Yes, Christian patriotism involves the obligation to call out our country when it violates our own values. If we study the life of MLK, Jr., we will learn a lot about Christian patriotism. He wanted our country to be the best it could be. And he was murdered for his patriotism.
The great preacher, Peter Gomes, preaching at Harvard’s Memorial Church in a sermon he entitled “God, Country, and the Duty of Dissent” said the following: “What is and has always been lovely about our country is our right and our duty to criticize those in power, to dissent from their policies if we think them to be wrong, and to hold our alternative vision to be fully as valid as theirs.”
My attempts to describe an alternative sort of patriotism that is compatible with our duty as disciples of Christ are probably flawed. Peter Gomes, were he alive, would be someone who would do far better at this task. But we have, I think, answered that question with which I began – “Can one be a disciple of Christ and a patriot?” The answer, after all, is yes. As long as our faith and the teachings of Jesus shape our patriotism, and not the other way around, there is no reason why one cannot be both a Christian and patriot.