Independence Day is a perplexing one for me. On one hand, as a Christian I struggle with the idea of celebrating a violent uprising of any kind (see Kurt Willems, Just Jesus and Unjust July 4th: Why I Don’t Celebrate Independence Day for a well written presentation of the problem). On the other hand, James K.A. Smith said a few things on Twitter (@james_ka_smith) this morning that resonating with me: The pax Romana needed critique, but it was better than the rule of the barbarians, no? He said that this view (which he attributed to Augustine of Hippo) helps shape his view of the United States now. Sure, it is an imperfect empire, but it is likely better than many alternatives. He made the point that we should compare our earthly kingdoms to the heavenly Kingdom of God (for critique and perspective) as well as other models of earthly kingdoms that might be far worse for humanity. When I think of a world where Nazi Germany became the dominate super-power or where the U.S.S.R. emerged triumphant after the Cold War it seems like a darker, more oppressive state-of-being. (Update and clarification: I am not relaying Smith’s thoughts verbatim, or trying to speak for him, merely interacting with them since they “got me thinking.”)
Of course, I am an American shaped by American values and culture, so maybe that has something to do with it (though I doubt many would disagree with the idea that a world where Nazi Germany became the dominate super-power seems bleak).
Some Christians do not pledge allegiance to the United States. I understand their reasoning. I have seen Greg Boyd place the Pledge of Allegiance under Jesus’ prohibition against oaths. I am processing this argument.
The words to the pledge are as follows:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Thus far I have continued to be comfortable with this pledge. When I say it I pledge to do no harm to my fellow citizens. I have no aims to betray this country. There is no ill-will toward my government. Even as I prepare to move to the so-called “Republic of Texas” I would never support the state trying to secede from the union if ever that day came (unlikely). I work to make my country a place where there is “liberty and justice for all,” including citizens and guests who live here.
When I pledge my allegiance I don’t think this demands blind allegiance but rather a nuanced one. If my nation participates in something that I find diametrically opposed to my discipleship toward Jesus Christ I would rather “obey God than humans.” This is one reason that personally I cannot fathom serving in the military as a Christian. It is one thing to give allegiance to my closest neighbors. It is something different to become “government property.” It is one thing to promise to seek the good of my fellow citizens (something not necessarily in conflict with seeking the good of people in other nations, ala Shaine Claiborne in This July 4th, Let’s Celebrate Inter-Dependence Day), but something other to become “owned” by my government. Personally, I can’t reconcile this with my confession of “Jesus as Lord,” though I have heard the reasons others disagree and I understand their points (e.g., one could be a slave to a master while confessing Jesus as their Lord).
I might not be “patriotic,” but that doesn’t mean I dislike my country. Listen, if I were a soul without a body and I was told that I could begin my human life in any nation of the world–though I had no guarantee of socio-economic status, race, parents, etc.–I would chose the United States. I could be wrong, but I think this is one of the places where someone has the best chance to make something of their lives though I do not deny the systematic injustices that are very, very real that prevent people from living good and healthy lives even in this nation. I could see myself living in several countries, but if I were forced to chose one in which to spend the rest of my life it would be this one.
I find that prioritizing my citizenship in the Kingdom of God makes me a better citizen of this present earthly kingdom. As a Christian I try not to lie to others, steal from my neighbor, use violence, and so forth and so on. Sure, I won’t pick up a weapon to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, but I won’t rob my local 7-11 either. I am a good citizen and trust me this is because I am a Christian. I know an atheist can have ethics, but if I were an atheist I would find no good reason for living for anyone but myself. It is good for all who know me that I have submitted my life to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I have been told in Scripture to submit to governing authorities, so I pay my taxes and I try to be a law abiding person. Even more importantly, I pray for my nation and the leadership of my nation. Yes, I pray for other nations as well, but it is for peace, and justice, and the well being of all humans. I don’t imagine that any good American would be offended by that. Origen argued that Christians make the best citizens because of our prayers. I agree.
Also, I find that being a Christian requires that I am critically hopeful that my nation will be one of the better ones. I have seen a quote attributed to Howard Zinn that says, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” I think this can be true. This is why I hate our current wars, and I hate our partisan rhetoric, and I hate that when we discuss matters like immigration and health care it often leads to speech that dehumanizes those among us with the greatest need. As a Christian I don’t believe America is the “salt of the earth” or a “city set on a hill.” Rather, as a Christian I believe the church is those things (or should be) and I am saddened that with the church having such a strong presence in this land with so much power and influence that we are still a nation where Christians complain about a “tax” that may help give others health care when they are some of the wealthiest people in human history. You can dislike “Obamacare,” because you think it isn’t the best plan. But Christians, please, shouldn’t we be the ones seeking to help people not seeking to find a way to add another room to our homes?
Imagine: my little apartment has more comfort that the home of Caesar Augustus did (I’ve seen the ruins, not all that massive). I have running water, electricity, and enough food available that I have to spend an extra thirty dollars each month for a gym membership so that I don’t become too overweight. I have it so good. As a Christian it is part of my task to remind fellow Americans of this reality and to point to our need to help “the least of these.” This is not a socialist idea or the Democratic platform (especially since I do affirm that the unborn should be counted among “the least of these”).
As a Christian I must be skeptical of the comfort offered by the state if we’d support all that the state aims to do. One thing we cannot lose is our prophetic voice. Sometimes I think it may be too late. Too many Christians are comfortable with saying something like, “If you don’t like the way we do it in America, leave!” Really? Are we that committed to the status quo? Are we that comfortable? No, as a Christian it is good to call spade a spade. It is “patriotic” to remind the state when they are forgetting the poor, the widow, or when they have become excessively violent. For example, could we say that Bonhoeffer’s love for the German people was greater than those who compromised with the Nazi state? I say yes.
Those who remain silent do not love their nation. They love their comfort.
I think one place where Christians can realign our priorities is through our corporate, public gatherings for worship. This is why I oppose singing nationalistic songs in church or draping the flag. Our worship together should not convolute our citizenship in the Kingdom of God and our citizenship in the United States. If we do not have a time and a place to be reminded that we have a higher allegiance we will do injustice to our lower allegiance. If I forget that the Kingdom of God is greater than the United States I will lose my ability to think critically about this country and when I do that I lose my ability to make it a better place–not only for my fellow citizens but for people in other nations.
When we gather to worship Jesus the Messiah chosen by God the Father to reign over the world through the Holy Spirit we are reminded that the Triune God reigns and that it is the way of God revealed through Christ that is the best way to be human. When we gather we are reminded that our Christian siblings in China, or Russia, or Palestine share a closer bond to us that those who share our national identity. When I am reminded that the Kingdom of God has citizen in all lands this leads me to be like the prophet Daniel (as commanded by the prophet Jeremiah [29.7]) seeking the “peace of the prosperity of the city” in which I live. If I live with Kingdom values I will be a better citizen of the United States and if the United States has more citizens committed to the Kingdom of God we will work to see that our nation is just and peaceful toward other nations and this will benefit our “siblings” in Christ who are citizens of other lands. This moves us closer to the shalom that we hope to see brought fully to us when Christ returns.
I speak as a Christian who is an American. Obviously, my “theology” on this matter is contextualized. That said, I know most people who read my blog share a similar context and I hope that as Christians we can be reminded that our truest citizenship is “in heaven” (as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3.20). When we live for the Kingdom the United States benefits as does the other nations of this world. The way of Christ is best.