Why I’m Not a Patriot

Patriotism — it’s a passionate affair between a nation state and its people. Actually, it’s a one-sided affair, with one party feeling all the passion and the other feeling nothing because it’s an impersonal institution. Nonetheless, passion it is! It’s the kind of passion that can warm the heart and elevate the spirit. It’s the kind of passion that can summon the faithful into a defensive or aggressive posture. It’s the kind of passion that sends people to war for the glory of the nation. Many (presidents, prime ministers, senators and representatives alike) have even discovered that this passion is easy to exploit to direct people’s attention away from political failings and domestic problems and onto a convenient foreign enemy. Maybe Bob Dylan said it best: “They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings”.

Once upon a time, I was in love. I loved my nation. I loved the way she moved and strutted. I loved the way she talked, especially when she got angry. I loved the way she dressed up in red, white and blue. But eventually I broke it off. I didn’t make a big thing of it…I just ghosted her until she stopped expecting anything from me.

I did that when I became certain that patriotism was at odds with my Christian faith.

Now that might sound strange in a country where fundamentalist Christianity and American values have intertwined like two hot-blooded lovers, so that it’s hard to tell whose lips and tongues belong to whom. These days, it’s not hard to find Christians who are the most patriotic patriots and most American Americans there are.

This isn’t the space to discuss the American church’s Faustian pact with the American state. Suffice it to say, we find little justification for this lurid and sweaty religiopolitical pretzel in the pages of the earliest Christian texts. The two-volume work we call Luke-Acts provides a heap of examples.

Jesus the Patriot?

Reading Luke-Acts in its historical context, we see that Jesus is surrounded by patriots, all waiting for a militant Messiah to drive their hated Roman overlords from Palestine, purge the land of Gentiles and their corruption and re-establish the fabled Davidic kingdom of Israel. Could Jesus be the man? Many wonder and many hope so.

Yet Jesus continually dismisses their nationalistic dreams and agendas. He dares to tell a synagogue full of patriots in his hometown that God is just as cool with Phoenicians and Syrians as he is with Jews (Lk. 4:14-30). He repeatedly spars with the hyper-patriotic Pharisees over the markers of Jewish identity — the Sabbath, food rules, ritual purity and the minutiae of the Law (cf. Lk. 5:27-39, 6:1-11)1. Surely, they think, he can’t be the Messiah if he refuses to take their patriotic litmus tests for acting like a ‘good Jew’. Even John the Baptist questions Jesus about his actions (Lk. 7:18-23). He’s languishing away in the prison of a Roman puppet and Jesus doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to overthrow them. At the temple, Jesus upends a question on Roman taxes in a decidedly unpatriotic way (Lk. 20:20-26)2. That’s in the context of Luke 19, 20 and 21, where Jesus pronounces judgement on the hot patriotic, nationalistic mess that Israel had become. He warns of impending disaster for Jerusalem and counsels his hearers that, when it comes, they should run; patriotism (i.e. staying to defend the holy city and the homeland) will get you killed (Lk. 21:18-36)3.

There’s no suggestion in Luke that Jesus himself isn’t a robustly Jewish man. He regularly quotes from the Torah. He teaches at synagogues and in the temple. He celebrates Jewish festivals. He both appropriates and embodies Jewish symbols and tropes (cf. Lk. 9:10-17, 13:6-9, 19:28-40, 20:9-18, 22:14-23). Yet he repeatedly repudiates any notions of Jewish exclusivity or exceptionalism, instead preaching and enacting a kingdom of God that far transcends all contemporary patriotic and nationalistic expectations.

It’s really no surprise that Jesus’ own disciples struggle to grasp this. The first question they ask the risen Jesus in Luke’s account is, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus more or less dismisses their question. The rest of the book of Acts concerns itself with how the kingdom of God moves beyond the Jewish world. In fact, this precipitates one of the first crises in the earliest church, as Gentiles begin to believe in The Way. Some of the more patriotic Christians are convinced that these converts need to be circumcised, eat a kosher diet and keep the Law (in other words, to adopt a Jewish identity) in order to enter the kingdom of God. The leaders of the churches, however, discover that God’s kingdom doesn’t belong to Israel alone (cf. Acts 15:1-35). Peter’s words say it best:

I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.

Acts 10:34-35

An Affair to Forget

I’ve pondered passages like these deeply and I’ve taken a long look around. And I’ve noticed that patriotism goes hand in hand with allegiance to the state, its system and its values. I’ve noticed that patriotism treats the success of my nation over against others as paramount in importance. I’ve noticed that patriotism wants me to view my country (and by extension, myself) as better than others. I’ve noticed that patriotic ceremonies — pledges, salutes, anthems, military parades, etc. — equate to religious rituals in all the ways that matter. I’ve noticed that patriotism asks me to make the enemies of the state my enemies, asks me to support its wars against those enemies, asks me to kill those enemies if the state demands it.

These are all things I want no share in. A country is just another kind of kingdom and I see no room for a second kingdom in the kingdom of God. Nor do I see how any country’s aspirations, objectives or values could ever complement or dovetail with those of God’s kingdom. Or to put it in different words, I won’t pledge allegiance to anything but the kingdom of Jesus. I can’t justify worshipping anything else. What’s more, I see no way to decry enemies in the way of the cross, or to endorse war against them when Jesus came to make peace between God and humanity. These are things I simply won’t do.

So the affair is dead. Long dead. Oh, there’s still plenty of love there. I love the country’s natural beauty. I love its art and architecture and literature and music. I love its wildlife. Most importantly, I love the people. And that’s enough.



Feature Image:

Mel Gibson in The Patriot (https://entertainment.time.com/2011/01/26/top-10-historically-misleading-films/)

Notes

  1. It’s common in the church to think of Pharisees as mere legalists, but there was more to them than that. They were popular with the common people in Galilee and Judea.
  2. It’s ironic that Jesus’ answer, “Return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, is often trotted out in defence of a patriotic stance toward the state. The question he was asked (“Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”) was a trap. Answering a solid ‘Yes’ might see him ripped to pieces by many of his very zealous listeners, angry about the Roman occupation. Answering ‘No’, like they would, would mean that the priests could denounce him as seditious before the governor. instead, he rises above both sides by highlighting God’s kingdom in a way that dismisses the petty kingdoms of Rome and Israel.
  3. Evidence suggests that, when the Romans besieged Jerusalem and killed huge numbers of Jewish zealots and freedom fighters, the one group they didn’t kill was the Christians — because they weren’t there, having heeded Jesus’ warnings.

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