I remember how strange it sounded to me when I heard some overseas missionaries tell that one of the lessons they taught to children in the Philippines was to be patriotic. Where in the Bible is that? I wondered. What business do we have teaching kids to be patriotic? Does God really want Christian kids to be good flag-waving Germans, zealots for Mother Russia, and defenders of China and Iran? Or flag-waving Americans, either?
Obey the laws of the land? I can see that. Patriotism? I’m not so sure.
The Bible offers us a multiplicity of perspectives on patriotism. Peter and Paul both urge their readers to honor an emperor Nero that would make any modern president look like a Boy Scout, even though that emperor ended up executing both of them. Yet the New Testament drew the line on patriotism at burning a pinch of incense to Caesar. The State must never usurp the place of God. (Of course, partisans on both sides of the political spectrum have come up with creative ways of claiming that their government must be disobeyed because it has usurped the place of God.)
The Hebrew Bible has a number of characters who were traitors to the other side, but heroes to Israel because they switched sides to help the people of YHWH: Rahab, Jael (Judges 4:17–22), the guy from Luz (Judges 1:23–26), the city-state of Gibeon and its neighbors (Joshua 9). It also at times endorses violent overthrow of the ruling power, including Ehud’s assassination of King Eglon of Moab (Judges 3:15–25), and Jehu’s assassination of the kings of both Israel and Judah at God’s command through the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 9:1–28).
Jeremiah was taken to be a traitor by his people when he urged them to surrender to and obey the Babylonians (Jeremiah 38:1–4). Jeremiah cared about his people too much to let his nation commit suicide. Obviously, patriotism has its limits from a Biblical perspective. The Bible does not endorse the mentality “my country, right or wrong.”
However, I am troubled by what I perceive to be the hate-America crowd. Yes, I am painfully aware that America has a long list of sins (past and present) that I have no interest in defending. My prayer is from “America the Beautiful”: “God shed his grace on thee.” (We need mercy that we do not deserve, although we can’t all agree on which sins we need mercy for!) “God mend thine every flaw. May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.” We as a nation have plenty to rightly criticize.
But imagine someone who says, “I love my wife, but she’s ugly, she’s a whore, she’s a lazy slob, and she’s a pain to get along with.” Some people “love” an America that does not exist; their “love” is virtually indistinguishable from hate. Other people, to borrow an image from Mary Daly, love America the way that a cannibal loves his/her lunch.
Connected to the issue of patriotism is the question of how do we define a “traitor”. Was Vidkun Quisling a traitor, or did he simply have a different vision for Norway than his fellow Norwegians? And how do we apply that to today? What’s the difference between having a different vision for our nation, and handing our nation over to those who wish to destroy it?
Part of me does not want to see China become the #1 economic power in the world. But part of me does want to see China in that position. Why? Because then the rest of the world will begin to bash China, for the same reasons they have bashed America. If you think that America has a guilty conscience (and it does), wait till you see the world dominated by a power that has no conscience.
I feel grateful for the freedom and opportunity that America offers its people. I don’t want to flush it down the drain. I don’t want to throw away what hundreds of thousands of soldiers have given their lives to defend. But I do realize that ultimately, all that really matters is how useful America is to God in fulfilling God’s objectives for the world.
God wants to see us Americans share our blessings with the needy, defend justice, and spread the Gospel. Yes, only Christians can spread the Christian Gospel, but peace, freedom, and resources help make that possible. Yes, God’s Spirit can overcome the lack of these blessings, but do we really want to create more obstacles to the Gospel?
God does not expect us to love our country, right or wrong. But I believe that God does expect us to care about our country enough to pray and work for our country to be protected from all those who would seek to destroy it. To love our country is no more idolatrous than to love our family, because our country is our family, magnified.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill and as adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill.