It [patriotism] is a pagan virtue, if these two words are compatible. The word pagan, when applied to Rome […] possesses the significance charged with horror which the early Christian controversialists gave it. The Romans really were an atheistic and idolatrous people; not idolatrous with regard to images made of stone or bronze, but idolatrous with regard to themselves. It is this idolatry of self which they have bequeathed to us in the form of patriotism. (Simone Weil)
Brexit, Fourth of July, and terrorist attack after terrorist attack cannot help but raise the question: what can a Christian do about patriotism? Be passionate? Milquetoast? Lukewarm? Indifferent? Hostile?
I’ve often heard it argued that patriotism is natural. People most like, and most often congregate with, those who are like them. This is true. But, is it right?
As a young “libertarian-conservative,” who was slowly but surely converting to Christianity, I felt pulled in two directions: a desire to preserve my own culture with its institutions and customs and the bald-faced truth found in the Bible that Christ loves us all, that He came to tear apart earthly relationships and proclaim a new kingdom.
Let us look at some of these passages:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’” And he said, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:20-27)
Great crowds were traveling with him, and he turned and addressed them, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14: 25-33)For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. For the scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:10-13)
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian. For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:25-29)
But now you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths. Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:8-15)
I could go on and on. The point is simple enough: in Christ there is no room for the “natural” (understood in the aforementioned sense), for the earthly, for what seems right uninformed by the Gospel. If families must be torn apart so that one might worship God: so be it. Ethnicities (cf. Jews and Gentiles above)? So be it. In fact, in the synagogue Christ seems to go even further, speaking of the centrality of serving and healing others, that is, those who are different, who suffer, who would not fit into narrowly ethnic or nationalistic definitions of the “neighbor.” It might even be that we ought to prefer the outsider. Or are we to be no better than the pagans and tax collectors?
In other words, the Bible seems to preach quite directly against putting one’s own kind first, against finding cause first with those closest, against nationality, race, and ethnicity. This is not, I do not think, necessary a political position. But it is a warning—a warning against forgetting to serve indiscriminately. At the Last Judgment, Christ makes no reference to race, class, or even religion when He speaks of the least. The stranger, however, is directly mentioned.
Christianity is hard.
So, go ahead: salute the flag, sing a patriotic song, even cheer when America’s soccer team wins (ha). None of these is intrinsically sinful. But to put anything ahead of the call of Christ, the call to love in faith, to pour oneself out as the Lord has done for us, that is, for the poor—that is sin, pure and simple.