The historian David McCullough is an engaging storyteller who in his book 1776 documents how the fragile American Continental Army barely survived the year while taking on the superpower of its day. 1776 is a defining moment of uncompromising patriotism. George Washington especially is singled out for his tenacity in never throwing in the towel no matter how bleak the situation was throughout this pivotal year.
And yet eleven years later, in 1787, another kind of patriotism was needed. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787—obviously another pivotal moment in American history—the true patriots were those who were willing to compromise in writing a new Constitution for this fledgling nation.
Much of the genius of the Founding Fathers was their clear vision that the stability of the future nation depended on finding common ground by constructing compromises of diverging views. We honor them today with terms every US history student learns like the “Great Compromise” which created a bicameral legislature: the one state-one vote Senate argued for by the smaller states and the proportional representation based on population in the House, lobbied for by the larger, more populous states.
Different kinds of patriotism
In two pivotal moments in American history—1776 and 1787—patriotism is expressed in very different ways: Washington’s courage to never compromise and then the courage of the Founding Fathers to compromise again and again for the larger good.
The fact that throughout our nation’s history the essence of patriotism has shifted for and against compromise means that people can see things differently and still both be genuinely patriotic. I like the way Rick Pointer, a history professor at Westmont College, comments on McCullough’s thesis:
“What it means to love our country well—that is, to be patriotic—will sometimes, perhaps much of the time, look differently to me and my neighbor—both as we gaze into the American past and as we confront our own moment in time.
Respect for those differences may seem to be an obvious American ideal, but in the heat of a verbal battle or amid the intensity of war, our national history testifies to the fact that even the most essential American ideals can be sorely tested and compromised in the worst sort of way.
The possibility that the demands of patriotism will not look the same to all of us also suggests the likelihood that I may occasionally get it wrong when it comes to knowing how to love my country well.”
He goes on to draw this conclusion:
“A humble patriotism might therefore be in order. That’s not to be confused with a weak patriotism or an indifferent patriotism.
Good citizenship requires humility, not apathy.
David McCullough has helped us to see that George Washington knew that lesson well. His ability to admit his own mistakes and to overlook the errors of others was essential to his extraordinary leadership.”
If you read 1776, it’s clear that Washington’s ability to admit his own mistakes and overlook the errors of others was essential to his extraordinary leadership. Abraham Lincoln is another example. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin gives a fascinating picture of how Lincoln was willing to put aside political differences and surround himself with key advisers who were often his political enemies, because he thought they were the best people for the job.
Neither Washington nor Lincoln was an evangelical Christian in anyway close to the common understanding prevalent today. And yet, each triumphed as leaders in crucial moments of our national history because—at their core—they were both extremely humble men.
A humble patriotism
We who claim the Lordship of Jesus Christ should know something about humility. The Bible is replete in both the Old and New Testaments that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble:
- “He mocks proud mockers, but gives grace to the humble.” Proverbs 3:34
- “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:14
- “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29
- “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5
No other beatitude shows a greater gulf between Sunday school and what we call “real life” than “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
The only reason we might even begin to take it seriously is that Jesus said it. Jesus also says: “I am gentle and humble of heart.” In all these beatitudes, Jesus is saying something like this:
“if you are living in my kingdom, which means you are my subjects who obey me as your King, inevitably who I am will rub off on you. We have a certain way of living here in the Kingdom of God that is very opposite the ways of life outside my kingdom. And so Congratulations!!! When you find yourself living humbly and meekly as I do…You are indeed blessed. Even though those around you will never understand being meek or humble, it is YOU who will inherit the earth.”
For a Christian truly interested in being a patriot—of whatever country he or she happen to live in, although I am today talking about America—following Jesus in his way of humility is a good place to begin. I also think disciples of Jesus Christ have two unique things we can offer the larger nation in this regard.
First, the Bible tells us that if the Spirit of God lives within a human being, the Spirit produces some undeniable fruit:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Galatians 5:22
You don’t see the word “humility” there but many of these character qualities like peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control are certainly ways humility is expressed. These are the characteristics our national scene seems to especially need today.
We live in an era when extremism wins all the sound bites. Moderates have a hard time getting a word in edgewise. People–including politicians themselves–flood the internet and airwaves with the most mean-spirited, venomous language imaginable against their ideological opposites. Some even say they are speaking as Christians.
In short, politics today is rarely engaging in actual debate of the issues, but demonizing your opponent. This is not only unseemly—it is clearly unchristian.
One of the things that we can do as Christian patriots is look for humility in our leaders—and be willing to make some differentiations between those who SAY they are Christians and those who talk and ACT like Christians. We can also refuse to be bullied by those who try to get us on their side by demonizing the opposition.
Most of all, we can each try to practice humility within our own spheres of influence. Our own American history has taught us that people can see things in very different ways or reach different policy conclusions and both still be patriots.
Second, we Christians can stand back and take a more objective view. If there is anything clear in the Bible, it is that our primary allegiance is not to any nation, but to the Kingdom of God.
Only once in all human history (in the Old Testament) did God claim a particular nation for a period of time as his own people and even then, the nation of Israel often acted in ways exactly contrary to God’s calling and were severely judged for it.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul was a citizen of Rome and yet makes it very clear that, while a Christian is to pray for national leaders, our primary allegiance is to Jesus, never to any national authority.
Perhaps in our individual lives we can make a small beginning. We can accept Jesus’ invitation when he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest and refreshment for your souls.”
After all, Jesus has risen from the dead and is alive today. When he says “learn from me” he offers to personally teach us.
- Every time you listen to his word proclaimed with open hearts, Jesus is speaking directly to you.
- Every time you hear or read his Word, you are sitting at Jesus’ feet.
- Every time you receive the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is spiritually present to you in a powerful way.
If we can learn from Jesus how to practice a humble patriotism, perhaps others will see Jesus in us.
Question: How do you understand how the Christian faith and living as a patriotic citizen (of any nation) fit together? Please share it in a comment.