This is the second part of my reflections on Christian patriotism.
I well remember eating my first carton of yogurt. The label pictured blueberries, one of my favorite fruits, but as I tore off the top, I was a little disappointed to see a white substance when I was expecting blue. I hoped for the best and took a big spoonful. It was the worst tasting stuff I could imagine! It tasted like sour milk! I couldn’t believe it. I was ready to throw it away, thinking it must be spoiled, when I smashed my spoon in disgust into the white gelatinous mass and saw a tiny river of blue emanating from the bottom. As they say, the rest is history.
If only Jesus had known about the yogurt I tried to eat, what a picture of the church he could have painted—the blueberry flavor trapped at the bottom, just waiting to be stirred up to sweeten a sour world. Fortunately for us, Jesus told us something far better. He compared his disciples to salt and light.
You see, Jesus would never have told a parable about yogurt, even if he’d known about it. Why not? Because the fruit just sits there at the bottom of the carton. It’s inert—immobile. Only with agitation will the fruit penetrate its surroundings— while the very nature of salt and light is to penetrate their environment.
Some churches follow a yogurt theology. They withdraw into themselves to live separately from the sour world. We see this pattern throughout history. You don’t have to withdraw behind the stone walls of a monastery—you can just withdraw into a Christian enclave of Christian school, Christian friends, Christian business associates.
The opposite response (also seen throughout history) has been a Christian desire to control society. In its most elemental form, this is called a “theocracy”—political leaders are seen as instruments literally accomplishing God’s will.
The early nation of Israel was the one and only theocracy mentioned in Scripture—judges and later kings of Israel were to be God’s representatives on earth. It never worked (except for brief periods of time), because both the leaders and the people were not faithful to God or God’s law.
You’ve heard the phrase “power corrupts….and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I can’t think of anything more dangerous to a genuine Christian patriotism than claiming certain political leaders are literally acting on God’s direction. Besides the obvious dangers, it turns all the rest of us Christians into passive sheep who have nothing left to do but get in line—acting as salt and light disappears.
Max Stackhouse, a professor at Princeton Seminary, writes that neither withdrawing from society, nor trying to control society through political power, is the biblical response:
“…it is a false choice to attempt to withdraw from public life, as if faith could be made pure by isolation, or to attempt to control society by state power, as if faithfulness and righteousness could be induced by coercive means.
Such strategies have been tried by monks and popes, by pietists and theocrats in many traditions. They have, in every case, failed, and discredited the faith they sought to secure.
Instead, the social and ethical implications of theology have to be carried into every sphere of society by the actions and witness of convicted laity who are called to fulfill their ministries in the common life.”
In other words…be salt and light.
Salt is salty by its very nature. A city on a hill cannot be overlooked. Similarly, Christians living out a biblical lifestyle WILL have an influence on society. Notice Jesus’ warnings: If salt loses saltiness, what good is it? If a lamp is put under a bushel, what good is it? How we behave toward one another, the character of our life together, our marriages, our families, the values we live by as a church—all these are the visible, “taste-able” nature of our community of Jesus’ disciples.
In my last pos during this 4th of July week, I told some stories reflecting the fact that there have been many ways to be patriotic throughout American history. I argued for a “humble patriotism” as described in this observation from Rick Pointer, Professor of History, Westmont College:
“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.
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.”
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.”
If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then our primary allegiance is not to any political ideology, or even to any nation, but to Jesus Himself. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God first—citizens of own nation second.
There are many forces in our society seeking to exploit peoples’ faith for their own political agendas—especially with so-called “wedge issues” which enflame religious sensibilities. They exist on both the left and the right—but are far more well-financed and well-organized on the right. But if we genuinely desire to be Christian patriots, we must learn how to love our country from Jesus, not any political party or talk radio host.
In this regard, I am haunted by some sentences written two generations ago right after WW II by James Smart in a book titled The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church:
“I am convinced that mounting ignorance of the contents of the Bible among members of the church constitutes the crisis beneath all the other crises that endanger the church’s future.
The church that no longer hears the essential message of scripture soon ceases to understand what it is for, and is open to be captured by the dominant religious philosophy of the moment, which is usually some blend of cultural nationalism with Christianity.
All distinctions become blurred when the voices of the original prophets and apostles are stilled.”
Writing just after WWII, Smart especially has in mind the 1930’s in Germany, when the National Socialist Party under Adolph Hitler promoted a very effective cultural nationalism. Rallies were held, documents produced, ideas promoted…the German churches became attached to the sweeping ideals of the Third Reich and subtly but surely became an appendage of the state.
In the midst of these tumultuous times, a small group of church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, in 1934. Imagine how unpopular they were becoming in their own congregations, speaking against the hope and pride Hitler was offering the German people reeling from the Depression and their humiliations in WW I. Imagine how many times they must have asked each other, “Is it really worth it?” And yet, they covenanted together to submit to no authority above Jesus Christ and his word.
The document they produced is titled The Theological Declaration of Barmen. Those who signed it were taking a stand against overwhelming odds as dangerous as those who signed our own Declaration in Independence. You’ll find the Theological Declaration of Barmen in my denomination’s Book of Confessions that every pastor, elder and deacon promises in our ordination vows to be led by as we lead God’s people.
Because they offered their highest allegiance to Jesus and were faithful to Scripture, the writers of this declaration became salt and light to their generation. They became the truest German patriots. Here are two brief excerpts:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph. 4:15, 16.)
As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”
“Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt. 28:20.) “The word of God is not fettered.” (II Tim. 2:9.)
The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
History, of course, proved them right…but at what a horrendous cost. Millions of sincerely patriotic German Christians—people just like you and me who wanted to do the right thing—allowed themselves to be swept up in a movement whose ultimate ends, if they could have discerned them in the early 1930s, they surely would have abhorred. Somehow, for them, the Bible was silent. Because it was silent, they let a political party channel their Christian faith into its own agenda, and they didn’t even realize it was happening.
All of us have a choice. We can withdraw from society like the fruit at the bottom of the yogurt container. We can try to impose our will on our society.
Or as Jesus’ disciples, we can seek to serve our society as salt and light—carrying Jesus’ values into our spheres of influence. Even as we try to do so, we will not always agree. The one thing we hopefully CAN agree on is this: as Christians, only Jesus Christ has the authority to teach us how to love our country.
Question: How do you practically go about becoming a Christian patriot today? Please share your thoughts in a comment.