“Was Jesus Patriotic?”
Matthew 22:15-22; Rev. Carl Lindquisyt
Was Jesus patriotic? If you’re like me, you’ve probably never thought of it that way before. It’s really an odd question. I guess that most of us, since we think patriotism is a good thing, off the top of our heads would say, “well, of course Jesus was patriotic.”
But was he? After all, wasn’t he brought before the Roman governor Pilate by the leaders of his own country, where they told Pilate, according to the gospel of Luke, “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is a king. He stirs up the people.” (Luke 23:2) That doesn’t sound very much like a man who was seen as patriotic by his own countryman. Pilate for his part didn’t necessarily agree with them, for he found Jesus not guilty of any crimes but he agreed to have Jesus crucified anyway, basically just to keep the peace there with those Jerusalem leaders.
Whether or not Jesus was actually being patriotic of course doesn’t necessarily depend upon whether the political leaders thought so, since they saw him as a threat and they had been on the receiving end of his critical preaching and teaching. They were, so to speak, hardly objective about Jesus’ patriotism. But who is entitled to decide on someone’s patriotism, if not the political leaders of one’s society? That again is one of those difficult questions.
So what does patriotism really mean, and is there such a thing as a Christian patriotism?
Every year our July 4th celebration, with its picnics, its flag-waving and fire-works displays, calls forth our American patriotism like no other occasion. It is also a good time to reflect on our country’s history, traditions and ideals. It is time to display the love we feel for our country, the country into which we were born, or in the case of some, that we have adopted as our own, though we were born somewhere else.
Isn’t that what patriotism is in the final analysis, a strong and abiding love of our country? C. S. Lewis, the brilliant British Christian author and defender of faith, defined patriotism as a natural, human love, one that normally arises universally in every human heart. It includes the love of our home and birthplace, of our way of life and the cultural folkways and national traditions that are ours, as well as our people and nation.
Obviously, such patriotic love is not limited to Americans or America. Do other countries around the world have their July 4th, an equivalent celebration of national pride and patriotism? Actually, I’m not sure of that, but they probably do. I know that other countries are proud of their flag, which is everywhere an expression of patriotism. When I have been visiting in Sweden, for example, the beautiful blue and yellow flag of that country is prominently displayed in many places. I also know that when I’m watching soccer games around the world on television, like the World Cup or the recent European championships, fans wave their national flags very vigorously and proudly, which is obviously a sign of their national patriotism. It seems that with very few exceptions (and perhaps no exceptions), every country in the world is held in such esteem and love by its inhabitants. And part of acknowledging the goodness of such a patriotism is to recognize that it is true for every nation and every people all around the world, and not just ourselves.
It would also seem to be true that the biblical tradition honors love of country. For example, the Lord Jesus made the now-famous reference to giving unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and giving unto God that which is God’s. William Barclay, the Scottish New Testament scholar, once wrote this about that teaching of Christ: “If someone lives in a nation and enjoys all its privileges, he cannot divorce himself from it. The more honest a man, the better citizen he will be. There should be no better and no more conscientious citizen of any state than its Christians….”
The apostle Paul would seem to agree with this when he wrote this in his letter to the Romans, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” And apostle Peter wrote likewise, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority or to governors…Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the King.”
So patriotism as appropriate ‘love of country’, and even as submission to the governing authorities, would seem to be a good and even Christian attitude and behavior, appropriate for American Christians, but also for German Christians, Mexican Christians, Japanese Christians, Russian Christians, and so on. Since Christianity is a universal religion and not just American religion, this would be even true for countries that some of us might consider to be our enemies, like Iran or North Korea, where there is a small Christian population.
Surely even Jesus should be considered to have been patriotic in this sense. After all, did he not truly love his homeland, his country, even if he happened to find its current leaders to be less than honorable and even quite corrupt? And of course, in the larger, divine sense, Jesus was without question the greatest patriot of all, since he loved the whole world and every nation in it and all their people, without exception. That was why he came from the Father above.
But C. S. Lewis went on to say something else that I think we also need to hear. He said that patriotism, the ‘love of country,’ which is normally a good and natural thing, can actually turn idolatrous and become a bad thing. Patriotism can turn idolatrous and sinful if it claims for itself a person’s highest loyalty, which should be reserved for God alone. Such a distorted patriotism can then become very capable of the most abominable and wicked acts.
Such a pernicious and sinful patriotism has not been absent from America or any other nation over the centuries, and it can lead us to view the rest of the world in ways that are unchristian and immoral. It is a tendency and sin that we must constantly be fighting to avoid within our own hearts.
So I would agree with Lewis then that there is an innocent, appropriate form of patriotism and there is a demonic, diseased form that we might avoid at all cost. South African author Alan Paton put it this way concerning the latter in his book Instrument of Thy Peace:
“There is many a nation in the world that regards it as traitorous for a person to have a cause higher than that of the nation. If this nation calls itself Christian, it will argue that loyalty to God and loyalty to the nation are one and the same thing, and it will invent a Christian Nationalism in which one may have the best of both worlds.”
Paton goes on to say, “I write these words…with the aim of showing that if a Christian takes seriously the commandment to love his neighbor as himself, he may incur the active hostility of State and Church. And we should remember that Jesus did exactly that, and that he told his disciples that this might happen to them also….Our Christian cause could well bring us into conflict with authority, and the only way in which we can overcome the fear of such a prospect is to believe that we are the instruments of God’s peace, which means of course that we are the instruments of God’s love….” (pp 43-44)
Remembering what William Barclay wrote about the Christian being the most conscientious citizen, he also wrote this, “Nonetheless, it remains true that in the life of the Christian, God has the last word and not the state. The Christian is at once the servant and the conscience of the state. Just because he is the best of citizens, he will refuse to do what a Christian citizen cannot do.”
What a difficult position that puts us in sometimes! It isn’t always easy to be a Christian, is it? We love our country, and when we sing the words, “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!”, when we see the Stars and Stripes flying high and proud, when we say the pledge of allegiance, very few of us have to fake the feelings of patriotism that well up within our hearts.
But it is exactly as Christians that we must never forget that it is God and not any nation that has the last word. All nations, including the United States, are subject to God’s divine authority and power and law, and every nation, including ours, must come under the judgment of a higher law and a higher power.
Christians are to be the best citizens, yet that never means blind obedience to governing authorities. Indeed, true Christian patriotism may well mean going against the popular thinking to stand up for the unpopular but just cause. It may well mean taking the risk of being the moral conscience of the nation, at the risk of the disfavor of our fellow citizens, as we seek in our own way and with our best judgment to make our country a better place. Yet this is our calling as Christians if we are to be true patriots and lovers of our God and country. Someone once wisely wrote these words, “He loves his country best who strives to make it best.”
This, then, is the sometimes difficult but necessary tension in which we live as Christians, as people who are both persons of faith in Christ and patriotic citizens of specific countries. We love and honor our country, but we also love the Lord God and follow Jesus Christ, who calls us to obedience and to love the whole world and its people, and that is a higher love and a higher allegiance.
Most of the time, in loving and being loyal to our own country, we also can love God. But there are times, excruciating times, when we cannot both love God and agree with or obey our own country, if our country is doing things with which we cannot morally agree.
It is in this tension that Christians have been forced to live their lives for centuries all over the world, beginning with the earliest Christians in Judea and the larger Roman Empire. To be a Christian in those early years was a dangerous thing. We like to think that those days are over, but that is not the case. This very moment, I’m sure, somewhere in this world, someone is suffering persecution by their government or their fellow citizens on behalf of their faith in Christ.
We would like to think that, as Americans, that will never happen to us. We are truly privileged to live in one of the most democratic and free nations that has ever existed. But our country is not perfect, and history teaches us that occasions will continue to arise where to obey our Christian conscience and the cause of Christ, we may be forced to oppose the policies and laws of our own nation in favor of a change or improvement. That is not a pleasant prospect, but that is also a part of the Christian’s calling that cannot be escaped or avoided if we are to be faithful to what we believe.
So on this July 4th, we as Christians wholeheartedly and gladly joined in the patriotic celebration of our American heritage. We love our country and join in celebrating her ideals, her history, her past, present, and future. At the same time, we recognize that our faith in God, the God who made the heaven and the earth and who is Lord over all the nations, calls us to seek to improve our nation and to hold it to its highest ideals. At the same time, we are called as well to extend our love and care to the whole world, because we worship a God whose deep, deep love is universally extended to all peoples and all creatures.
This is the true patriotism to which Christ calls all of us.
Lord, we thank you this morning for the privilege of living here in these United States of America. We have been most blessed. Yet as we enjoy all that is ours, we must never forget those who for whatever reason are suffering in our midst. Help us to reach out that helping hand to our neighbor in need. And then also, let us not forget those of our neighbors who live beyond our borders in other parts of the world. Help us to imitate your love for the entire world, shown to us best in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.