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The Paradox of Patriotism Deep cultural forces have changed the way most Americans think about their own country. The results are complicated. At one level, America seems to be a highly patriotic nation. People put their hands over their hearts for the national anthem. We see numerous flags flown from public buildings. On many occasions we are called upon to “honor the troops,” and most of us are not reluctant to do that. July 4th remains a big day in most communities. Fireworks light up the night all over the country. Many churches host patriotic celebrations on the Sunday nearest to Independence Day. These are sometimes quite elaborate, with the presentation of colors, the military service anthems, and recognition of veterans and active-duty military.This reminds us that, for better or worse, national loyalty is linked in our country to the military. One might be forgiven for thinking that America is a very patriotic nation brimming with national loyalty, and the issue would be whether Christians should participate in that. But our apparent patriotism is actually only a thin veneer of sentimentality lacquered over a general indifference to life beyond the individual. Do we define national loyalty to include serious interest in our history and government and serious commitment to our founding values? Both of these have been fading for quite a while among us. Do we define national loyalty as a high level of motivation to act for the well-being of the nation? Few wake up in the morning asking what they can do to make America a better place.

Do we define national loyalty as a shared public commitment to shape citizens with a certain set of values that can advance the national interest? Hardly anyone is trying to do that right now. Do we define national loyalty simply as straightforward, openly expressed love of country? We see little of that as well. The church has a subtle message to offer concerning the place of national loyalty in the Christian’s life. Scripture’s witness is complex. Israel, of course, was a nation that was also a faith community.The Old Testament tells the story of a nation created, chosen, and called by God. Loyalty to nation was also loyalty to God. To obey the laws of Israel was to obey the God of Israel. To love Israel was to love the God who gave birth to Israel.

people to envision themselves as part of a global community.They were taught a loyalty to their spiritual kin around the world that balanced and more often transcended their loyalty to their city, region, or nation. This also laid the foundation for a broader global concern in Christianity. Christians learned to care not just about their faith family but about the world itself. This is God’s world, God is the creator of all, and God loves every human being. I suggest the following conclusions about the paradox of patriotism: s 4O THE EXTENT THAT !MERICANS ARE OVERLY focused on national loyalty and its symbols, Christian faith stands in tension with patriotism because of our primary loyalty to Christ, his global church, and the whole world. Our apparent patriotism is s 4O THE EXTENT THAT SOME #HRISTIANS HAVE simply identified the United States with actually only a thin veneer of biblical Israel and transferred all that sentimentality lacquered over holy loyalty onto America, they are guilty of a significant theological heresy. a general indifference to life s "UT TO THE EXTENT THAT !MERICANS ARE overly focused on personal dreams and beyond the individual. ambitions so that they have no interest Many American Christians mistakin any transcendent loyalty, Christian enly transfer these categories of thought faith and national patriotism both point to the US. Israel becomes the US; the to the need for higher loyalties than US becomes God’s new chosen people. the self. To love America is to love God. To be I am challenging us to be both more loyal to the United States is to be loyal and less patriotic than our neighbors: more to God. To fight and kill and die for the patriotic because we care about more US is to fight and kill and die for God. than our individual dreams and want But there are no biblical grounds for everyone in this land to flourish; less believing that God’s relationship to bib- patriotic because we see far beyond this lical Israel has ever been replicated with nation to every nation, and to the church or transferred to any other earthly nation. in every nation, our brothers and sisters In the New Testament, the church is in Christ. Q the new Israel, a people but not a nation. From its early days, the church has tran- David P. Gushee is Distinguished University scended national boundaries.The church Professor of Christian ethics at Mercer Uniis a “catholic” entity, encompassing peo- versity in Atlanta, Ga., and the author or ple from just about every tribe, people, editor of 12 books, including Religious and nation. Faith,Torture, and Our National Soul, just Christians were among the very first released by Mercer University Press.

PRISM 2010


The Paradox of Patriotism  

Kingdom Ethics May 2010

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