Growing up just outside of Washington, DC, there is a phrase which I heard thrown around from time to time: that Social Security is the "third rail" of politics.
The phrase comes from the DC subway system, called The Metro. The metro runs on train rails, then there is a third rail which provide electricity to the train. Touching that third rail is instant death.
As a kid, whenever I took Metro, I'd stare at that third rail as we waited for the train to arrive. I felt a strange mix of fear and attraction to that rail.
In American ministry, I believe that the third rail is not Social Security, but rather Patriotism. It's a complicated topic, and even getting near it can garner quite a bit of criticism. Churches sometimes have an American flag on stage. Often, churches recognize veterans on Veteran's Day and/or Memorial Day. Often, moving videos remembering the sacrifice of servicemen and servicewomen are shown to the congregation on these days. Loud rounds of applause often accompany these displays of remembrance. Even at the Bible College I attended, such displays were the norm.
Patriotism is a topic I've been putting great amounts of thought into over the past years. I don't speak of it often, and even when I do speak of it, it's only with trusted friends, because I know it's easy to be misheard and misunderstood. Even earnestly exploring patriotism can lead to angry denunciations of being socialist, fascist or communist.
After recent events of anthem protests by professional athletes, I feel I must try to offer some respectful, earnest thoughts and questions on the subject. I feel I must, because that is what I do here. I ask hard questions. I try to look deeper at places where presumptions exist - my presumptions, usually.
So before I venture into this topic, I am going to ask something of you: that you would please read all of this simple blog post. The message here will not be anti-American. I was born in America and with only a few short exceptions, I have spent my entire life in America. I am grateful to live here. I understand that the freedom I enjoy has come at great cost - the blood of men and women who have served in military branches, in first responder roles, and in diplomatic positions. Men and women whom I believe acted out of noble intentions.
I also know that this freedom came at the cost of the blood which has been spilled in battle with the American military - Native American of course, as well as British, German, Japanese, and others.
It is in the midst of this freedom that I am able to study Biblical concepts at institutions of higher learning, to worship freely with brothers and sisters at church gatherings, and to question how I can best serve God with the freedom I enjoy.
With that basis established, let me next say that I believe that the Kingdom of God transcends every nation on earth, and that it is to this Kingdom which I owe my ultimate allegiance. Because it is through the work of this Kingdom that I have been given salvation. A gift even more precious than the freedom granted me by my citizenship in the USA.
And the overarching moral code of this Kingdom is to love God and love people. Jesus, who offers this teaching, does not add to love a nation or to love a flag. He also does not forbid this.
In the end, a nation is a geographic boundary as well as the people who live within that boundary.
So loving people can easily coincide with loving a nation in this sense. Loving other Americans can easily be considered patriotic. Being grateful for noble sacrifices is certainly compatible with Christianity. Honoring those who have come before us and left an inheritance echoes the Jewish tradition of honoring the fathers of the faith: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Overall, therefore, I find patriotism to be compatible with faith.
What I believe is not compatible with faith is nationalism.
Nationalism is the belief that citizenship from a particular country makes you superior to people who are not citizens of that country.
Here's the difference:
Where patriotism says, "I love my country," nationalism says "My love for my country is more important than other people." This, violating the command of Jesus to love people, cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, a story is told of a prophet named Jonah. Jonah loves the nation of Israel. God then calls Jonah to go preach to the enemies of Israel, Nineveh. The Ninevites had done horrible things to Israelites - killing her people in terrible ways. Jonah refuses to go and preach to these enemies of the nation he loves. Instead he boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. You may be familiar with the next part of story: Jonah is thrown off the ship, swallowed by a great fish and returned from where he departed. Jonah finally obeys God, but angrily so. When Jonah preaches to Nineveh, the people repent of their sins, and God relents from his threat to destroy them. Seems like good news, right? But Jonah's reaction is quite negative:
"This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
Why would Jonah react with such anger toward people being forgiven? It's because he loved his own nation more than he loved these other human beings. God's reaction to Jonah was direct:
The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?...Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:4,11)
The books ends here and we never see Jonah come to accept that God's mercy was a good thing for this hated nation.
Love of country is not a problem up until the point that it comes into contradiction with the Gospel. I believe this would rarely happen in the case of patriotism, but I believe it would be constant in the case of nationalism.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who loved his nation of Germany as he stood up to the Fascist rulership of Hitler, agreed, saying "Do we believe in the Holy catholic Church, the communion of Saints, or do we believe in the eternal mission of [a country]? One can't be a Christian and a nationalist at the same time."
If a person wants to sing the national anthem, say the pledge of allegiance, or sing Proud to be an American with a tear in their eye, I have no criticism to offer that person. But I would respectfully caution us to be careful we are not putting our nation on a pedestal above eternal concerns. Above the concerns of the Kingdom and those that are part of that Kingdom, the Body of Christ; and those who were are inviting to join that Body of Christ - that is, everyone.
One of the most serious charges that can be lobbied against a person from a nationalistic standpoint is that the actions of another person "disrespect the flag" or "insult the blood of fallen soldiers" of that nation, which render the offender unworthy of basic respect or care.
Christianity teaches us that everyone ALWAYS has value, being made in the image of God. That each person is but a moment of faith away from having their sins forgiven by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.
Christianity teaches us to value brothers and sisters in faith above all other identities. Patriotism will have no issue with this. Nationalism absolutely will.
The scriptures do not say "Three things will last forever - faith, hope and patriotism - and the greatest of these is patriotism." It says that love will last forever and is the greatest of things.
The scriptures do not say that "God is patriotism." It says that God is love.
The scriptures do not say that "if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t have patriotism, I would be nothing." It says that only love can help us live in a spiritually, emotionally and relationally healthy manner.
Patriotism is not a bad thing, but it is not the ultimate thing. Love is. So when our patriotism prevents us from showing love to others, we must rebalance our lives.
I love living in America. I also remember that America is temporary. It was founded 241 years ago, and when this age ends, it will no longer exist. There will not be an American section of heaven. My body is American, but my spirit is not.
I respectfully submit that if you enjoy attending 4th of July firework shows and Memorial Day parades and other national celebrations, to keep doing so. One can certainly wave a flag with your hand while still committing your heart to matters of faith. But be mindful never to let the flag become a hindering block from building relationships with other people in the process of seeking to share the Good News of Jesus, and to seek justice, to work for peace, to comfort those who mourn, to be humble, and to realize our need for God.
The cross of Christ should stand apart from and above everything else in the heart and mind of a believer. Jesus did not die for a flag or a nation. He died for human beings, so that we could be reconciled to God and to one another through the greatest act of love and sacrifice which could ever be conceived.