The Kingdom of God and the Problem of Patriotism

07/01/2017 06:16 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2017

Canada Day is upon us once again, and this year it’s more noteworthy because we’ve hit a nice round number since confederation — 150 years. And because of this, the pressure to express our patriotism has ramped up proportionately. This is a problem — a problem for any Canadian, but especially for Christians who claim that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) rather than any earthly country whose artificial borders we dutifully protect with methods that are antithetical to the Sermon on the Mount.

And it makes sense that the author of this verse, St. Paul, wrote this since he deliberately defied the political jurisdiction of the Roman empire of which he was a citizen by preaching a gospel and rival King that had him arrested and beheaded (a fact that should also temper our reading of Romans 13).

That said, I’ll admit I cheer for Canadian athletes in the Olympics and team Canada at any IIHF tournament, I loved Canadian geography as a kid, I perk up when TV shows and movies mention Canada and point out when an actor or musician is Canadian, and I love the “feel” of Canada, its beauty and expansiveness and diversity and familiarity. It’s home.

But it’s the Canada from my own selective vantage point, and I lament that I get hung up on these superficial distractions. I resonate with perspectives that portray patriotism as a type of psychosis, an unhealthy attempt to fill a void, and an expression of Stockholm Syndrome on a grander scale.

And I’m not alone. Bertrand Russell defined patriotism as “a willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons” and observed, “Patriots always talk of dying for their country, and never of killing for their country.” Oscar Wilde thought that “Patriotism is the vice of nations,” and Albert Einstein scornfully remarked, “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism — how passionately I hate them!” And for those who try in vain to differentiate patriotism from nationalism too much (despite a limited few honest distinctions), Einstein also commented, “I am against any nationalism, even in the guise of mere patriotism.”

This piece is therefore one part confession and one part working out this issue for myself. If you’re patriotic, don’t worry: I don’t think you’re an inherently bad person — just a bit misguided, even duped (nervously insert happy face emoji here).

There’s a sense that some Christians are first taught to be patriotic from a very early age before gaining the maturity and percipience needed to parse its theological implications, and then they desperately try to fit this square peg of the conventions of patriotism into the round hole of the radical demands of God’s kingdom. We’re the products of a false start; I get that.

But I also see some serious ramifications and important considerations for anyone who claims to follow the one who said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt. 20:20).

Now, as trite as this has become, we’d be remiss if we didn’t look at some definitions of patriotism to get our bearings, even if they often give abstract ideals rather than nuanced realities. Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as “love for or devotion to one's country.” The Oxford English Dictionary states that it’s the “vigorous support for one's country,” and the COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary defines it as the “love for your country and loyalty towards it.” The Collins English Dictionary defines patriotism as the “devotion to one's own country and concern for its defence,” and Webster’s New World College Dictionary says it’s the “love and loyal or zealous support of one's country.”

So, from a Christian perspective, what’s the problem with patriotism?

1. The first is that it creates divided loyalties — one to one’s country and the other to the kingdom of God. The cultural, social, political, and economic priorities and flimsier standards of an earthly country and the violent methods by which we preserve them, these subconsciously seep into our collective psyche and gradually become our own priorities, standards, and methods that influence our behaviour. The religious right and ‘Moral Majority’ are a case in point.

And yet, in response to Donald Trump’s designation of the date of his presidential inauguration as a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” Stanley Hauerwas remarked, “Patriotic devotion? Christians are devoted to God, not to any nation.”

The problem is that these priorities begin to rival the radical priorities and higher standards of the kingdom of God — and they win. We become okay with killing our enemies rather than loving them (Mt. 5:44), and we think that this is an appropriate method for preserving our self-interests: wealth, freedom, comfort. Folks who are patriotic start to look more Canadian than they do Christian (yes, there’s a difference) — zealously defending the priorities of their country (entitlements, privileges, freedom, wealth, power, property, possessions) rather than those of the kingdom of God — and they often don’t realize it when it’s happening. I sure don’t when this happens to me.

The reality is that countries have erratic and fluid priorities and far less demanding standards, and they’re under no obligation to calibrate these priorities by the gospel and the kingdom of God. And this is because the very existence of countries is the result of a fallen nature, as is our love of them. They are a compromise, a willingness to settle for a prosaic, uninspired, hum-drum substitute. A resignation to mediocrity.

2. Patriotism is also inherently tribalistic with insular overtones that aggravate divisions and distract us from a more universal concern for all human beings on the planet as a whole. Or worse — patriotism tricks us into thinking that we should take care of “our own” first and foremost by virtue of our shared citizenship instead of reflexively taking care of the marginalized, vulnerable, voiceless, and oppressed regardless of what we have in common, citizenship or otherwise. It makes us instinctively shocked more by bombs that kill white Westerners than those that kill darker-skinned Iraqis.

And here’s the real issue: trying to depict our responsibility toward “our own” — even if marginalized and vulnerable — as a laudable component of patriotism while simultaneously affirming the use of our military that disrupts, undermines, and kills the marginalized and vulnerable in other parts of the world, these cancel each other out. You can’t have both at the same time, which is why the latter is an intrinsic part of patriotism and the former is only coopted by patriotism to sanitize its image. This is why Brian Zahnd, in his book, A Farewell to Mars, commits himself “[T]o prioritize caring for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned and to renounce an ambition to dominate the world economically or militarily. I do this in the name of Jesus. I pledge no allegiance to elephants or donkeys [or beavers], only to the Lamb.”

3. Patriotism also animates the false choice of ‘us vs. them.’ We cheer on Canada’s troops simply because they’re Canada’s troops, because they’re the troops that will defend us — regardless of the ethical, moral, and spiritual factors that are always at play. We defend our country (which we say euphemistically even though no one invades us) simply because we live here, and we cheer on Canadian aggressors simply because they’re on our side. The same goes for other countries and their respective militaries against us or others. This is pretty basic stuff here. And yet we fall for it time and again.

4. And patriotism that loves an empire (like the U.S.) or loves countries that are deeply and irrevocably entangled in this imperialism is even more egregious. The reason is that this implies the imposition of the values, principles, and oppressive demands of an empire on places around the world that don’t want this and didn’t ask for it all for the ultimate benefit of the empire and complicit countries. Empires try to rule the world. And as Brian Zahnd has observed, “the reason why God is opposed to that is this is the very thing that he has promised to his Son. So empires, in their assumption that they have a right to rule the nations and to shape history according to their agenda, what they do is they become a rival to Jesus Christ and the promise that the Father has made to the Son, that he would be Lord and the nations would be his inherence.”

Empire or not, this is of course true of all countries whose domestic and foreign policies are too fluid and unwieldy for us to predict or control — particularly colonial countries that historically and continually exploit and seek to control indigenous populations, as does Canada.

Patriotism, the Military, and Place

At this stage, let’s be clear (if I haven’t already): patriotism is part and parcel with the military and use of violence. Max Weber famously defined the state as the “only human community which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” Patriots therefore tend to view the use of the military, whether tentatively or hawkishly, as a given. But this is a compromise with dire consequences: “We sequester Jesus to a stained-glass quarantine and appropriate a trillion dollars for the war machine,” laments Zahnd.

To downplay patriotism’s willingness to use violence for its defence and the connotations of divisiveness, rivalry, and preferential treatment for one’s country by virtue of your citizenship is to twist the definition of patriotism so much that one falls victim to the ‘persuasive definition’ fallacy, which is “a form of stipulative definition which purports to describe the ‘true’ or ‘commonly accepted’ meaning of a term, while in reality stipulating an uncommon or altered use, usually to support an argument for some view.”

And this is what some try to do by using more favourable analogies (that are incomplete and distracting) or conveniently excising all the controversial parts of patriotism and focusing on the more benign aspects. But the question is, why do some defenders of patriotism feel the need to do this?

What’s important to understand here is that focusing only on a deep appreciation for cultural elements and the natural beauty of the part of the world that happens to be enclosed by our political borders cannot truly be considered patriotism because these elements are transferable and not exclusively Canadian.

Other countries love hockey and maple syrup. Other countries have stunning mountains, river valleys, and expansive prairies. Other countries have many elements of what we might like about Canada, but that’s not patriotism — that’s not the defence of the territory as it’s been demarcated by our political borders, whose defence is meant to preserve my comfort and safety. That’s the appreciation of human and environmental elements that transcend “Canada,” that transcend our political borders. We may like that they’re present in some parts of Canada, for some people, some of the time — but that’s not Canada the country: “a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory.”

Moreover, if we are this selective about what we love, we’ve merely eliminated all the distasteful parts of our country — “Oh, I don’t like that; I’m not proud of that” — so that it ceases to be the country we purport to love, which means we don’t actually love our country. We simply love the parts of our country that can and do exist in other countries too.

And yet, this does mean that there may be aspects of patriotism that are good but that when collectively divorced from patriotism as a whole (including its less flattering parts), cease to be patriotism at all. If it’s true that, as Chinese writer, Lin Yutang, remarked, “What is patriotism but love of the good things we ate in our childhood?” what’s good about “patriotism” is a sense of place and rootedness and met expectations of the gestures, interactions, and rhythms of life in a particular familiar context.

And more specifically, for Wendell Berry, there does exist a healthy “fidelity to the land” that allows one to have a “home place,” which is simply the ineluctable context for carrying out one’s responsibility within one’s immediate sphere of influence. This is a “patriotism” that avoids reducing people to mere distant abstractions that macroeconomic considerations of the state end up doing and instead is an embodied solidarity with concrete people and places. (cf. Kimberly K. Smith, “Wendell Berry’s Political Vision,” in Wendell Berry: Life and Work, pp. 50–53).

But we can do all of this just as effectively without patriotism.

God Incarnate has called us to incarnate God here and now by nonviolently working towards justice and restoration on behalf of the marginalized, voiceless, oppressed, and vulnerable who transcend national boundaries all over the globe. To the extent that patriotism can do this, it is good.

But to call this “patriotism” is to conveniently modify the definition so much so that it ceases to be patriotism at all and is perhaps more accurately a type of humanism with a pastoral dimension, empathetic attitude, and ecological conscience.

Theological and Scriptural Considerations of Patriotism

Analogies fall flat on a theological level too because there’s something fundamentally unique about political entities and patriotism in the gospels, where Jesus deliberately uses political language and invites us to enter his kingdom through acts of repentance that upend the pride that patriotism demands of us.

The most common analogy may be that of family and friends who we take care of more than those outside these relationship structures. But Jesus addresses this in the same passage that he says to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” since God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” in which he goes on to say, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Love and loyalty to one’s own is easy. Patriotism is the default behaviour of a fallen nature. What’s difficult is extending the same intensity of love and loyalty to those outside our tribe so that we become “perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:43–48).

To achieve this, we are to do more — or perisson in the Greek — than the standards of the state and its culture and society (cf. Terrence C. Rynne, Jesus Christ, Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace, pp. 89–94). And this ‘more’ demands that we abandon our unique loyalties to those who are like us and ignore the lines between us and them.

As Terrence Rynne observes, “Jesus is saying that even tax collectors love their brothers, those who are within their circle of friendship, tribe, or family. That is a good, but it really is no big deal. Even the gentiles greet and embrace their brothers. That is a good but it really is not very exceptional. But my disciples, they are really something. They are called to a much higher calling. They are called to love, greet, and embrace their so-called enemies. They are called to put themselves on the line in situations of conflict and enmity, communicate their love and regard for the enemy, remove the enmity, and make the enemy a friend. My disciples are called to go well beyond the ordinary, the minimum, the usual. They practice perisson, a righteousness that goes well beyond that of the scribes and the Pharisees. They are called to be active peacemakers.”

If perisson is a hallmark of the kingdom of God, patriotism falls well short. And If the way we’re behaving isn’t different, isn’t more than the behaviour of the world and its kingdoms, we’ve simply unconscientiously settled for the default position of those who are distracted by artificial constructs like modern nation states.

Yet, those who embrace patriotism and these artificial modern constructs insist that its symbols are important, the words of our anthems are important, and commemorating our heroes and defining events in our country’s history is important. And they’re right: symbols are important and the words we pledge (as an oath) when we sing the anthem should be taken seriously, which is why we should be wary of symbols, lyrics, and ceremonies that rival the icons, hymns, and liturgies of the kingdom of God.

The more we acknowledge the importance of our national symbols, anthems, and ceremonies, the higher we’ve elevated our country as a rival to the kingdom of God and an idol that admits the kingdom of God isn’t sufficient on its own. And this is especially true when the kingdom of God expressed as the Church already has its own iconography, hymns, commemorations, rhythms, and way of measuring and giving meaning to time itself.

“Nationalism is a religion and war is its liturgy,” Hauerwas once famously remarked. Indeed, “What Jesus called evil,” Zahnd also observes, “are the very things our cultures and societies have honored in countless myths, memorials, and anthems.” And this is the case precisely because “the US Congress [or Canadian parliament] would no more adopt the policies Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount than they were adopted by the Jewish Sanhedrin or the Roman Senate.” This should give us pause.

But to follow the one who said, “But seek first the kingdom of God” (Mt. 6:33), since, as John writes in his first epistle, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19), we need some context and an understanding of the political narrative arc of the gospels.

In brief, Jesus lived during a time of an intense and brutal Roman occupation of Palestine, where the Jews opposed this occupation and viewed the occupiers as their main enemies. It was a clash of two patriotisms: one Roman and the other Jewish. One the imperial occupier and the other an oppressed ethnicity and nation with hopes of reviving the old Hasmonean Kingdom that was established through the military exploits of Judas Maccabeus but that eventually became a client state of the Roman Republic a little over a half a century before the time of Jesus.

It’s within this context that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, which some view as an expression of patriotism — a deep love for the Jewish people and a patriotic allegiance to Jewish political aspirations.

But it’s important to recall that Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they did not know “the things that make for peace” (Lk. 19:42), because the ultimate patriots — the Zealots with their reliance on violent insurrection and the Pharisees with their exclusivist ideology and whose existence Josephus links to the old Hasmonean Kingdom — wanted and expected a military Messiah who would revive the Hasmonean kingdom. Instead, they received a king who told Peter to “Put your sword away” (Jn. 18:11) when he was facing his arrest and told Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be” arrested (Jn. 18:36).

Indeed, the “two swords” incident (Lk. 22:35–38) that allowed Peter to pick up a sword in the first place (which, of course, would have been futile against the large mob and Roman soldiers that arrested Jesus) was meant as a fulfillment of the verse in the Suffering Servant pericope (Is. 53), wherein Jesus was to be “numbered with the transgressors” (v.12) even though he actually wasn’t one. But in this same chapter, not only does it say that he was killed “although he had done no violence” (v.9), it also states that “he was cut off from the land of the living” (v.8). And in this sense, we can count Jesus among those who “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13), epitomized by his refusal to fight back as the Jewish Zealots wanted him to do and his execution by the Roman Empire.

As Brian Zahnd observes, “If Jesus of Nazareth had preached the paper-thin version of what passes for the ‘gospel’ today — a shrunken, postmortem promise of going to heaven when you die—Pilate would have shrugged his shoulders and released the Nazarene, warning him not to get mixed up in the affairs of the real world.” But it was Jesus’ “ideas about an alternative arrangement of the world — an arrangement that might best be called peace — that resulted in his death by state-sponsored execution.”

And Jesus wept over Jerusalem precisely because he foreknew that the patriotism of the Zealots and Pharisees was what was going to incite the wrath of the Roman military to crush the “City of Peace” and destroy its temple. It was the “end of the world” for the Jewish people. So, we might say that Jesus shows us a good kind of patriotism, or rather he’s showing us that a good kind of patriotism doesn’t care about its defence using violence, doesn’t prioritize power over meekness and humility, comfort and security over cross-bearing, freedom over obedience. In this sense, we are to “[d]o nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). It’s difficult to reconcile this description with a patriotic love of one’s country more than other countries, exhibited by the disproportionate amount of attention given to one’s country.

As Brian Zahnd observes, “Jesus weeps over the nationalistic crowd whose hosannas are meant to egg him into violent revolution. The crowd is antichrist.”

And this is why St. Paul observed that “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Of course there are Jews and Greeks, Canadians and other nationalities, but these divisions are inconsequential and shouldn’t be acknowledged — never mind celebrated. And this is because rather than any national or ethnic group, the Church is now “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pt. 2:9).

Indeed, the Parable of the Good Samaritan elevates an enemy of the Jewish people as the hero to emulate and depicts him as someone who unexpectedly helps the one who’s lying naked on the ground with no identifying markers to help the Samaritan determine if he should help him, no way of identifying if he is “one of us” or not.

The Pointlessness of Patriotism

One might reasonably argue that you can follow Jesus’ commandments and still be a Canadian. Sure, but the origin, and therefore the source of our loyalty, shouldn’t be Canada but the kingdom of God. When it comes to shaping our choices and behaviour, Canada is expendable, as are all countries. Which begs the question: What’s the point of patriotism if everything we think is good and right and true about our country actually has its origin in and is essentially borrowed from God and his kingdom?

I suppose we could celebrate when and where a country aligns with the priorities and standards of the kingdom of God — rare as this is — much like we do when this happens to a human. But a country isn’t a human. It’s an artificial modern construct that competes for our attention and loyalty rather than someone created in the image of the One who actually deserves our allegiance.

Patriotism therefore gets in the way by adding a completely unnecessary layer that fuels artificially manufactured tribalism and division. Patriotism may be benign in a vacuum, but we don’t live in a vacuum. Our collective actions have collective consequences.

It appears, then, that patriotism is ultimately an unnecessary and dangerous distraction. What’s the point when we have a much better, albeit more demanding, alternative in the kingdom of God? And maybe it’s this “more demanding” part that makes patriotism so attractive to Christians: being a good and loyal citizen to a country whose priorities of comfort and security match our own visceral instincts is easier than loyalty to the much more demanding expectations of the Sermon on the Mount and a king who was enthroned on a cross. Maybe patriotism is our escape clause, a way to skirt responsibility as Jesus defined it by saying along with the elders of Israel to the prophet Samuel, “Give us a king to lead us” (1 Sam. 8:6), when we already have one.

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