I don’t love my country.
There, I said it.
I’m a citizen of Australia, a relatively peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracy with a pleasant climate, kangaroos, beautiful beaches and an impressive opera house.
I’m grateful for the considerable benefits my citizenship brings. I’d rather be Australian than Syrian or North Korean or South Sudanese. I cheer enthusiastically for our national rugby team and politely explain to Americans how Australia and New Zealand are different countries and why being Australian is better.
But I don’t love my country.
(I don’t even really think it’s better to be an Australian than a New Zealander).
In fact, whenever I allow myself to give into those tribal inclinations to defend my country as better than any other I can’t sense the Holy Spirit behind that at all.
It’s tribalism. It’s factionalism. It’s divisiveness and superiority. It deceives me into overlooking the racism and injustice perpetrated in my country’s name and to focus on flimsy and ill-defined definitions of my national “character”.
And yet so many Christians appear to equate national loyalty with faithfulness to God.
Billy Sunday, the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century, once wrote, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.”
It’s a trap, surely, to confuse the Christian faith with the religion of American patriotism.
Remember, the term patriotism derives from the root word, patris, meaning “fatherland”. Surely, those of us who put our faith in Christ accept that our Father is God, not our nation.
And before you go saying the Bible teaches we should be patriotic, it doesn’t!
Sure, in Romans 13 Paul calls on the church to be subject to political authority. And when writing to Titus, he explains that the Roman Empire is a strange blessing in that it keeps the peace and allows the church to flourish: “…remind them (the believers at Crete) to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed.” (Titus 3:1)
Moreover, Paul not only commends obedience to authorities, but also that we pray for them. I Timothy 2:1-2 states,
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quite life in all godliness and dignity.”
It could be argued that to pray for someone is to love them, but note that Paul’s motivations in Romans 13, Titus 3 and 1 Tim 2 are all somewhat self-serving. He doesn’t want Christians to become enemies of the state because it will impede the spread of the gospel.
I can’t distil from any of these passages the least inclination in Paul that the early Christians should love the empire and feel patriotic about their citizenship in it.
In fact, Paul’s injunctions to live at peace in the empire sound more like the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to the Babylonian exiles. When the Israelites were conquered by their mortal enemy and forcibly repatriated as hostage-slaves to Babylon, God encouraged them to live at peace on foreign soil:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters …. Increase in number there; do not decrease” (Jer. 29:5-6).
But more than that, God tells them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7).
Far from promoting patriotism, both Paul and Jeremiah appear to be liberating the people of God from it, telling them they can make our home anywhere. In other words, it is the duty of the people of God to seek stability, peace, and prosperity wherever they go. This includes supporting the nation in which we live, but not loving it.
Polycarp, a 2nd Century bishop, was martyred for his faith around AD156. He was aged in his mid 80s by then and much loved by all who knew him. Even the soldiers tasked with his execution wanted to offer him a way out. They told him all he had to do to avoid being burned at the stake was to light incense to the Emperor and declare, “Caesar is lord.” But Polycarp refused: “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
That was awfully unpatriotic of him.
I take David Gushee’s point that because gratitude is an important Christian quality, we do well to show our thankfulness to God for the opportunity to live in free and prosperous nations (for him, the US, and me, Australia). Okay, but is that the same a loving my country?
For those of us in Christ, our citizenship is in the kingdom of God. Any nationality we adopt is only provisional. This is Paul’s view, as best I can figure it out. He drew heavily on the benefits of Roman citizenship without ever investing his identity in it.
Likewise, we can’t focus our identities around being American or Australian, British or South African, as if this means anything in the eternal scheme of things. Otherwise we fall into the idolatry of patriotism, believing that any one nation’s or people’s cause is more worthy than another’s. That kind of thing only leads to bloodshed and suffering.
I think it’s fun when on national holidays we eat provincial cuisine and watch local sports and recall our nation’s history and give thanks for the advantages our citizenship affords us. And I think it’s beautiful when the followers of Jesus can bow their heads on such days and recall they have been set free from parochialism and condescension, racism and militarism, and can thank God their citizenship is in a coming kingdom of justice, reconciliation, wholeness and peace.