Ever since the dawn of deconstruction and the rise of the evangelical left, it is increasingly popular to pick on the 4th of July and designate it residue of nationalism and conservative politics that the Church hasn’t been able to shake off. This begs the question, is there a place for national holidays in the kingdom? Is there a place for patriotism in the Church? You may be familiar with quips about things like the appropriateness of flags in churches. For many, yes, the final realization that America isn’t God’s kingdom may be rattling, disturbing, and anxiety-creating. But most people are attune to this reality, and the question is not where a person’s ultimate allegiance lies but what a healthy expression of devotion to one’s country looks like, if anything at all. One thing I do appreciate about being part of the broad Wesleyan tribe is that it isn’t always easy to peg on social issues. Along with that comes the invitation and need for thoughtful conversations, and that’s what I hope to elicit here.
I don’t want this post to end up being self-referential, but I do want to offer some disclosure. I admit to being a white male who was born in Canada and grew up in an Eastern-European subculture. I shared in this same subculture even after moving to the United States. The earliest home videos of my family reveal a little 4 year-old speaking with a heavy accent in English. I learned Romanian in the home and English only after I started making friends in the neighborhood. My perspective here comes from one whose family migrated to North America and had to learn—together in community—how to understand our identity in light of our new home (try to imagine what an immigrant’s first exposure to Halloween might be like!) My hope isn’t to offer an apologetic for this holiday, nor is it to propose a political theory. I do want to call attention to four things (some more controversial than others) that may help us observe America’s national holiday both with a sense of pride, and quite paradoxically, a measure of humility.
The kingdom of God recognizes, not absolves, nationhood.
While we live in this already-not-yet reality of God’s kingdom, there will be national boundaries. The vision of the New Testament is not to collapse nations into one nor erase cultural identities, rather it is to unite them as a beautiful picture of what the kingdom looks like. Paul’s aim in Romans is repeatedly to bring “obedience of faith among all the nations” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). In other places, he appealed to his Roman citizenship and enjoyed the privileges this offered him (Acts 22:25). The great multitude gathered before the Lamb’s throne in Revelation 7:9 is from all nations, and just like the profession of unity in Galatians 3:28 doesn’t flatten our particular identities, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of ignoring your national identity in worship.
This means that unity is best expressed in loving communities who embrace their diversity. This is true of the Church and of the nations it calls together to participate in God’s kingdom. The Gospel is an invitation for all nations to participate in the kingdom of God and bring to it the cultural proclivities that make it unique. This affords the Church a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other in a way that would not be possible if identities were absolved. It heals our shortsightedness. It makes us better attune to truth, beauty, goodness. The diversity in the Godhead supports this as well. If postmodernism has taught us anything, we ought to remember that we can never escape our situatedness, and that includes our national identities.
The kingdom of God transcends national boundaries.
This means that I feel closer to Christians whose citizenship is not American than I do the most patriotic, pagan American—and I meet both kinds on a daily basis. The covenant God made with Abraham was one with transnational implications, and being part of my Father’s family means my affections are stronger for my brothers and sisters in Christ than they are those who look the same, eat the same, dress the same, or hold to the same political ideas I do. Might this injunction be part of what Paul meant when he said, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10)?
We must also understand that for the early church to declare, “Jesus is Lord!” was to to say, conversely, that “Caesar is not,” as a recent book has pointedly put it. One day, our president is going to be out of a job. One day, our democratically-elected representatives, senators, and officials will have no sway in how the world is governed. We are comfortable with this, right? Furthermore, we must not romanticize our nation’s past. We need to repent for the times in which our nation acted more like Caesar than it did Jesus, and be sensitive about the ways in which our actions have hurt other nations in the past.
The United States of America is one among many great nations.
How does one quantify greatness? When are great ideals overshadowed by corrupt behavior? These are the sorts of questions that those who reject the claim that America is “the greatest nation” are asking. Furthermore, when does the principle of greatness overshadow the Christian virtue of humility?
We must also be aware of the new global landscape. In our global community, families and young professionals are no longer flocking singularly to the USA. In fact, new migration patterns reveal that young professionals are gifted in mobility which makes them less prone to settle in one place. They can feel as “at home” in a city like Sydney as they do Dubai, London, or Houston. Those who have been to these cosmopolitan areas know each has its own merits and reasons to boast.
Patriotism may be a Christian virtue.
If patriotism is simply an attachment to ones culture, including love or devotion to it, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being patriotic. In fact, in the 18th century some said that Methodists made the best soldiers. John Wesley was a patriot in full measure. He was almost more ready to fellowship with thieves, drunkards, and “common swearers” than he was with anarchists and those who hated the Crown (see his “Calm Address to the Inhabitants of England”).
Again, celebrating diversity means living into your own identity, whatever that may be. When the national calendar sets aside a day in the year to recognize this, there is no harm in joining in the festivities. For most Americans that means parades, BBQ, and fireworks. If you live in a fancy town like mine, you may even be privileged to see an annual lawnmower brigade. But are there other things you can include in your festivities? Prayer? Service? Raising awareness for those who don’t have the rights and liberties you do? These may be a uniquely Christian way of celebrating our nation.
Most people who live in the USA wouldn’t trade it for anything. This is for good reason: the entrepreneurial spirit, the energy, the unique balance of powers in government that has served to provide general stability for over 200 years. Nonetheless, those who “bleed” red, white, and blue were purchased freedom, ultimately, not by soldiers who carried arms, but by a Christ who laid his down. In him we can celebrate the gift of nationhood in a uniquely Christian way, and because of him, “whatever gain” we had, we may at times have to “count as loss” (Phil 3:7) in order that the Church may show the world what true life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness looks like.