Patriotism and the Kingdom of Heaven
I like celebrating the 4th of July.
Sign me up for burgers on the grill and crimson watermelon, for cold beer and hot dogs. I love the fireworks especially: the anticipation as dusk begins, the showers of light and color, the walk back home with sleepy children smelling of bug spray and sticky from popsicles.
I enjoy the communal nature of the holiday, jostling for the best view of the Girl Scouts in the local parade and sitting with friends and neighbors at the park.
And I’m happy to celebrate the founding of our nation, to remember the imperfect but passionate men who risked so much on a form of government never before seen in the western world on such a scale.
Despite our flaws as a nation — and there are so many, from slavery and the Trail of Tears to police brutality and separating immigrant children from their parents — I think it’s worth celebrating our founding. The founding fathers imagined a new type of government, a new type of relationship between the people and their rulers, and their vision has proven to be remarkably durable.
Their conviction led them to take democracy from a footnote in Greek history roundly critiqued by both Plato and Aristotle to a viable form of government. And I’m grateful to live in a country where I have a voice in my government and in its laws.
But despite all the above, I believe it’s worth taking a moment to remind ourselves that if we call ourselves Christians, America is not our home.
We can appreciate our nation and participate in our democracy. We can vote and protest and run for office; we should care deeply about what happens in our country. The ability to have a say in government is a privilege that I don’t believe Christians should ignore or reject, even when Christians disagree about what to say and how to say it.
Yet we must always remember that the United States is not the kingdom of God. Our government is not our savior. Our loyalty is not to country but to God. Our hope is not in a political party but in Christ.
Sometimes, our work towards and within the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God aligns with our goals and values as citizens of the United States. When we as a nation work towards justice, towards caring for the marginalized, towards helping those in need, we also work towards the kingdom of God.
But other times, our national goals and interests conflict with our loyalties to the kingdom of God. These moments can be difficult to discern, but we must be vigilant and ready to oppose policies that are unjust, cause harm, or dehumanize others.
And whether the work of the kingdom aligns with national interests or not, we must always be wary lest patriotism become idolatry. We live in the world and it is good to care for that world, to seek forms of government that lead to human flourishing. Flawed though they were, the founding fathers sought to do this when they rebelled against their British rulers.
Yet we must also be willing to hold our political institutions loosely, to remember that we can pledge only secondary allegiance to our nation.
No matter how good our government is, it is not God’s rule on earth. No matter how much we appreciate our government and our history, we must not allow that to stand in for our faith in God.
And when we have less faith in our rulers, when we see evidence that those in power seek only power and not the well-being of others, we need not be surprised. Our vantage as citizens of heaven allows — even requires — us to name and resist the evils and injustices committed by our rulers.
So as we Americans watch fireworks blossom in the sky and eat potato salad with our neighbors, let those of us who are Christians remember that we are first of all God’s people, and only secondarily Americans.