Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Better Country

In light of the waves of patriotism that frequently flood through not just our society but Christian churches as well, I felt it would be useful to examine this matter through the lens of Scripture. Christians should be loyal to the country that is truly their home. After recounting the faith of godly individuals from the Old Testament, the writer of Hebrews tells us in Chapter 11, verses 13-16 that "these all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city." As Christians, do we make it obvious that we seek a heavenly country? If not, I think reevaluation of our Christian walk would be advisable, lest we return to that country from which the Lord called us out to be His children.

Peter tells us, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9). First of all, every human being who has ever lived has descended from one man. Further, all the believers worldwide comprise the holy nation. The Lord, after all, commanded us in the Great Commission to teach all nations—not just the one we were born into. On the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:5 reports—"And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven." Even though these people were from different countries, they had in common their faith in God Almighty—which is far more important than any national loyalty.

We are supposed to be strangers and pilgrims in this world, not feeling love for our current place of residence. Our patriotism should be as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Sadly, this attitude seems to be lacking in many American Christians. Some time ago, I received a catalog in the mail, offering conservative Christian products. A lot of the items were appealing, but there is some commentary that encapsulates this issue of Christian patriotism. Supposedly, one of the aspects of courageous boyhood is loyalty and patriotism. The catalog explains: "Behind the courage of a truly faithful boy is gratitude for his family, his nation, and for the tender mercies of God in his life, motivating him to demonstrate an unflinching loyalty. Therefore, he has the heart of a son and the spirit of a patriot." This spirit is reinforced by the sale of authentic-looking military uniforms for boys, complete with realistic replicas of hand grenades and other instruments of death. I do not understand what exactly the United States has done to earn such devotion from Christians, but I know from personal experience that this view is quite common among professing Christians in America.

I thought that a good way to illustrate the dangers of nationalism was to examine the Pledge of Allegiance. For any of you not familiar with it, the pledge involves a person facing an American flag, putting his hand over his heart, and reciting that he "pledge[s] allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." First of all, Jesus makes it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that His followers should not swear oaths of any sort (Matthew 5:33-37). Even worse, what is this loyalty oath being sworn to? The U.S. flag—an inanimate object, made with hands. To me, this sounds perilously close to worship of a graven image. Far above any nation, the Lord is just. As for any country being "under God," consider how Satan tempted Jesus: "And the devil, taking him up into a high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it." (Luke 4:5-6). All earthly countries are part of the ungodly world system and thus are in Satan’s hand. This pledge of allegiance is commonly recited every day by children in government schools across the United States. They are being indoctrinated at an early age that their primary loyalty should be to their nation, not God.

I think a lot of Christians get hung up on the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, thus making it worthy of our loyalty. I was raised to feel the same way. I have done a lot of studying of American history, both in college and personally, and I have to say this concept is far from the truth, despite what I used to believe. I do not think it would be wrong to say that some Biblical principles were important factors in early America, but such principles were primarily from the Old Testament. However, this falls short of New Testament Christianity. Many of the nation’s founders, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were deists. Basically, deists believe in God as a great Clockmaker who wound up the universe in the beginning and now simply sits back and watches it run. This deity is a far cry from the God of the Bible who craves a personal relationship with us. Why else did He send His Son to die for us? A quote attributed to Franklin: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." I suppose having His Son dwell among us and suffer crucifixion for the remission of our sins was not good enough to make God’s love obvious. These are not individuals who deserve a Christian’s admiration.

Romans 13:1-2 instructs us, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." What does this say about the "Christian" founders of America who battled the British government for independence? In the U.S.’s early years of nationhood, the country did not exactly show Christ’s love for all men by stealing the land of the natives and basically destroying their whole way of life. The list can go on for the entirety of this nation’s history. The early Anabaptists well understood the concept that an earthly nation could not operate following Christian principles. Their belief in the separation of church and state was one of the main reasons for the virulent persecution they suffered at the hands of both Protestant Reformers and Catholics, who could not conceive of an alternative to the state church system.

The Bible instructs us to obey the government authorities, but only to a point. "Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29). If our nation ever calls on us as Christians to do something that we know contradicts the Word of God, we are obligated to peacefully disobey. In a prophecy of the coming Messiah, Isaiah 9:6 tells us the source of authority for the government of the citizens of heaven—"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

The Word of God tells us, for example, to leave peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18). Despite this, many Christians, through use of nationalism (with all its love of fellow countrymen and hatred of the opposing nation), can be whipped into a murderous fervor when the government requires their services as cannon fodder in war. This is exactly what Adolf Hitler did in Germany in the years before the Second World War, filling the ranks of his army with professing Christians. Even in this nation, the government has tried to convince the citizens that attacking terrorist countries was for a "good cause," namely making the U.S. a safer place. So, Christians enlist in the military, going to foreign countries to kill people in the name of their country. Meanwhile, those on the home front offer prayers for the troops that God may be with them in their campaign of destruction.

The Bible’s teachings on loving your enemies are clear, and yet Christians can fall prey to excessive patriotism that makes it easier for them to justify in their hearts the killing of other human beings. Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 5:11, "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them." If a Christian is so patriotic that he is willing to die or even kill for his country, this patriotism is a work of darkness that deserves strong reproof. Hatred or distrust between citizens of different nations does not make much sense for Christians in light of Galatians 3:28—"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." If we are all one, it is clearly wrong for a Christian to be killing other Christians on the battlefield. On the flip side, if the enemies are not Christian, blowing them up does not exactly make a good witness of the Gospel. In fact, by killing them, the Christian has ended their opportunity to receive the Lord and be saved.

There is a poem with a Latin title: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." It means, "It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country." No earthly authority should command this sort of fealty from followers of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the Lord tells us in John 15:13—"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." So, as Christians, should "friends" refer to the governmental authority or people who just happen to be living in the same geographic area, or should "friends" refer to the holy nation of the believers across the globe?

As a way of making sure that its citizens are ready to leap into war at their leaders’ command, the act of dying for one’s country is glorified, and people that do so take on the status of martyrs. National holidays are observed to honor these individuals who died for their country. It fosters the lie that these sacrifices for the nation’s sake are what preserve liberty for us all. A few years ago, I was driving through town on the weekend of Veterans Day. I passed a building with an electronic sign that said, "Enjoy your freedom? Thank a veteran." The edifice displaying this sentiment was a Christian church. Our freedom does NOT come from men, but from Christ. Jesus says in John 8 that "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," and also, "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." Many people in this country who claim to be followers of Christ have seemingly forgotten this core Biblical principle.

I believe Christians must stand guard that an issue such as love of country does not compete with our devotion to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We must remember that, all that we do must be to the glory of God. "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment." (Mark 12:30). If we, as Christians, are devoted to any activity that detracts from or interferes with this love, it could very well be our personal false idol. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12).

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