Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day
- Thursday, May 26, 2011
This is post probably has something to make everyone unhappy. But here goes.
With Memorial Day on Monday (in the U.S.) and, no doubt, a number of patriotic services scheduled for this Sunday, I want to offer a few theses on patriotism and the church. Each of these points could be substantially expanded and beg more detailed defense and explanation, but since this is a blog and not a term paper, I'll try to keep this under 1500 words.
1. Being a Christian does not remove ethnic and national identities.
In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28), but this does not mean men cease to be male or Jews ceases to be Jewish. The worshiping throng gathered around the throne is not a bland mess of Esperanto Christians in matching khaki pants and white polos. God makes us one in Christ, but that oneness does not mean we can no longer recognize tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples in heaven. If you don't have to renounce being an American in heaven, you shouldn't have to pretend you aren't one now.
2. Patriotism, like other earthly "prides," can be a virtue or vice.
Most people love their families. Many people love their schools, their home, and their sports teams. All of these loves can be appropriate. In making us for himself, God did mean to eradicate all other loves. Instead he wants those loves to be purer and in right proportion to our ultimate Love. Adam and Eve should have loved the Garden. God didn't intend for them to be so "spiritual" that they were blind to the goodness around them. In the same way, where there is good in our country or family it is right to have affection and display affection for those good things.
Of course, we can turn patriotism into an idol, just like family can be an idol. But being proud of your country (or proud to be an American or a Canadian or a Russian or whatever) is not inherently worse than being proud of your kids or proud to be a Smith or a Jones or a Dostoevsky. I find it strange that while it is fashionable to love your city, be proud of your city, and talk about transforming your city, it is, for some of the same people, quite gauche to love your country, be proud of your country, and talk about transforming your country.
3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.
Sometimes Christians talk like you should have no loyalty for your country, as if love for your country was always a bad thing. To be sure, this must never be ultimate loyalty. We must always obey God rather than men. But most Christians have understood the fifth commandment to be about honoring not only your parents but all those in authority over you.
Moreover, Jesus shows its possible to honor God and honor Caesar. This is especially clear if you know some of the Jewish history. The tax in question in Mark 12:1 is about the poll tax or census tax. It was first instituted in AD 6, not too many years before Jesus' ministry. When it was established a man by the name of Judas of Galilee led a revolt. According to Josephus, "He called his fellow countrymen cowards for being willing to pay tribute to the Romans and for putting up with mortal masters in place of God." Like the Zealots, he believed allegiance to God and allegiance to any earthly government were fundamentally incompatible. As far as they were concerned if God was your king, you couldn't have an earthly king.
But Jesus completely disagreed. By telling the people to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" he was saying there are duties to government that do not infringe on your ultimate duty to God. It's possible to honor lesser authorities in good conscience because they have been instituted by a greater authority.
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