Sunday, July 03, 2016

Piper On Patriotism

It is the weekend of July 4th, here in America known as Independence Day (or more commonly just called the Fourth of July by people who don't seem to know what the date signifies) and it falls on a Monday giving us one of those delightful three day weekends, unless you are self-employed like us and have to get to work most of the weekend.

Anyway, Independence Day usually brings out the same stuff that Memorial Day and Veterans Day do, lots of conflating American patriotism with Christianity. Some is intentional, most is not but as I look over my social media feeds I see a lot of stuff that is troubling. A couple of days ago John Piper posted something on this topic, Should Christians Be Patriotic? , and I was hopeful that it would be a useful corrective to the patriotic/religious fervor that surrounds the 4th but I was kind of disappointed. Part of the issue is defining what "patriotism" even means and what it looks like.

Here is part of what Piper said:

However, I think God means for us to be enmeshed in the world in various ways. We are not to go out of the world. We are in the world. We are not supposed to be of the world (John 17:15–19). We are in a city. We are in a state. We are in a county or a country and a continent. There are all kinds of these geographical and cultural allegiances or identifications that we have. And if I ask, now, what is patriotism in this kind of paradoxical enmeshment, my answer is that patriotism is a special love or affection, endearment for fatherland. It could be a city. It could be a state, a neighborhood. It could be a tribe. It could be an ethnicity. And that love is different from the general love that Christians have for everybody or for the whole world. And the reason I think that is true, and there are several reasons, but one is that there are these special affections indicated in the Bible in various ways.

If that is what we are talking about, a love for the place God has placed us, an affinity for it, that is one thing. For my wife and I, even after living all over the country as a family, our home is Ohio. When we are in Toledo, we are home, we know it, it speaks to us differently from other places even though we haven't lived there for decades. I am also half Polish in ancestry so when I am home in Toledo I like to go to the old Polish market, Stanley's, and get their incredible kielbasa. I have a special love and affinity for that as part of my heritage. That sort of love and affinity is one thing. I think most Christians in most places have something like that.

But when we are talking about patriotism in the contemporary American sense, it is not just an affinity for this nation, it is a feeling of superiority, that this nation is special in a way no other nation is, and in a uniquely "Christian" sense, and more specifically American patriotism is almost always accompanied by an implied willingness to kill others to preserve our American identity and protect our "way of life". This is where I think Piper dances around and seems unwilling to call it out. Here is part of what I mean:

So, I think, yes, there is such a thing, a good thing, as patriotism. And with regard to nations, it seems like Romans 13:1, in calling us to be subject to the powers that wield the sword, implies that in some sense a country identity or a nation state identity has the right to use that sword to defend itself against aggression and, thus, in some sense preserve its right to exist and exist as it exists. And so, I think that implies that there is a proper place for patriotism at the national level. 

Maybe we should wrap it up by saying: Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial to feel that, I think. Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.

He is right on in the second paragraph. I ought to be far closer to a Christian in Kenya or South Korea than to a pagan in America but that is rarely the reality. We see many Christians in this country forming unequally yoked alliances with unbelievers here to win political victories with very little thought given to how we can use our talent and treasure to bless our brothers and sisters who don't live in America. As far as the first, as far as America goes, very few of the occasions where America has wielded the sword have been in self-defense. The War of 1812 for sure and at least the Japanese side of World War II but otherwise most of the uses of the sword have been in foolish wars or worse wars of naked aggression. I am sure Piper understands the difference between American exceptionalistic patriotism and more general affinity of where one is placed but he doesn't really address it and as such leaves it misused.

What does the Bible say about this issue? One of the best treatments is in 1 Peter.....

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.   
- 1 Peter 2:9-17

The church is at her most basic a called out nation of people who have been born-again and are part of the new people of God under the New Covenant. We are found throughout the ages in nations around the world and our nationality a God's people transcends and trumps every form of human nationality. Nations rise and nations fall, they change and they merge and they disappear but the one nation of God's people is eternal. We are called to honor the emperor and submit to Caesar where we live in those places where Caesar is to be rendered unto. When Peter says to "abstain from the passions of the flesh", he is not just speaking of obvious stuff like sexual temptation. The temptations of the church in a land like America are far greater than what we would usually think. Our temptations take form in the call to violence on behalf of the state, in making unequally yoked alliances for political power, in taking on the trappings of world success in the church. I am far more concerned with the temptations of power and violence we face as the church in America than I am with other, more obvious temptations.

Patriotism can be a harmless thing but more often than not it is accompanied by an implicit threat to use violence or to subsume the Kingdom in favor of earthly power. I think Piper was way to soft and vague here because for Christians living in America, the lure of patriotism is one of the greatest, most dangerous anti-Kingdom temptations we face, all the more so because it is a culturally accepted and encouraged temptation. The flag and the cross belong to completely different kingdoms. When we forget that, we forget the entire reason for the Kingdom of God.

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