I've been a part of numerous churches that celebrated American Independence Day with abandon: 80-foot flags hanging from the ceilings, singing the "Star Spangled Banner" and "I'm Proud to Be an American" and even— most disturbing to me as I reflect back—saying the Pledge of Allegiance during our corporate worship.
If some visitor had asked us on those Sunday just what we were worshiping, I think that might have been a very perceptive question.
For many, the Fourth is about gratitude for the blessings of freedom. And as far as that goes, I'm in complete agreement—though to see only the "blessings" of freedom and not also repent of all the many varied and creative ways we've abused it might be a bit short-sighted. Still, yes to gratitude.
For others, these celebrations go beyond merely the gratitude and obedience that Scripture commands, into something else, something entirely absent from the God's Word: Patriotism.
Patriotism, defined as "devoted love, support, and defense of one's country; national loyalty" makes little sense to a people called to live as aliens and strangers, as exiles. If I am—as Scripture tells me I am—a "citizen of another country," where should my "national loyalty" lie?
And as for my "devoted love"what does it mean to say I "love my country"? I love and feel called to the people in it? Yes. But should I ever love the people of America more than the people of Canada or Mexico, of Haiti or Ghana? Probably not. To say "I love America" is to say I love a political system, a set of laws and arbitrary boundary lines that history will eventually erase and more: I think it might be saying more than I ought to say as a follower of Jesus.
Tony Campolo puts it this way: "America may be the best Babylon the world has, but it is still Babylon nonetheless."
We are exiles living in Babylon, folks. Our corner may be called "America," or "Canada," or "France," but it's still all a part of the same thing: a world system that transcends borders, is dominated by materialistic consumerism and exploitation, and is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. And while love and affection for the people living in that system is entirely necessary, and while we should certainly pray for the peace and well-being of the place where God has set us, we need to avoid the mistake we see over and over in Scripture: becoming so enamored with our temporary dwelling—whether that's called Egypt, Babylon, or even America—that we lose sight of what Hebrews calls "a better place."
I may carry an Oregon driver's license, but I try hard to remember where my identity is really rooted. It's rooted in Jesus, the One whose claims of Lordship will always challenge Caesar's.
And that means that nationalism, in any degree, is misplaced affection. If Jesus really is our Peace who has broken down every dividing barrier between us, to celebrate the arbitrary lines and political distinctions which divide us is, in a sense, anti-gospel. Jesus expressed anger a number of times in the Gospels, but the most famous was when He saw what should have been "a house of prayer for all nations" turned into something else.
And my fear is that by highlighting ideas of America and patriotism so heavily in our Fourth of July services, we do just that. At best, we fail to see how waving the American flag in a worship service looks to the Brits and Kenyans and Malaysians sitting in our pews and what it communicates to them. And at worst, we give to Caesar what really belongs to Jesus.
Is it okay to celebrate the Fourth with neighbors, families and friends? Absolutely. If we really want to love people to Jesus, we live in line with the rhythms of the places where God puts us. When we show them the Gospel lived out in a culturally contextualized way we demonstrate that Jesus is for all people. So, grill some burgers, dogs, or the vegetarian alternative of your choice. Set off the firecrackers and watch the fireworks. Don't dare be a stick in the mud during a national celebration.