For American Christians, there might not be an issue more complicated or wrapped in history and politics than patriotism. Even saying the word patriotism in a gathering of Christians is likely to garner as many responses as there are people. A love for one's country is looked on with both reverence and revulsion by Christians … and both sides seem to have good reasons. So how ought Christians to think about patriotism? Is there a Christian response to patriotism? And how can faithful Christians hold in tension their love for country and their primary love and commitment to the kingdom of God?
Patriotism vs. Nationalism
First, it's important to make a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. It's a distinction that's been blurred (and blurred often), but it's a helpful one.
Patriotism can be defined simply as love of country—it's a love that seems to include much of the world's population. It's the kind of love that makes you thankful you're an American whenever you hear the National Anthem, or that makes you thankful you're British whenever you hear "God Save the Queen," or that makes you thankful you're from whatever country whenever your country wins an Olympic medal. It's that feeling of altruistic gratitude for freedom, or democracy, or culture, or any of the other values people around the world treasure in their nation.
Nationalism, on the other hand, takes that love of country and expands it to mean love of country at the expense of other nations. It's when someone believes they are better because they come from a particular place, or that someone else is less valuable because of the country that issued their passport. In the United States, it's often given the innocuous sounding title "American exceptionalism"; sometimes this term means a very good patriotism that is grateful for the gifts bestowed on American citizens, but too often this means treasuring American identity at the expense of others. It's saying, "My country is better than yours, and you are less civilized/enlightened/good because of where you are from." There are ways to say, "The nation that you belong to should consider adopting some of my country's freedoms" without it being nationalism. But nationalism never considers what one's nation could learn from others.
It's not just Americans who struggle with nationalism, of course. Most nations do. And it wasn't a foreign (no pun intended) problem in the New Testament church. There's a reason Paul writes repeatedly about the need for the Jews to recognize the full participation of Gentiles in the kingdom of God. The Jews' national and religious identity made it difficult for them to understand how a Greek, Ethiopian, or slave from Asia Minor could be just as much a part of God's new work. But Paul's famous assertion that there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28) demonstrates that nationalism must never be part of the new kingdom of God.
A Good Kind of Patriotism
So how, then, should Christians distinguish between patriotism and nationalism? Well, as in most things, it's best to know what Jesus did.
In Luke 19, there's a peculiar story about Jesus. In the midst of the pomp and glory of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus begins to weep. He weeps because the city-and, by extension, all Israel—failed to recognize his lordship, and because he knew the impending destruction of Jerusalem. The scene echoed a previous lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13:31-35), where Jesus said, "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (v. 34, ESV).