Is Patriotism Christian?

Finding the right balance
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Things were quite different in the Roman Empire when Paul wrote the Book of Romans. In Romans 13, Paul was referring to Roman authorities that were not friendly to Christianity. Paul had Roman citizenship, but very few people did. Those who didn't enjoyed few rights. By the beginning of the second century, the Christian community experienced explosive growth, and the Romans were concerned that this sect needed to be stopped.

Polycarp, a disciple of John, is the best-known martyr of this period. Because he was an elderly and saintly man, the soldiers who arrested him wanted to give him a way out of his death penalty. So they told him all he had to do to escape death was declare, "Caesar is lord." But Polycarp refused: "Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" In other words, Polycarp knew that the New Testament commands that we submit to rulers, whether or not they protect our right to worship as we choose. Paul was arguing that Christians must submit to rulers, even when it costs us our life, even when those rulers oppose God's plan.

God and Country as Enemies

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that Jesus' ministry was primarily a model of resistance to the values and aspirations of the Roman Empire. Jesus' commands to "turn the other cheek" and "go the extra mile" were given in the context of Roman occupation. Soldiers denigrated the Jews by slapping them or by conscripting them to carry their loads. Those who hold to this view argue that Jesus was encouraging nonviolent resistance to the powers that be. Instead of fighting them with swords, Jesus directed his countrymen to overthrow the Romans by refusing to participate in the violence they supported. By extension, Christians are supposed to follow Jesus' example by resisting imperial tendencies, including the power, violence, and injustice on which they depend. According to this perspective, Jesus was establishing a counter-empire: the kingdom of God.

This perspective has this in its favor: it takes seriously the fact that the first Christian declaration of faith—"Jesus is Lord!"—had political overtones and consequences. As was mentioned above, to claim that Jesus, and not Caesar, was lord was an act of sedition and treason (Acts 17:7). The Romans were none too pleased by Christian language about "King" Jesus who had a "kingdom" in heaven. The Jewish leaders played into this when they wanted the Romans to put Jesus to death: "Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar" (John 19:12).

Like the other extreme, the major weakness of this perspective is that it makes too much of the nation. Instead of the nation being God's primary partner, the nation becomes God's primary enemy. Again, one's Christian faithfulness is based on his or her posture toward the nation. To be a good Christian is to work for social justice, equality, and liberty, and to resist the abuses of capitalism and nationalism. This can easily reduce the faith to only social reform.

Finding the Middle

Despite the fact that both of these positions make their case from Scripture, the Bible does not answer all of our questions about the appropriate relationship between Christian faith and patriotism. On the one hand, the Scriptures are clear that we are to honor those in authority in our country (Rom. 13). But this doesn't have as much to do with politics as with the general principle that Christians are to show honor and respect to those in positions of authority. "Give to everyone what you owe them," Paul explains. "If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor" (Rom. 13:7). This is common theme in the New Testament (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; Titus 3:1 ; 1 Peter 2:13-14, 17).

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