This year my husband and I are both on leave from Calvin College in Michigan while he pastors a small church in a small city on the edge of the Canadian prairies. Canadian-born, I looked forward to returning “home” (if only temporarily). I am also looking forward to my two sons (ages 9 and 11) learning that Christians can express regional and national loyalty in different ways and still be united in confessing Christ as Lord of all. I want them to figure out both what is nonnegotiable about being Christian, no matter where one lives, and what is open to personal and regional variation as part of the freedom and creativity God gives to individuals and communities.

The culture shock was at first a little hard on them. Although they attend a Christian school, as they did in Michigan, they are suddenly learning French in middle elementary school, which they would not have done until tenth grade back home. They are in a place where the provincial symbol (the buffalo) is also served up as meat. And they are in a place where the landscape is flatter but skies are grander than back home.

Getting to know and appreciate another region’s values and loyalties also set me pondering the value and limits of patriotism. Can we bring a biblical analysis to bear on this complex emotion, which at one extreme can weld together millions of diverse individuals, and at the other be used to excuse such things as wars of aggression, genocide, and prideful ignorance about the rest of the world? I think we can.

The good news about patriotism is that God has made us irreducibly social creatures. It is no accident that God says in Genesis 1, “Let us make humankind in our own image, after our own likeness.” Already, at the very beginning of the Bible, we have a strong hint about the Trinitarian nature of God: The Godhead is a social unit of three mutually supportive persons; consequently, we can never fully “image” God as isolated individuals.

Therefore, we were made for community, and for communal interdependence and loyalty. But we are finite, and we cannot practice equal interdependence with everyone on Earth, so it is creationally normal (and intuitively understandable) that we tend to organize primarily in smaller units—local churches, provinces, and nations-states.

Moreover, in the same chapter God tells both male and female to “open up” the creation, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28–29). Again, this is something they must do together, by implication with the help of their offspring: It would be far too big a task for any one person, even if the Fall had never occurred.

There is nothing in this account that suggests opening up the creation should result in everyone doing everything the same way. Our God takes pleasure not just in individual, but also regional, racial, and national variety. And patriotism can be a legitimate expression of all this.

The bad news, of course, is that the Fall did occur. So group loyalty becomes group exclusivity (even in the church); patriotism degenerates into jingoism, civil religion, and prejudice. Even Christians forget that their primary loyalty to Christ is one that must transcend regional and national differences to include people of every nation, tongue, and tribe.

In the end, only the transformation and renewal of our minds by Christ’s spirit can guarantee that we retain the good of patriotism while exorcising the bad. Also, deliberately cultivating an appreciation of regional and national diversity will help us along this path.

Gradually this is happening in my sons: From complaining about French, they have become pleasantly smug about returning home more bilingual than their peers in Michigan. From deploring the absence of Mexican food, they have come to praise buffalo meat. And from being homesick for a bigger church and Christian school, they have come to appreciate small as beautiful.

God willing, this year away will give them—will give me—a more solidly biblical appreciation of the virtues and limits of patriotism.


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