How Should Christians Feel About Patriotism in the Church?
Joshua Pease Author + Writer
How should Christians feel about patriotism in the church?
It’s one of the most prominent, consistent themes of the Bible - from Genesis to Revelation - and yet we never talk about it because our secular culture has blinded us to it. In today’s culture, it’s never been more important that we see it.
The Bible first introduces this theme following the flood, when the great warrior Nimrod founds multiple cities, including Babylon and Assyria (more on them later). These civilizations quickly define their greatness by their cultural achievements, building the tower of Babel as a way of “making a name for themselves.” God is not into this idea and divides the languages to scatter them. This is the first view we get of a dominant people group, and it’s not flattering.
Becoming an established nation, God tells them, is dangerous to your loyalty to me and my command that you love others. Don’t lose focus. Be faithful to me.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are nomads throughout their lives, with God telling them to be very careful in how they relate to these surrounding nations. This culminates with Jacob ’s moving into the Egyptian kingdom, where they become slaves whose blood stains Egypt’s great works. When God frees the Israelites from Egypt and creates a safe space for them to prosper, he repeatedly tells them to remember what it was like in captivity and to treat foreigners, slaves, and the poor with kindness. Becoming an established nation, God tells them, is dangerous to your loyalty to me and my command that you love others. Don’t lose focus. Be faithful to me.
*narrator’s voice* They didn’t.
Israel’s fatal sin in the Old Testament is becoming like the evil empires around them. Israel fails to govern itself well throughout Judges, so God gives them a king, warning them that it will end poorly. Saul, who looks the kingly part (just like today, short people don’t get to be in charge), is a disaster. David, a man after God’s own heart, is so bloodthirsty he isn’t allowed to build God’s temple. When Solomon launches temple construction he uses slave labor to do it, and when Solomon’s son Rehoboam is told the people are crumbling under the financial and physical toll demanded by Solomon, Rehoboam doubles down, saying it will be even worse under his rule. All echoes of the Egyptian Pharaoh in this account are intentional.
The rest of the Old Testament is either a direct or indirect indictment of Israel as an empire. They serve gods that promise them financial prosperity. They exploit the poor. They are harsh to the foreigners. Israel’s success becomes their undoing, God casts them down as a nation for their sexual immorality, bloodlust, and greed, and they are taken into captivity by the descendants of Nimrod: Assyria and Babylon. The rotten fruit of empires consumes Israel from within first, and then without.
The New Testament is a bit more subtle, but very much in step, with the Old Testament’s anti-empire message. The word “gospel” is a reappropriation of a word used to announce the “gospel” (good news) of a Roman military victory. The Roman emperor was believed to be the son of the gods. The kingdom of Rome was thought to be the kingdom of the gods, bringing peace wherever it went. If you read the Gospels knowing this, they become very, very political.
The birth of a new king in Bethlehem is so threatening to the current political establishment that King Herod commits mass infanticide (another callback to the Egyptian captivity). John the Baptist is aggressively political and is beheaded for his troubles. Jesus makes it clear that because the Roman coin bears Caesar’s image, give him what he wants; however, he implies that because humans are stamped with the Imago Dei everything else we do belongs to God. Jesus’s message of a new kingdom, with a new king that stood in opposition to worldly rulers, was perceived as so anti-empire the Pharisees were able to use it to force Rome to crucify him. The entire book of Revelation co-opts the Roman imperial imagery of the day to paint a picture of God’s faithful people persecuted by an evil empire, but holding true and being rewarded when all is said and done.
The Bible is at best deeply skeptical about nationalism and power and is most often overtly hostile against them.
I’m leaving so much out, because from beginning to end the Bible is at best deeply skeptical about nationalism and power, and is most often overtly hostile against them. Which leads us back to the original question: how should churches today feel about including patriotism in their services, considering we live in the most powerful nation (or in Biblical terms, empire) on earth?
While praying for our nation is undoubtedly biblical, is there any place for the American flag in a church service? For those who would argue yes, what biblical justification is there for that? Our government may sometimes stand for freedom, but it also facilitates the killing of unborn babies, a judicial system prejudiced against minorities and immigrants, and drone strikes that over the past several administrations of killed thousands of innocent people.
We are a country of religious freedom, and also a country that as a “Christian nation” claimed it was our “manifest destiny” to rule the land that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. If some indigenous people groups got in the way of “God’s will,” well then the genocide we waged against them was a righteous crusade. We are a country that today gives money to the rich and immoral, and away from the poor and middle class. Even though our economy is currently thriving, the median income rates are staying the same.
What troubles me the most about American Christianity today is not that we have merged the kingdom of Jesus and kingdom of America, but that many of our people aren’t aware there’s a difference.
Spend time equal time praying for our country and praying for America’s enemies that God would bless them and create peace between them and us.
If you want to see if this is true in your church, here’s a quick experiment: this coming Sunday spend time equal time praying for our country and praying for America’s enemies, and that God would bless them and create peace between them and us. See how people respond. Or what if churches did a four week series on patriotism, nationalism, and the Christian faith that tackled this topic from multiple angles?
The Bible is clear: God’s people and powerful empires don’t mix. We live in the most powerful empire on earth. If we don’t feel that tension in our worship services, we’re doing it wrong.