Monday, July 4, 2011

Patriotism in the Church

There is a branch of American Protestantism in which patriotism and faith go hand-in-hand. To be a Christian is to be a staunch patriot and conservative Republican. Flags and patriotic songs are used regularly in worship to celebrate national holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. Sermons are preached in which patriotic themes are pulled from Bible passages (often taken out of context and contorted to fit). Occasionally the Pledge of Allegiance is recited.

But what did Jesus say about all this? It seems as though if we’re going to do something during our worship time it should be something that God wants us to do. Was Jesus a flag-waving patriot, or was he something else?

We can learn a lot from Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees over taxation in Matthew 22:15-22. To set the scene: Jesus is in Jerusalem. This is the week leading up to Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. He has been teaching in the temple all week, and as people come into the city to celebrate the feast, he has garnered quite a crowd of listeners. As usual, the Pharisees are trying to find ways to get rid of him. So, they come up to him, interrupting his teaching. “Oh, we know you’re a great teacher. Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. 16And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

18But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.”

So they brought Him a denarius.

20And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

21They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”

And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

Let’s look at this carefully. If Jesus answers “no”, the Pharisees will turn him in to Pilate, accusing him of insurrection. If Jesus answers “yes”, they will accuse him of supporting the hated Romans, which they considered to be treason against God and the Jewish nation. (Consider that the Pharisees couldn’t stand the fact that Jesus spent time with and even ate with tax collectors, and that his calling Matthew, who was himself a tax collector, was remarkable.) One can imagine that Matthew and Simon the Zealot (who was presumably adamantly opposed to the Romans and tax collectors in general) were listening especially close to Jesus’ words. Jesus could possibly offend some of his disciples and would certainly fall into the trap that the Pharisees had set.

Except that Jesus sees right through their little plot.

“You bunch of hypocrites. Show me a coin. Whose pictures and inscription are these?”

Well, the obvious answer is “Caesar’s.” They tell him as much.

Jesus’ reply is simple: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt. 22:21).

To Jesus, the answer was clear. Nationhood or patriotism never entered into the equation. Jesus was concerned with higher things than which nation one supported with taxes. God had promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. Not just one or two.

We get too hung up in our patriotism sometimes. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am thankful that God has placed me in the United States of America, that I have the freedom to worship and to speak my mind. I don’t make very much, but I make a fortune compared to ¾ of the people in the world. Still, my patriotism manifests itself at places other than church.

The question, really, is about why we even go to church. Why are we there? Is it to see and be seen? Is it to make ourselves feel good? Or is it to worship the God of all creation in the manner in which he wants?

I feel confident that God is less interested in how we feel about a political entity and more interested in how we spend our time at church. Sunday morning worship hour is not the time and place for patriotism, because it is the time and place for worship. Too often we worship a nation and our sentimental feelings instead of Almighty God. Too often we wave the flag at church, proclaiming the U.S. to be “the greatest nation on earth”, when actually we could do a whole lot more to feed the hungry, heal the sick, empower the powerless, and release the captives – which is what Jesus commanded us to be doing.

It seems to me that if we are going to gather on Sunday morning to worship God, we need to worship God. If I want to attend a political rally or patriotic event, I can do so outside the location and time of worship. The kingdom of God has no borders, no nationality, no race. The kingdom of God is about bringing people in and helping them to become disciples, not about waving flags and singing patriotic songs. The kingdom of God is about following Jesus’ example of rising above politics to get to the meat of the issue: one of serving God.

It probably comes as little surprise now that I dislike the displaying of the American flag in worship spaces. Most of this has to do with the law, actually. The American flag has to be placed in the position of honor, to the speaker’s right, or to the congregation’s right. Any other flags must be placed to the left of the American flag – including the Christian flag. Further, no flag can be higher than the American flag. So we are left with a problem: do we obey the law and therefore say the American flag is more important than the Christian flag (and by symbolism, the Church), or do we break the law? The answer is easy. Simply leave the flag out of the worship space. It solves the problem and removes the symbolism of patriotism from a place where the symbolism should be focused on God.

I also dislike singing patriotic songs during the worship service. People are very influenced by music. When we sing about God, we start to value God over everything else – which is what he wants! When we sing about our nation, we start to value our nation over our God. The focus is on our nation (and yes, I am aware that most of the ones we sing are about God blessing our nation, but the focus is still on our nation, not God).

Further, I dislike the way many preachers find some passage to support patriotism, stretching and contorting and taking it out of context to fit the needed message. The Bible does not work that way! The Bible influences the message. The message does not influence the Bible. In other words, we cannot make the Bible fit whatever we want it to fit. Remember the Rwandan genocide of 1994? A quarter of a million people died because a rival tribe decided the Bible said to kill them. The nation is still recovering. That is “Christian” patriotism at its worst.

I understand I am taking this a bit far, but I believe we’ve gone so far off course that I think we need to take some radical action to get us back to where we need to be. For starters, I believe we should remove patriotic symbols from worship spaces, as outlined above. I believe the pledge of allegiance has no place in Christian worship, because our allegiance is not to a flag or a political entity, but to God. I believe we should focus our worship on following Jesus into the kingdom of God. I believe that while patriotism definitely has its time and place, the church during times of worship is not it. I believe we should focus less on how wonderful our nation is and more on how many mistakes we’ve made, how many of our own people are starving, uneducated, and in need of justice, and how many people the world over need Jesus.

Jesus told us to go to the uttermost parts of the earth to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to follow him. Is our patriotism standing in the way of that?


  1. This is a really good post on the same topic:

  2. AMEN!!! Wow... I am very refreshed to hear this.

    (Got to this site via Emily's new blog BTW. Good work y'all. Keep it up.)

  3. Amen. Here is how I put it a couple of years ago: