Thoughts On Scripture About Citizenship And Duty
There are a few considerations on what scripture explicitly says, and also what it exemplifies as the life of a pilgrim in a land not their own. We are called to submit to the authority of governments that command our allegiance unless they command sin, or forbid what God commands. The new testament has 2 main passages that deal with submission to human rulers. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. The Romans 13 text plainly says "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment." Clever arguments have tried to twist this text by using the next few verses to defend the position that it only applies if the Government is doing a good job and is obeying their role as commissioned by God. This mindset has a few problems, historical context and textual context. Textually it reads to the exact opposite of that intent, as the preceding verses are commands that we "bless those who persecute" us, "never avenge" ourselves and "overcome evil with good". These commands become even more profound when we realize the historical context. Romans was written in the mid-late 50s, and was written to the church in Rome, under the rule of Nero. 1 Peter says simply the same thing. Be subject to and honor your leaders.
Both the above texts command the believer to respect and honor their rulers, but there is even more than just a mindless obedience that is commanded. We are to actively pray for well-being, wisdom, peace and prosperity of our rulers. Jesus himself dealt with the topic of subjection to authority on the issue of taxes (pay careful attention here Tea Partiers and oppression by taxes people). Christ said simply "render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". There is nothing about fairness, or who determines what is fair. If the money is issued by the government and is property of the government, then it is their due to claim it as tax. But the command was taken to a level that the people did not want. Give to God what is God's...everything. We are to obey and honor and pray for and given them what they demand...nothing about fairness or freedom from oppression.
Having just read David VanDrunen's "Living In God's Two Kingdoms", there is some considerations on the life of a sojourner and exile. Israel, the people of God and the type of church, was in a similar situation before. Peter alludes to this type of living when he calls us sojourners and exiles. The people of God lived in Babylon in exile, awaiting return to the promise land. God commanded Israel to live and prosper as exiles in Babylon. The Jews worked for the prosperity of the country they dwelt in and they prayed for it's prosperity. They were to make lives for themselves and be prosperous, beneficial members to society but they were never to forget that they would leave it all behind. The God who told them to prosper in Babylon also said "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place (Jer. 29.10)".
This is the template I believe scripture expects of us, no matter if it is America or any other country we live in. We should have the utmost respect for our rulers, and we should pray for them so they may execute the sword on rightly. We are to obey them as we would obey God, for our obedience to the servant of God (Rom 13) is obedience to God himself. We will not answer for a rulers abused of power, for God will claim vengeance on our behalf. We will answer for if we honored and obeyed them. We ought also to be as good of citizens in the eyes of men that we have the ability to be. We should seek the prosperity of our country. In America we have a great deal of freedoms, and we should use them to prosper, and we should use the prosperity in order to spread the gospel and live as unto God. Christians, especially in a free society, should be among the best citizens a country has. That being said we also must remember this world is not our home, we are exiles, sojourners, in a land not our own. We live on this planet only until we are ushered in to the Kingdom of Heaven. As the Jew was to leave everything when God called them back to the promised land, so we will leave everything when God calls us home. Use the resources and blessings and means you have on this earth, use them to serve God and serve man. Give them generously and hold them loosely. They are not yours, they are God's and we are to give to God what is His.
Thoughts On The American Church
Now we come to the reason I intentionally distance myself from any notion of patriotism, though I don't think it must be done. No doubt we are blessed in America (much to the grace of God in spite of our sinful birth and our individualistic rebellious existence). We are in a land of prosperity, a land with freedoms and liberties, and a land of luxury. In spite of that, we still have large amounts of poverty, discrimination, and exploitation. We as a society have a great many things to thank God for, and for each one of those blessings we as a society have a great many things we must answer to God for as well. I do not believe in raising objections and asking challenging questions that I forfeit my rights as a natural born citizen of this country. I do not believe that all of my convictions, or others who have different convictions on certain things (stricter or looser), should be bound on the entire American church. That being said I have my concerns and believe we must wrestle with them honestly and not just brush them off which I have done in the past and have seen many others do. There are many things that we must consider in determining what level of patriotism, if any, actually is compatible with the Christian life.
First is the fervor in which we cling to our freedoms and "rights" in this country. As I have said, we are blessed here. We have the Bill of Rights, which I benefit from greatly. We also have a system of government set up where the very leaders are subject to the constitution, and have no rights outside what the constitution allows. Without making this a post about the constitution, there are a lot of blessings that come from it and that is not the point. We love our freedom, and we will fight, kill others and lay down our lives, in order to keep those freedoms. We will spend millions of dollars trying to lobby and promote political candidates we believe will "protect" our rights and preserve our liberty. But then Evangelicals and Fundamentalists especially are the first ones impose a restriction of freedoms on the "secularists". Between calling out for a return to prayer and bible reading in public schools, to restricting the freedom of Muslims to gather peacefully and build mosques where they want, and to the current debates of the level of acceptance we should allow for homosexuality in society, these are all examples of the way evangelicals will fight using politics and government to impose Christianity on the nation by law. The worst part is that the political language used intentionally insinuates that the secularists are actually persecuting or violating the rights of the church. This "Golden Era of the 50s" mentality begs the question. If America was so amazing in the 50s, why was there such an explosion of "rebellion against Christianity" in the 60s? Social revolutions don't just happen over night. They buid decade upon decade. But American Christians are ultimately more focused on returning to the "Golden era" than living as Christians in the midst of a post-Christian society.
American Christianity has also adopted a culture that is joined to certain political theories and economic theories. There are principles in scripture that deal with political issues and economic issues, but there is also freedom within scripture for believers to wrestle through scripture and come to sometimes opposing opinions. However, for some evangelicals, Christianity is almost called into question if you vote democrat. Socialism is equated with pagans, and Capitalism is equated with Godliness. You can see this in the popular Christian banter about the current president. There are people who even go so far as to call Obama the anti-Christ and call into question the Christianity of anyone who supports him. Many more Christians openly criticize his politics and his person. Some of those, when challenged to pray for their rulers, find a "biblical loophole" in praying for his failure and removal from office. Slander, mockery, and all sorts of gossip seems to be justified because he is a curse on this country and is a Muslim anyway. Many of these same people seem just fine with the notion of George W Bush as president, and support his middle eastern policies and praise him for being a Godly man and noble leader. Of course there are gradations of support for both presidents in the spectrum of the church, but the point is that popular Christianity draws political and economic lines absolute lines where scripture has no absolute teaching.
Other observations about the average joe Christian in this country. We spend time and money and travel great distances for political causes, but we can't give generously to the church or charity and we fellowship with the church when it is convenient to us. We will wake up at 5.30 in the morning to do our "duty" and get to the polls to vote but we can't get up by 10.30 for church. Sometimes our reasons for forsaking the fellowship with the church is even less noble than politics. We all know, and probably have been guilty of, staying home because we have to watch the "big game"! Why are there people who will start crying when they hear the national anthem sung beautifully, yet they get bored singing about the greatness and majesty and holiness of God.
Our churches are also made into beacons of patriotism. Hymnals for the majority of churches have section designated to patriotism. Flags are given places of prominence in our places of worship. Sermons are often dedicated to America and American political issues. The corporate gathering to worship have a focus that transcends any nation or people group. Are we a people who believe that the church catholic, the bride of Christ, is a body that is gathered from all nations and people groups? Our worship should be reflective of a heavenly representation of such a truth. Our worship should be practiced in such a way that any believer from any culture in any society from any time period should be able to join in with us in worship of our God. This is not the case in many of our churches.
I'm sure there are more issues to consider and that each one of these issues can have a much more exhaustive piece written about them. My objection is not so much the freedom itself, but the focus and the priority we put on the freedom. Are we living as sojourners and exiles ready to give everything up at a moments notice, or are we living as desperate Americans who have to fight tooth and nail in order to return to paradise? We may have different levels of involvement in American society, but we should strive to prosper, give generously and live graciously, and be ready to walk away from everything this earth has to offer the second God calls us to something differently or takes us to our eternal home.