Dealing with Our Culture 7: Patriotism

As we continue in our series on dealing with the culture, the time has come to consider patriotism, national identity, and allegiance.  Patriotism is the feeling of love for one’s native country, which encompasses a spectrum from a mere love and gratitude to one’s home country to swearing allegiance to support one’s country regardless of what it does.  Extreme patriotism can lead to the slogan “my country, right or wrong,” which was one of the enablers of the Nazism in Germany.  On the other hand, “cosmopolitanism,” patriotism’s opposite, is the idea of global citizenship where one regards all countries objectively on the basis of their virtues and vices without any sentimental attachment to the native homeland.  Before looking at a Christian perspective on this issue, I want to first give two different examples of patriotism.


Cultural Example 1: Deutschland über Alles

One example of patriotism is the first stanza of Germany’s national anthem from 1922.  Although, since 1952, Germans no longer sing the first two stanzas, these words give us a flavor of what patriotism is.  Here are the words in German and English:


Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,

Über alles in der Welt,

Wenn es stets zu Schutz und Trutze

Brüderlich zusammenhält.

Von der Maas bis an die Memel,

Von der Etsch bis an den Belt,

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,

Über alles in der Welt!


Germany, Germany over all,

Over all in the world,

When, for protection and defense,

It always stands brotherly together.

From the Meuse to the Memel,

From the Adige to the Belt,

Germany, Germany over all,

Over all in the world!


Although these lyrics express nationalistic pride, after two World Wars, German patriotism is much more muted today.  Germans tend to think of themselves in a much more cosmopolitan way.


Cultural Example 2: Kneeling During the National Anthem

In the summer of 2016, San Francisco 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem before the football game began.  According to, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”  His protest met a variety of responses, but the movement continued to grow.  President Donald Trump harshly condemned the practice and advised team owners to fire the protesting players in a series of tweets.  However, on September 24, 2017 over two hundred players sat or kneeled.  Pundits have taken a variety of positions both for and against this new practice.  Many consider kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner as an affront to the country, the military, and the police.  Others regard the protest as a legitimate practice of free expression, a major tenant that so many soldiers have fought to preserve.  Regardless of the legitimacy of their decision, this provides us another example where patriotism plays a role in our culture.  What’s a Christian to do?  Before moving to offer a Christian perspective on these cultural currents, I want to take a moment and consider both the benefits and detriments of patriotism.


Benefits of Patriotism

From ancient philosophers to modern entertainers, many have lauded patriotism as a social good.  It’s fairly easy to see why: people who care about their country are more likely to act in the country’s interest even when it requires self-sacrifice.  Patriotism can foster social cohesion leading to cooperation.  For example, in his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Whether observing rationing policy in the time of war or working together to “put a man on the moon,” patriotism can galvanize a country’s citizens to work together selflessly.  Secondly, feeling gratitude toward one’s native land, like any kind of gratitude, can lead to improved resiliency, optimism, productiveness, and happiness.  The opposite point of view, entitlement, robs us of joy as we complain about how the country fails to live up to our standards.  Thirdly, patriotism can result in a more engaged citizenry.  If people conceive of patriotism as keeping to the country’s founding documents, it can provide a corrective to corruptions that threaten to undermine the nation’s values.  For example, Martin Luther King Jr. couched his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in language of patriotism:


In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."


But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.[1]


Detriments of Patriotism

Patriotism can have several detriments as well.  It can cause intense divisiveness, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racism.  It can lead to the violation of human rights and war crimes, especially when combined with dehumanizing people from other countries or ethnicities.  The infamous Nazi commander, Herman Göring explained how to manipulate people to go to war.  Here is a transcript from an interview in 1946 during the Noremberg Trials:


Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.


Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.


Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.


Such words expose the peer pressure that patriotism can exert on a people, resulting in the persecution of dissenters and the hasty rush to armed conflict.


Deconstructing Patriotism

Before taking a look at the rich wisdom that the Christian perspective brings to bear on this subject, let’s take a moment to look at patriotism a little bit closer.  National borders often owe more to historical conflict than geography or ideology.  For example, people on either side of the Mexican-American border speak Spanish, practice Catholicism, prefer the same cuisine, and like similar music, yet the border artificially separates them, merely due to an ancient custom established by nations.  Why should a man-made border determine how we think of a people on the other side?


We know that every person has human rights, but patriotism inspires a feeling of superiority over those from other nations.  Now, we know it’s wrong to look down on others, but when it comes to nations we make an exception, especially during times of war.  Patriotism can disguise arrogance when we think our country is the best.  However, such nationalistic pride often oversimplifies matters.  Take America for example.  America excels in many areas from humanitarian aid to professional sports to technological innovation.  However, at the same time, the United States also does much evil from the massive pornography industry to exploiting the poor of developing countries for cheap labor to waging unprovoked wars.  Is America the best?  In some ways it is, and in other ways it is not.  It’s complicated.  Patriotism, however, ignores the bad while accentuating the good, just like a mother when she discusses her child’s behavior with the school principal.


A Christian Perspective

So, given the complexity of the patriotism question, what can Christianity offer to help us navigate this issue?  First off, it’s important to understand that Jesus himself lived during a time of rising patriotism.  How the Roman occupation must have aggravated the Jews of Jesus’ day!  They believed God had given them the Promised Land when Joshua led them in, over a millennium before the Romans came.  They must have thought, “How dare these uncircumcised Gentiles take God’s land from His chosen people?  Who do they think they are?”  Since religion and politics were not separate realms in their culture, discussions about politics were inherently religious as well.  They believed God had delivered them time and again from Egyptian ethnic cleansing, from Persian genocide, from Seleucid infanticide, just to list three examples.  Each time God saved His people, they memorialized the event with a festival (i.e. Passover, Purim, and Chanukah).  Celebrating these annual holidays ensured future generations would remember the remarkable feats of their covenant God.  Passover, in particular, became a rallying point for nationalism, a fact the Roman governors took seriously in the time of Jesus.  The Roman soldiers looked down from their perch in the Antonia fortress while countless pilgrims from all over the world brought lambs to slaughter in memory of when God brought the powerful Egyptians to their knees through the ten plagues.  Looking up and seeing Roman soldiers at the ready must have exacerbated tensions as pious Jews couldn’t help but make the connection between their current masters and their time of slavery in Egypt.


Revolts and protest movements broke out both before the period of Jesus’ ministry and afterwards.  It was only thirty years after his crucifixion that the Jews declared independence from the Roman Empire, which led to the great Jewish War.  It took the Romans some 60,000 soldiers to defeat the Jews, resulting in a body count twice the American Civil War not to mention the enslavement of 100,000 survivors, and even the destruction of God’s temple.  What I’m saying is Jesus lived in a turbulent time with lots of patriotism swirling around so he can help us navigate this issue.  The question on peoples’ minds was how to deal with the Roman occupation.


To entrap Jesus, they asked him publicly, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?  Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14).  Jesus asked them for a coin, which they handed him.  He inquired, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Mark 12:16).  They said it was Caesar’s image on the coin.  Jesus responded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).  This answer dumbfounded them, probably because of how well it avoided the carefully laid traps on either side of their question.  Jesus endorsed giving Caesar his own money back, but he simultaneously taught that we should not compromise on giving God what we owe Him.  We see the same position on taxes later when Paul writes, “For the authorities are ministers of God…Pay to all what is owed them: taxes to whom taxes are owed…respect to whom respect is owed” (Rom 13:6-7).  Peter likewise says, “Fear God.  Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17).  Thus, Christianity teaches compliance even if the government is a foreign occupying force, while simultaneously recognizing that God is over all.  So long as the government upholds justice, it is the servant of God (Rom 13:4), but when it makes demands that defy what God says, we must always prioritize our allegiance to God’s Kingdom.


After Jesus’ resurrection, the missionary, Paul, travelled to Thessalonica, spreading the Kingdom gospel message over three weeks.  He primarily preached in the synagogue and was able to persuade a number of folks, both Jews and Greeks, that “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”  Out of jealousy, some stirred up a mob that went to Jason’s house, where Paul and Silas had been staying.  Since they couldn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some others to the authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).  Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Christ, and they equated that with saying Jesus was a king.  Furthermore, they correctly perceived that such a claim violated the decrees of Caesar.  I fear we have depoliticized Jesus because we have bought the myth that religion and politics are two mutually exclusive realms.  Perhaps this is because words like “Christ” and “Lord” have lost their zing.  Many of us think “Christ” is Jesus’ last name and “Lord” is synonymous with Savior.  However, Christ is just the Greek way of saying messiah—the title for the one God anoints to rule the world as king.  It is inherently political, and both the Jews and the Romans knew it.  In fact, this was precisely how the Sanhedrin was able to force Pilate’s hand to order Jesus crucified.

John 19:12-16
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”  …He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”  They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”  So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

Thus, Jesus was and remains not only a religious man but also a political figure.  To be a king is to be a political leader.  Consequently, it should not surprise us when situations arise forcing us to choose between God’s Kingdom and our earthly nation.  This has happened throughout the history of Christianity.  The empire of the day executed Jesus for claiming to be the king of the Jews; they beheaded Paul for proclaiming Jesus as the rightful Lord of the world; they crucified Peter for preaching Jesus as resurrected messiah.  Though they did not threaten the empire’s collection of taxes nor express disrespect towards the governing authorities, the empire still executed them.  The blood of the martyrs flows deep and wide from empires to monarchies to caliphates.


One early example worthy of mention is Polycarp, the overseer of the church of Smyrna in the second century.  The government tracked him down and arrested him when he was already a very old man.  He stood there before the Roman proconsul in the arena while a mob was calling for his blood.  Here is how their conversation went:

Proconsul: “Have respect for your age.  Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”

Polycarp: (Motioning toward the people in the stadium) “Away with the atheists!”

Proconsul: “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ.”

Polycarp: “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong.  How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

Proconsul: “Swear by the genius of Caesar.”

Polycarp: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you request, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian.  Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.”

Proconsul: “Persuade the people.”

Polycarp: “You I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them.”[2]

What a fascinating exchange!  How should we classify Polycarp?  He is not a revolutionary, nor is he a loyalist.  He will not swear by Caesar, nor will he deny that Jesus is his King.  However, he believes that the very man who is about to give the order to burn him alive is appointed by God and so should receive proper respect.  Polycarp’s allegiance is firmly with his heavenly King, but this loyalty has earthly ramifications.  In the end, Polycarp faced torture and martyrdom because he couldn’t hedge on his Kingdom citizenship.


How should Kingdom citizenship affect our lives today, especially as it relates to patriotism?  I don’t think it means we can’t be patriotic, but it certainly limits it.  It’s proper to feel an attachment to one’s homeland and gratitude for a country that enables human flourishing.  The Bible never speaks against loving one’s land.  It’s appropriate to feel gratitude towards your native country, especially if it provided you with a stable government, access to education, and employment opportunities.  However, at its heart Christianity is transnational, embracing believers from every tribe, nation, and language (Rev 5:9).  So eat your apple pie, have a Super Bowl party, launch fireworks in July, but remember that God’s Kingdom is “über alles, über alles in der Welt,” that is, “over all, over all in the world.”


[2] Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.2-10.2 trans. Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 316-7.

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