As Americans celebrate Independence Day this weekend several thoughts go through my mind as they have every July Fourth for many years. There are several reasons why I do not wholeheartedly embrace American patriotic holidays anymore. As much as I am grateful for the freedoms I have as an American citizen that are not available in every country, at the same time I recognize that my primary status and allegiance belongs to the kingdom of God. Jesus makes several ideas clear during his time on earth. One is that allegiance to him and his kingdom will bring you into conflict with competing allegiances. In spite of the NT’s clear teaching about being good citizens there is also a recognition that at certain points of tension we must choose to obey God rather than the government. Good citizens who demonstrate that their allegiance is not to the political power over them will always be held in suspicion. One fascinating aspect of American history is the common story of wave after wave of immigrants who in an effort to be accepted, fought and otherwise supported America’s wars to prove their allegiance. This was also true especially for those Catholic European immigrants who were held suspect because it was believed their first loyalty would be to the Catholic Church or the Pope. As a result, many Catholics became what I label “uber-patriotic” to prove this was not the case; they were Americans first and Catholics second. There is also the tragic history of African-Americans fighting America’s wars, hoping that it would grant them equal status and protection in this country. They discovered in the aftermath of war after war that they would remain oppressed in American society. Those few Americans who refused to fight and/or join the military for religious reasons learned the price of not having their primary allegiance to America.
Not only must citizenship in the kingdom of God supercede any other allegiance, it also teaches us that living out the righteousness of God’s kingdom will reveal how America’s, or any other nation’s values, are often at odds with Jesus’ teaching. Some appear to be more passionate about defending their rights guaranteed by the Constitution than considering how Jesus’ teaching champions higher values. For instance, American law supports a citizen’s right to defend their personal property employing gun violence, or at least the threat of gun violence, with “stand your ground” or “make my day” laws. The belief that personal property is worth defending at the cost of someone’s life is clearly against Jesus’ teaching. The myth that America was founded as a Christian nation also can blind us to American values that run counter to the kingdom of God. I was taught this myth at the small fundamentalist Bible college I attended. This is not to deny the presence of Christians among the Founding Fathers, but the idea that America, or any other country could be Christian is to fail to recognize the impossibility of such an idea. A Christian nation would need to turn its collective cheek; it would need to love its enemies. America is an extremely powerful country both economically and militarily. The values that build such a country are contrary to the values, the righteousness and justice that are the foundation of the kingdom of God. Another danger in believing that America is in some sense a Christian nation sees our collective prosperity as God’s blessing on our nation. Unfortunately, much of our American prosperity has come at a terrible human cost to others both within and without our borders. Because our economy is our god, both consumers and producers are willing to go to almost any lengths to insure that we continue to have access to the cheapest possible products. Profit, not justice is the higher value. Affordability, not righteousness is the higher value. Personal and national security in the interest of protecting what is our’s is valued over compassion. To thank God for blessing America is to take his name in vain. Yet another aspect of conflating God and country is symbolized by the American flags that have been planted in most American places of worship. For years at the church we attended in Minnesota I cringed every Sunday that was around an American holiday such as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. Often these included some sort of patriotic video that attempted to equate soldiers’ sacrifice and our freedom with Jesus’ sacrifice. Often this included singing a patriotic song like the Battle Hymn of the Republic or God Bless America. These practices blind us to the reality that while we may live in America, the Church is actually comprised of all nations, all peoples, all ethnicities. Imagine believers from other countries who have suffered because of our wars, our politics and our economic practices, worshipping in such a service? Our patriotism can blind us the reality that we do not view others primarily as undocumented or refugees, but as fellow bearers of God’s image. If you claim citizenship in God’s kingdom your ties to your fellow human are stronger than your ties to America. Jesus demands justice and righteousness, compassion and mercy for the oppressed and marginalized no matter their country of origin.
Finally, it appears to me that most of us are in love with the ideals that America claims: all are created equal, liberty and justice for all. Certainly one of the gifts of democracy is that we can individually and collectively raise our voices to hold our government accountable to such language. But this language is just an ideal; it does not reflect the reality of what America is or ever has been. We must not forget the racism that was woven into the fabric of our nation from the beginning. As one of my friends says, “racism is an American as apple pie; it was baked in from the beginning.” I have no issue with using democracy to my/our advantage, but I am not blind to the reality of what Scripture teaches about principalities and powers. The Apostle Paul was not loyal to the Roman Empire, but he had no problem using his Roman citizenship to his advantage when he could. I feel the same way about America. I can be grateful for the privileges I have as an American, but not love or be loyal to America.
I have heard on occasion some variation of, “If you hate America,” or “if America is so bad why don’t you move somewhere else.” Another is, “if America is so bad why do so many people want to come here?” Such statements miss the point. It is not about comparing America to countries that are better or worse; it is simply to recognize that America does not get to claim my allegiance or love. It is simply another Empire in the long line of powerful empires. They come and go under the umbrella of God’s sovereignty, but they are temporal. So on this Independence Day I renew my pledge of allegiance to the kingdom of God, not my country.