Should Christians be patriotic? Can patriotism be Christian?
WEBSTER DEFINES PATRIOTISM as the “zealous love of one’s country”. It follows that a patriot is a “person who loves his native country and will do all he can for it”, and that a patriotic act is one that is “inspired by … or aimed at arousing love of one’s country”.
Patriotism and patrimony are both related to the Greek word for father. Patrimony refers to anything valuable – possessions, money – that is inherited from one’s father or ancestor. At its very heart, then, patriotism recognises that each citizen receives a patrimony from his fatherland, and that at the very least patrimony comes at the debt of gratitude. This is analogous to a child honouring his parents because of the debt he owes to them. In patriotism, the citizen honours his nation by showing profound respect for his nation’s symbols, concern for his nation’s wellbeing, and a willingness to defend his nation’s interests.
From the above description it is quite clear that patriotism is a species of piety. The patriot is devoted to his country, and this devotion defines and motivates his sense of responsibility to his nation. For this reason, some Christians are averse to the very idea of patriotism because of the danger of idolising the state in one’s patriotism. Although this danger is real and not simply imaginary, not every species of patriotism is sinful.
There are basically two forms or expressions of patriotism. The first is jingoism, an aggressive expression of nationalism that uncritically champions the ideals and rights of a particular nation because it envisions that nation or country to be the embodiment of the summum bonum, the highest Good. This form of patriotism is usually xenophobic, and it often advances the interests of one’s nation by encroaching those of other nations. This form of patriotism is idolatrous, and therefore must be rejected by all Christians.
In the second form of patriotism, the citizen simply recognises his indebtedness to his country or homeland and wishes to contribute to its flourishing. This form of patriotism can be shown not just to one’s native land, but also to one’s community. Such patriotism, which accords proper honour to and respect for one’s nation, is to be applauded and encouraged by Christians. Legitimate and virtuous patriotism does not mean that the citizen is obligated to endorse and defend every single policy of the state. True patriotism allows citizens to oppose the injustices of the state, while at the same time retaining their affection and loyalty to the nation. This implies that a careful distinction between the state and the nation must be made.
We witness this kind of patriotism in the Bible, especially in Israel’s prophets in the Old Testament, who loved their country immensely and who spoke fearlessly against the injustices perpetrated by its leaders and people. Even a cursory reading of Jeremiah, Lamentations and Hosea would impress the reader of the immensity of the prophets’ love for their country. Jesus loved Jerusalem so much that He wept for it (Luke 19:41).
PATRIOTISM IS ESSENTIAL in the life of any nation. Patriotism is the glue that binds individuals from different backgrounds into one people, the bond that holds a nation together. It is patriotism, the love of one’s country that motivates people to work hard and to make sacrifices for it. This love compels them to defend their country, even if they have to sacrifice their lives in the process. This love makes them willing to place the interests of their country above their own, and those of their families. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has so perceptively pointed out, patriotism has the virtue of drawing a person outside of himself to a broader community. Patriotism enables a nation to face every challenge and confront every crisis together as one people. The spirit of patriotism is necessary for any nation to flourish.
It must, however, be stressed again that even legitimate or virtuous patriotism can become idolatrous. Even a patriotism that is premised on the view that the state should never be allowed to usurp the place of God can be so wrapped up in the national flag, so to speak, that it can no longer see God. Enthusiastic patriotism can be easily misguided to the point that one becomes so blinded to the shortcomings of one’s country that all dissent is regarded as unpatriotic. Such patriotism is often expressed in slogans such as “Our country, right or wrong”.
According to this slogan, loyalty to one’s country must be above all other considerations. Loyalty even demands that we turn a blind eye to the evil and injustices perpetrated by the state or the government. Such patriotism elevates one’s country (and all it stands for and does) above the dictates of morality, and regards it as infallible. In a word, such patriotism deifies the state.
For the Christian, the slogan “Our country, right or wrong!” must either be rejected or subjected to radical revision. Carl Schurz has revised it thus: “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”
According to this view, the state is no longer infallible or divine. Instead it is acknowledged as a human reality and therefore capable of not only making mistakes but also committing grievous sins. According to this view, the state is no longer the arbiter of what is right and wrong, but answers to a transcendental standard of morality. This view clarifies the nature of true patriotism. Patriotism is true and virtuous only when it acknowledges that it is not the highest virtue, and only when it recognises the fact that it should never be affirmed in isolation from other virtues. True loyalty to the civitas can only be nurtured when the civitas is not the object of our highest loyalty. The piety of patriotism must be ordered by a more comprehensive and encompassing piety – one’s uncompromising devotion to God.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.