Someone (I can’t for the life of me figure out who) once commented that, when it’s all said and done, sports fans basically just cheer for a logo on a sweater. I’ve found that to be true – players and coaches and ownership change over the years but I keep cheering for the same teams regardless of who works for them. A bit absurd if you think about it.
Of course I keep on cheering because it is fun but I admit that when I see players trying to injure their opponents, coaches yelling at them to ‘get your priorities straight’ and fans fighting in the bleachers, the absurdity grows. How did those opponents in different coloured sweaters and their supporters become so hateful, evil and leprous?
Isn’t the same also true about geo-political lines on a map? People on this side of a random line are important, people on the other side of the line are unwelcome aliens or enemies. They are willing to die to protect man-made dividers even though the same humans with the same hopes and dreams and needs reside on both sides.
The absurdity grows when we remember the histories of brothers killing each other (Civil War), walls built to divide cities (Berlin), barbed wire dividing countries (Korea) or the famous story of soldiers in the trenches calling a temporary truce to share a Christmas meal together only to go back to their positions and begin killing each other again.
Now I know it’s not as simple as that: economics, freedom, ways of life are often dependent on maintaining those lines. I love the country I live in – it is one of the most beautiful and successful expressions of government and citizens working together for the good of the whole.
But what does it mean to love your country and what are the full consequences of that? And following up on some of my previous posts, how involved should Christians be with the ideals of patriotism?
Let’s start with some definitions:
Country or State describes the combination of geography, bureaucracy and infrastructure.
Patriotism is allegiance to the above state.
Nation has a slightly different meaning which has to do with the imagined culture, identities, values, heritages contained within the state. For example, I am a Canadian no matter where I go and I carry with me a particular sense of my Canadian-ness. That may differ from other people’s equally unique experience of being Canadian.
Nationalism is pride in our nation’s particular story – pride in the history, cultures and values we hold.
Religion is “the belief and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship; a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme authority. (Oxford Dictionary)
So let me get two (soon to be) unpopular opinions out of the way:
First, there is a ‘team logo’ absurdity to pledging allegiance to a chunk of ground, a piece of cloth or a passport holder. Anabaptists and Mennonites were persecuted and kicked out of their countries for refusing to participate in their country’s idea of how patriots should act.
What is especially disconcerting is that politicians use patriotism to gain the thing they need most from people: unity*. Unity allows leaders to consolidate power. If the population is patriotically united, they will be easier to control and more willing to accommodate the demands of those leaders.
You will remember from your history books that dictatorial leadership tries to force everyone into a unifying, controlled value-system and that it eventually backfires by causing more divisiveness and more determined opposition both inside and out.
Second, let’s not kid ourselves, patriotism is a religion. It may be less blatant in Canada than in the U.S. but read the definition again then watch the news to see where people put their hope and trust. Christians see patriotism as a virtue now, but Christians through history have often resisted nationalism realizing that the values of the state ultimately clash with the values of Jesus.
Jesus was a Jew living in his own Roman occupied/controlled country where there was continual tension between his countrymen and their harsh oppressors.
Matthew 22:15-22 tells us of an occasion when Jesus is asked the booby-trapped question of whether his people should pay tax to Caesar. This wasn’t like our idea of tax where our payments go to schools or roads or government. The Romans had threatened to destroy the beloved Jewish temple in the holy city but agreed to leave it alone if the citizens paid a protection tax. In other words, they had to pay the hated Romans in order to be able to worship and practice their religion. This was the issue that ultimately caused their rebellion and destruction decades later.
There was no safe response for Jesus: if he said no, he was a terrorist encouraging rebellion against Caesar; if yes, he was an unpatriotic traitor to his own people.
But Jesus offered a third way that belittled both allegiances. He seemed to say, ‘Yes, go the way of peace and pay Caesar his temple tax. But also consider what allegiance you owe to God.’ Jesus was often offered opportunity to justify nationalism and turned them all down.
Jesus frequently used the earthly term ‘kingdom’ to describe where our deepest allegiance should be. It was obviously in conflict with the competing priorities of the kingdoms around him. He redefined kingdom as stretching above patriotism, infiltrating deeper than nationalism, and including every race, sex, and culture.
Years later in Philippians 3, St Paul takes on the idea of patriotism, willing to accommodate political affiliations and describing how he was a perfect citizen in the old days (both dedicated Roman and loyal Jew). But he goes on to use the word ‘dung’ (actually he’s more vulgar than that…) to describe how he thinks about those loyalties now that he has met Jesus. To Paul, political adherence had benefits but wasn’t of significant importance or value.
Both Jesus and Paul want us to know that the state is something that matters but we need to hold it loosely. Its traditions are not evil but they are temporary and counter to what we hold as important. Whether we serve the state, or are served by it, there is the real danger that it becomes our refuge, our hope, our God.
* Appreciation to Stephen Backhouse for his insights that helped me flesh out my thoughts for this blog.