Patriotism with Perspective

As we celebrate the 243rd anniversary of America’s Independence, the holiday presents an opportunity to reflect on the nature of patriotism.

At a fundamental level, patriotism is an expression of gratitude for citizenship in one’s nation. In this sense, it is a virtue. Affection for a place and people to whom you belong is imminently natural. Patriotism is also a profoundly complex phenomenon. As historical examples attest, love of one’s country has fueled imperial wars. Subjugation of other peoples can result from an unbridled and hubristic patriotism. Military parades, with displays of martial power function to instill a godlike fear and awe in a nation’s power to protect and prosper its citizens.

Some critics claim that nationalism hinders, and even precludes world peace. In our own day, there have even been cries to abolish international borders between countries under the assumption that boundaries impede progress. On the other hand, zealous nationalists believe the well-being of their nation is justified at any cost. Adherents to this position will invariably ascribe to the state divine status. When the nation is believed to be God’s instrument on earth–as opposed to the church–it becomes supreme over all and subject to none.

It should be noted, that there is an inherent paradox in patriotism. As a form of sacrifice on others’ behalf, it displays the highest expression of love. On the other hand, patriotism is profoundly self-serving, motivated by a collective egoism. This is discussed in detail by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) in his Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), written during nascent fascist movements in Germany and Italy.

Augustine of Hippo (354–420), in The City of God (book v, chap. 13), made a similar contemporary observation, when he asserted that though God providentially granted Rome imperial reign, its soldiers fought and died for the sake of human honor, praise and glory. In fact, Augustine said,

They so devoted themselves to their fatherland that they did not hesitate to place its safety before their own, even though they sought glory for themselves through it. For the sake of one vice, therefore–that is, love of praise–they overcame the desire of riches and many other vices. But he who understands the matter more truly who acknowledges that even the love of praise is a vice.

Patriotism for the Romans was flawed, not because it sought glory, but because man, not God, was its object. Rome’s success derived from military prowess. But could such an empire be properly called “just?” Without true justice, Augustine memorably quipped (book iv, chap 3), “What are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are robbers themselves but little kingdoms?”

Is patriotism then, the stumbling block to global peace and prosperity, or do we simply operate autonomously pursuing national self-interests (protectionism)—even to the detriment of others? Perhaps there is a middle road.

The ancient biblical account of Babel, recorded in Genesis 11, features the nations of the ancient near eastern world uniting in a singular purpose of “building a tower to heaven,” in defiance of God’s command to spread out over the earth. This structure, most likely a pyramid-shaped ziggurat, embodied humanity’s collective attempt “to make a name for [themselves].” Their goal was nothing less than deification. The text says that God, recognizing the magnitude of the community’s achievement, thwarted the plan by “confusing” their languages. The various nations were henceforth scattered where they would necessarily live as separate cities, tribes and kingdoms.

The passage, like much of Scripture reveals judgment and grace. The division of nations in Genesis 11 is both a curse and a blessing. When a people worldwide are unified in any endeavor, they can accomplish feats that were otherwise unimaginable. The British Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), commenting on this text wrote,

Different nations and interests in the world serve as a balance to the other. They are that to the world which a number of rival merchants, or smaller tradesmen are to society; serving as a check upon the other’s rapacity. Union, when cemented by good-will to men, is exceedingly desirable; but when self-interest and ambition are at the bottom, it is exceedingly dangerous. Union, in such cases, is nothing better than a combination against the general good.[1]  

The Christian doctrine of sin reminds us that a unified humanity bent on evil is a terrifying prospect. Yahweh, in his perfect, gracious sovereignty intervened at the plain of Shinar and the project halted. The citizens of those nations discovered the hard truth of their finitude and impotence before God.

The separation of nations, in effect, puts limits on power. Mercifully, people even in our own day can flee one sovereign country and find refuge in another. Thus, unjust laws do not extend indefinitely.

Those who believe that a worldwide government could create heaven on earth have not accounted for human depravity. Without true justice, unity would only magnify wickedness to exponential degrees.  Nevertheless, the desire for a peace that extends across nations and is unencumbered by racism, xenophobia and greed is right. The only caveat is that it must come from heaven.

The first picture of Babel’s reversal comes at Pentecost in Acts 2. The earthly manifestation of unity under righteousness and justice began, and continues, in and through Christ’s church.

In the meantime, we can be thankful that in this fallen world, there are many “Independence Days” celebrated every month across the globe. For us in the here and now, it might be best to be patriotic with perspective. Like Babel, patriotism reminds us that national divisions are simultaneously a blessing and a curse.

We can be thankful for our own nation, while not losing sight of the dignity of others, and the temporal nature of every country. By faith we confess a day is coming when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15) Until that time, we pray: Maranatha.

[1]Andrew Fuller, Expository Discourses on the Book of Genesis in The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. 3, 48.

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