This week is Canada Day and July 4, two celebrations of national life in North America. Both holidays are particularly complicated - even painful - this year as citizens in both Canada and the United States struggle with legacies of colonialism and racism in history and our political lives.
As both countries struggle with a shared heritage of British imperialism, this is a good time to rethink patriotism - what “homeland” means for people of faith. To that end, I’m sharing a reflection I wrote in 2003 in response to 9/11 and the dangers of mistaking one’s homeland for God’s city.
Homeland security. Until very recently, those words were not about politics, they were about faith. In the phrase, I inwardly heard the longing echoes of “Land of Rest,” a traditional American folk hymn:
Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end?
Thy joys when shall I see?
As a Christian, I trust that I have a homeland, one that is secure in God’s care. But that homeland is not a political nation. Theologically, I am a sojourner, an alien citizen of the United States; by virtue of my baptism in Christian faith, my primary citizenship is in God’s city.
Throughout church history, Christians in many nations have tried to associate their geography with God’s holy city (for example, the Byzantine Empire, the medieval Holy Roman Empire, or the realm of Russian tsars), but such biblical territorial claims have always resulted in some tragic corruption of Christianity. The homeland of Jesus’ followers is God’s city, a non-geographical city embodied in the way of life of its people in the present—and a city whose full revelation awaits some future time. The city is, as much of Christian theology has affirmed, “already and not yet.” Today, some people identify the biblical homeland as the state of Israel or the United States of America. But neither can truly claim that title. The homeland of God’s faithful remains a promise, both a way of life and a place of rest for which God’s people still long.
I do hope for a land of rest, as described in the traditional American hymn, a peaceful homeland. This is a holy hope, the same hope expressed by biblical patriarchs and prophets. The Scriptures and Christian tradition teach that the hope for a homeland is theologically fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. And that one day the long awaited city will be more clearly manifest in creation. In the meanwhile, however, God’s people are promised neither an earthly homeland nor security. I am not convinced that a government department can deliver either—when God’s people have been waiting since the time of Abraham for both. To seek homeland security is, at best, a misguided quest.
* * * * *
New Testament writers seem ambivalent about the whole idea of a homeland. To describe it, which they rarely did, they used the Greek term, patris, the root for the English word patriotic, which refers to one’s fatherland or one’s own native place.
The most significant homeland story in the Gospels appears in Luke 4:18, where Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” His fellow townspeople rejected his claim, leading Jesus to conclude, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24). This criticism did not go over well with his neighbors. They responded by driving him out of town and trying to hurl him off a cliff. For Jesus, his earthly homeland was a dangerous place for someone choosing to do God’s work. Indeed, in Hebrews 11:13–16, the writer describes those living the life of faith as people who “were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” men and women who were “seeking a homeland . . . a better country, a heavenly one.” Or according to Philippians 3:20, “our commonwealth is in heaven.”
Although some Christians have used these ideas to justify antiworldliness or withdrawal from society, the fundamental truth remains: the homeland of God’s people is not a theocratic earthly nation.
Occasionally, as was the case for medieval Catholics and nineteenth-century Protestants, Christians have rejected the otherworldly orientation of God’s realm by making the kingdom of God coterminous with human society. In both cases, the body politic—or the hoped-for body politic—is identified as God’s political order. Medieval popes believed they ruled over the earth in Christ’s stead. Earnest American Protestants thought they were bringing God’s city to earth through prayer and democratic politics. Throughout history, identifying one’s homeland as God’s formed the basis for Christendom, the earthly reign of the church. The confusion started with the Emperor Constantine in 313 and, in Europe and America, continued well into our times. The most recent manifestation of the tendency is the political objective of some evangelical Protestants to reclaim, redeem, or retake America as a Christian nation.
Historically, the United States proved uniquely poised to interpret itself as God’s homeland, a kind of New World Israel, given to European Christians by God as a second chance at Eden. Our forebears busily refashioned Christian tradition to support their colonial project and justify American ideals of freedom, democracy, liberty, and capitalism. But there was a price to be paid for that accommodation. For most American Christians, pulling apart the interwoven threads of “Christian” and “American” has proved difficult. Indeed, the relationship between faith and nation has been so confusing that, in the minds of many, despite the separation of church and state, America is a Christian nation. There may be no established national church, but God himself guides, blesses, and oversees the American experiment, “the last great hope of earth.” In America, the government may not start or sponsor a church, but the nation itself is an embodiment of the will and plan of the biblical God.
In recent years, as evangelical Protestants articulated a political theology of American Christian nationhood, some mainline Protestant theologians have begun to recover the idea of God’s heavenly reign and reject the cozy worldliness that had been the hallmark of their denominations. In an ironic reversal, many mainline Protestants now tend toward Scripture’s exile tradition, “that the church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief” (Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon). They have returned to the biblical idea of the church as a community of strangers and foreigners whose commonwealth is heaven.
That Christians are an exile people seems an apt—and even providential—reminder in light of so-called homeland security. The Christian patris is a distant realm, and our loyalty to any secular homeland is that of an exile community. We work, have children, raise families, care for the poor, work for the betterment of our communities, pay taxes. We try to figure out what Jesus meant when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). That is harder than it seems.
Christians believe, like Jews, that as the Psalmist says, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is therein” (Ps. 24:1). Thus at the heart of Christian citizenship is a dilemma: Christians submit to Caesar so long as Caesar’s laws do not conflict with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Christian patriotism is practicing a way of life based in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. We are citizens, only secondarily, of our earthly homelands. As Christians, we may or may not appreciate the ideals, politics, or policies of the country in which we reside. Patriotism is often a matter of lament, prophetic challenge, and protest.
That means, of course, that there are no easy answers when it comes to issues of faithful citizenship. Christians must consider every political issue theologically in light of the tradition, authority, practice, and wisdom of the faith community, with a keen sense of their primary status as alien citizens. Faith is a kind of risk culture, lending itself to what theologian Barry Harvey calls “holy insecurity,” as the citizens of God’s city “must always struggle to detect the delicate counterpoint of the Spirit” to mediate between engaging the world and challenging it.
(adapted from Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship, pp. 99-105)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
—Langston Hughes, from “Let America Be America Again”
The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth - that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community - and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.
[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.
—Roger Williams, 1644
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Wipe away tears,
Set free your fears:
Everything is free.
Only the lonely
Need much money:
Everything is free.
Don’t try to bind
The love you find:
Everyone is free.
Your lover’s yours —
Everyone is free.
The sun melts down,
Spreads gold around:
Everything is free.
The rain is spent
Lending flowers scent:
Everything is free.
The love you live,
The life you give:
Everything is free.
—George Elliott Clarke (Clarke is a Black Canadian poet descended from American slaves, liberated by the British in the War of 1812, who settled in Nova Scotia)
When you think about American, what color do you see? white? black? We (the Chinese) have been here 200 years....the German, the Dutch, the Italian, they came here in the turn of century; they are Americans. Why doesn't this face ("yellow") register as American? Is it because we make the story too complicated?
The country is almost ruined with pious white people: such pious politicians as we have just before elections, such pious goings on in all departments of church and state, that a fellow does not know who'll cheat him next.
― Harriet Beecher Stowe
SUMMER REFRESHER with Diana Butler Bass, hosted by FaithLead
LIVE with interactive conversation - not prerecorded.
Friday, July 23 7:00 PM eastern; Saturday, July 24 noon eastern. Yes, we know that’s a summer weekend. But grab a cool drink, sit on your porch, and join some friends for this summer refresher!
Nearly ten years after Christianity After Religion was published, FaithLead has invited me to share what's happened AFTER the book in demographics, theology, and the emerging shape of Christianity — and reflect upon a decade of pursuing the central questions presented in the book. In this Teach-In, join me to go back to the future of Christianity, opening our imaginations toward hope and joy in living through a time of dramatic change.
CLICK HERE for more info and registration. Readers of The Cottage receive a discount. ENTER CODE: COTTAGE0725.
ALSO: Those who register by JULY 9 will be entered in a drawing for one of five autographed copies of Christianity After Religion.