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Homeland Security?

Faith, patriotism, and exile - and the need for a better spirituality of country

 

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 anti-worldliness 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)

 

Visit Diana Butler Bass’ website here.

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