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I spent this Fourth of July at a local celebration in the neighborhood Julia grew up in in Palo Alto. It’s a festival we’ve been to many times before, almost exactly the same every year: the neighborhood band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” and sometimes a Queen or U2 song thrown in for variety; floats kids and their parents build out of wagons; dogs and bikes and babies on parade, sack races and three-legged races and a balloon toss; the adorable drill squad of six-year-olds moving their flags in unison, with the only change in the routine from fifty years ago that boys are now on the team too. The first time I went to this celebration I almost couldn’t believe it existed, so perfect in its quintessential Americana-ness. I almost expected to see Harold Hill from The Music Man walk around the corner.
There’s something encouraging about seeing unabashed patriotism in the middle of Palo Alto, where you can’t throw a stick without hitting a Prius. In a time when flag-waving is so often seen as the province of the political right, and when media personalities throw around accusations of treason, there’s something satisfying about seeing a parkful of NPR-listening, farmer’s-market-shopping, arugula-eating Palo Altans singing along lustily to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA and nailing the cymbal-crash moment in the last verse.
Satisfying—and yet also incongruous. Because we know that even as the water-balloon toss and the tug-of-war were going on, people were overcrowded into cages in buildings with the American flag flying outside. Children huddled under Mylar blankets on concrete floors, toddlers taken from their parents and left to be cared for by their fellow detainees who were just kids themselves. People who came to our shores carrying no purse, no bag, and no sandals: and we are the town that has failed to welcome them.
The images that have flooded our screens and newspapers in the past month have made it clear to those of us who are citizens of this nation that appalling things are being done in our name, by our government, under our flag.
And not for the first time, of course. This country has done great things in its history. And it has done some very bad things. There is a narrative of progress and democracy and justice in our national story; and it’s intertwined with a narrative of genocide and racism and violence.
Which brings up the question: how should we as Christians feel about our country?
Much of the Christianity we see in the public discourse says we should wrap ourselves in the flag and treat faith in God and faith in country as almost the same thing. I don’t see any justification for that in scripture. The New Testament says we should pray for our rulers and live peaceably in society, but it’s very clear that our true citizenship is in heaven. The church is a fellowship that transcends all nations and all borders. Not all of us who worship here are citizens of this country, and any Christian congregation where a visitor or guest of another nationality is made to feel less of a member of the Body of Christ for that reason is doing something very wrong.
And yet I do think as a Christian it’s OK to love your country. It’s OK to love it and be proud of it; and it’s OK to love it and be critical of it. It may be that we love it most when we’re being most critical of it. I think as a Christian you can rightly love your country for two reasons.
One is simply because it’s yours: because its sights and sounds and smells are home. Sometimes we love something or someone not because of any objective features but simply because they’re ours. At its best family is supposed to work that way. I think Julia and Abigail are the cleverest, most delightful, most beautiful people in this world. And that’s true, from my perspective, not because I’m ranking them against others in some kind of objective competition but because they’re mine and I love them. We hear that kind of love for Israel and Jerusalem in our reading from Isaiah this morning: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, all you who love her.” All through scripture, including in the wider context of this passage, we see an oscillation between two kinds of love for Israel and for the church. Sometimes Israel is portrayed as benefiting from God’s love at the expense of other nations in an us-vs.-them scenario. But at other times the portrayal is of God’s love for Israel overflowing to benefit all the other nations too, so that Israel becomes a blessing to the whole earth. I think that latter kind of love is more faithful to the overall thrust of scripture. Our love for a home country can easily become idolatrous. It can lead us to an us-vs.-them mentality. But at best it can be something different: it can lead us to want the same good for other places that we naturally want for our own.
The second reason I think as Christians we can rightly love our country—and here I’m talking specifically about this country—is because there are some things about this country to be deeply thankful for. We live in a country and under a government that, for all its faults, is shaped by a constitution that safeguards some basic liberties that many places don’t have. We have the freedom to vote.
We have the freedom to gather here on Sunday mornings, or not to, as we choose. We have the freedom, when we’re outraged by something our government is doing, to make signs and fill the streets and demand change. There are other countries where those things are the case too. But there are a lot of places where they aren’t.
This country is far from perfect. But its own stated values are values of equality, democracy, and human rights. Those are values that are grounded deeply in the gospel, not in the shallow sense in which it’s sometimes trumpeted that this is a “Christian nation,” meaning that Christians should get special privileges, but rather in the deep sense that a government that treats everyone with the same dignity is congruent with a God for whom all are beloved children.
This Fourth of July weekend, pray for this country. Give thanks for what is good. Ask God’s grace to heal what is broken and set right what is unjust. And then do something patriotic. Go out and protest injustice. Go out and serve the poor. Go out and call this country to the values it professes. Go out and make trouble. Go out and make this land a better place, in the name of Jesus.