Patriotism and Protest

I have every intention to keep this brief. I find it necessary to write on the subject of the ongoing national anthem protests by athletes like Colin Kaepernick and the ongoing protests around the country led by #BlackLivesMatter. You may think that I will offer a full dissection, explain my point of view, and seek to persuade you to my opinion. That is not my purpose. Maybe one day.

I am writing this post because I see American evangelicals once again failing to think distinctively as Christians through a difficult social matter. Christians must reason beyond political affiliation and unchecked belief or bias. In other words: in order to think distinctively as Christians we must constantly subject everything we have known or thought we have known to a conversation with Scripture, theology, tradition, and Christ-centered learning.

Everything I am about to say can be summarized with three imperatives: (1) do your civic duty; (2) remember your home; and (3) embrace protest with curiosity and without defensiveness.

Do Your Civic Duty

I will start our conversation about patriotism and protest in a rather unusual place: the ministry of John the Baptizer. In Luke 3 we learn that once people were baptized (symbolizing the repentance they had received from God), they began asking John what they could do to live out that repentance.

I bring this up because of the sort of people that came to John with the question—namely, tax collectors and soldiers. I have always been surprised that John’s radical message of repentance and the lifestyle of repentance that must follow did not require them to change their occupation; rather, repentance for these individuals meant a change in how they performed their occupation: no more extortion, no more coercion, and finding contentment in receiving only what they were due. And then Luke’s narrative marches on.

We learn early on in the Christian movement through stories such as these that faith does not automatically come into conflict with civic duty. For this reason, we are instructed again and again to be good citizens, seek the welfare of the city, pay taxes, and to render honor to whom honor is due (Mt 17:24–27; 22:15–22; Rom 13; Phil 1:27–30; 1 Pet 2:17).

We understand this as Christians: if you are a soldier that meets Jesus, then you do not have to quit soldiering. Your occupation is not inherently sinful and thus separating you from God. If you work for the government in some capacity—even under a polytheistic emperor, let alone a president or governor that is a Democrat—you do not have to see that as a liability or as something that intrinsically challenges Christian commitment.

Remember Your Home

The idea that you and I can perform our civic duty righteously and without some judgmental eye upon us should be freeing. But we must not expand this notion to unbridled patriotism. We can have deep feelings for the country we live in and perform our civic duty with a certain degree of pride, but we can never forget another dominate Christian theme: we aren’t home yet.

Some of the most picturesque language in Scripture calls us to understand that the city we see now is ephemeral and the city we have yet to see is eternal. These are like the macaroni and cheese passages of the Bible; they ought to comfort us and warm us to our bones. I’ll just provide one for now.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11:13–16. (See also Philippians 3:20–21; 1 Peter 1:1; 17–19; 2 Peter 2:13)

We should consider this same theme when topics like citizenship and people with an undocumented status surface. The fact that our Savior was born and died as a noncitizen of the Roman Empire, and the fact that all the people of God are spiritually—and some legally—exiles, strangers, undocumented, and refugees ought to inform our conduct and our treatment of people in our midst who bear such labels here on earth (Leviticus 19:34; 1 Peter 1:17–19). In other words: as Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, we need to stop our bias, exclusion, maligning, and mistreatment of strangers because our heavenly charter and King call us to a different standard. Period.

Embrace Protest

The point that Jesus was born and was murdered as a noncitizen and criminal of the Roman Empire deserves more attention. Our faith begins with the unjust warrant, arrest, trial, conviction, sentence, and execution of God. The state, the judicial system, the law, the religious order, the tetrarchy, the governorship, and the empire together found themselves in opposition to the Creator. I’m saying this because we need to temper our patriotism with the knowledge that our governments are temporary and are fallible distributors of the kind of justice God desires.

I think we forget sometimes that the first calls to repentance were not about generic sinning, but rather the sin of misidentifying Jesus. To paraphrase: “He was sent from God but you didn’t see that. You even murdered him (or allowed him to be murdered). But God raised him. So you all—politicians, religious leaders, and ordinary folk alike—need to do a 180 from how you see Jesus of Nazareth. You have found yourself on the wrong side of history” (see Acts 2:14–41). In a way, the good news is the original Christian protest. 

We find our favorite stories in the Bible to be centered around people standing up for truth by expressing an alternate opinion against the power structures and conventional wisdom of the day. John the Baptizer tells one of Herod’s sons, Philip, he can’t be married to the woman he’s married to (Matthew 14:3–4). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defy Nebuchadnezzar’s orders (Daniel 3:16–18). Daniel keeps praying to Yahweh when it was against the law (Daniel 6). Even the apostles openly ignore the orders of the religious leaders of the day to keep attesting to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:19–20). And we know there are many more stories like these (Hebrews 11:32–42).

None of these stories on the surface is about believers calculating if a law was a just or an unjust law. None of these stories on the surface is about believers weighing in their minds whether the emperor or king held the authority to do X, Y, or Z. These are stories where believers saw that the earthly city had become misaligned from the eternal one. For that reason, protesting, speaking truth to power, expressing dissent, civil disobedience, and acts of defiance have the potential to be reminders that we are not home yet, and that the world and its systems do not yet reflect the justice and mercy of the King.

I am not suggesting that we join every protest. But I think as Christians we should have at the least a nonjudgmental curiosity about the reason for the protest. We don’t view protests as a threat to our beloved country because our greatest allegiance is to our heavenly country. We don’t just tolerate peaceful protests because people have freedom of speech, we encourage them because we want a society and systems to foreshadow the righteousness which will one day reign upon the renewed earth. And yes, we will join the struggle at times because we know full well that for Christians all believers have become family and everyone else has become a neighbor deserving of our love.