When we lived in South Africa, my family would make periodic trips to visit friends and family in the States. It was fascinating to watch our boys visit America at various stages of their childhood. On a trip when they were about 7 and 8-years-old the observation they made was all the American flags. Every time we were out driving they would comment, “And another! And another! And another! Flags everywhere, Mom, just everywhere!”
For most Americans this is normal. Each nation expresses their deep patriotism in different ways. Americans like to express patriotism with an explosion of flags. South Africans liked their flags but they tended to express their love of nation with eating lots of meat cooked over an open fire. I rather liked that expression.
Patriotism is not new or unique to America or any other moern country. The Apostle Paul ran into some serious patriotism when he visited the city of Philippi. It wasn’t a good patriotism as we shall see.
Moving through town, Paul found himself with an unwanted groupie. A slave girl possessed by a spirit of fortune telling. This slave girl’s oppression was a financially lucrative endeavor for her owners. The slave girl followed and caused a scene wherever Paul went. Eventually Paul turned to her and, in annoyance, cast out the evil spirit and she was immediately set free.
Good news for her! Bad news for those making a money off her fortune telling! Because of this one act, Paul was no longer welcome in Philippi. The slave owners took hold of Paul and Silas, dragged them before the local rulers and said some very telling words.
“These men are disturbing our city! They are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice!.” (Acts 16:12)
Now, Philippi was not just any Roman city. It was the leading city of it’s entire region. And it was known as being the place military veterans went to retire. Philippi was filled to the brim with veterans of the Roman Empire. The ultimate in Roman patriots. Citizens of this city had special government privileges, akin to those who lived in Rome itself. This was a special city full of special patriots. Their words take on even more meaning when you think of this. These were men who committed their lives to service of their nation.
To paraphrase their accustion of Paul, “The way of Jesus which Paul is preaching, that’s not the Roman way! That is not how Romans are! That is not what Romans do!”
Patriotism is a hot topic these days. This story in Acts 16 struck me powerfully. I can hear us in all our nations say, when confronted with the way of Jesus, “That is not the American way!”, “That’s not what an Englishman does!”, “That’s not how Zimbabweans are!”.
Too often we change the way of Jesus to fit the ways and customs of our nations.
If Patriotism is simply love of nation, then there is much room for it in the Kingdom of God. God is the creator and redeemer of nations. He loves nations. If Patriotism is loyalty to the ways of a nation… we are in danger of being more like Paul’s persecutors than Paul himself.
All of us need to learn the lesson of Paul and the Philippians. Our faith has to shape our patriotism and not the other way around. Our loyalty must always be to the King of the nations.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he keeps going back to this topic of national loyalty addressed to a church full of hyper patriots.
In 1:27 he says, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”. The greek verb he uses for “conduct yourselves” literally means, “to live as a citizen” or “to take part in government.” Paul is literally saying, “Live as citizens of your earthly nation in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” In 3:20 Paul reminds them, “our citizenship is from heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there.” Hey you Philippians, God loves your nation! But don’t forget where your real citizenship lies! Don’t forget who really rescues you! It ain’t Caesar, it’s Jesus!
Dare I say, if you’ve never faced the Jesus way and thought, “Yikes, that seems really un-American”, you still have work to do. You don’t have Godly love of nation, you have loyalty to the Kingdoms of this world above the Kingdom of God.
Patriotism in the Kingdom of God is to love your nation but not give it your loyalty. I think this is an important distinction.
Patriotism should perhaps be a lot like a marriage. It’s not dis-loyal to the marriage to tell your spouse, “Your breath stinks.”. That is love. It is not dis-loyal to your spouse to say, “That act is abusive, I won’t accept it.” That’s love.
A Christian who is patriotic is not to be loyal to the ways of a their nation, like the Philippians. They are to love the nation God has placed them in, like Paul.
If Paul, a Roman citizen, was loyal to the ways of Rome he would have looked at that young girl and said, “Making money above all, that’s the Roman way!” and ignored that slave girl. Instead, he knew, Kingdom of God above all. He loved the Roman empire enough to refuse to conform to it’s customs and ways when they denied Jesus as Lord.
Let the nations bow down and submit their ways to King Jesus. That is how we love our nations. We love them enough to say, “In all your ways, may Jesus be King of your customs and laws. And when your ways divert from the Kingdom, I follow my King, not your flag.”
Sources: Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, IVP, 1993