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by Dan Olinger
The bumper stickers scream at each other across the expressway:
America: love it or leave it!
Dissent is the highest form of patriotism (Thomas Jefferson).1
Well, OK, Thomas Jefferson never said that. It was actually Howard Zinn, but his name doesn’t look nearly as impressive on a bumper sticker. But setting aside for a moment the inaccuracies and distortions that often enter debates on either side, the argument itself raises serious questions:
As Christians we go first, of course, to the Scripture for guidance. It is the only truly reliable source. But professing Christians disagree, sometimes at great volume, about exactly what the Bible teaches. Many Christians today feel very much at home with both religious and political conservatism. A pastor in North Carolina made national headlines by asserting from the pulpit that anyone who voted for a presidential candidate that supported abortion should leave the church.2 Yet other evangelicals are at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Jim Wallis, the long-time editor of Sojourners magazine, has gained greater national prominence among political liberals since the Democrats’ loss in 2004, commonly attributed to so-called “values” voters. Many liberals have sought the help of Wallis and others of similar views to “reach out” to the religious community, with which they are admittedly not very familiar.
In the midst of deep and deeply felt disagreement, it is helpful to return to First Things. What exactly does the Bible say about the relationship between a citizen and his nation and its rulers? And how should a teacher present these principles?
As in many other issues, the Bible expects believers to maintain a balance between truths that a fallen world often places into tension. On the one hand, the Scripture states directly that God instituted governments (Genesis 9:1–7), that He appoints rulers (Daniel 2:37; 1 Kings 19:15), and that His people are to obey them (Romans 13:1–6) unless to do so would be to disobey God (Acts 5:29). Yet it also states directly that all people are fallen and untrustworthy (Romans 3:10–18), including the very rulers that God has appointed (2 Samuel 11; 1 Chronicles 21); and that in the final analysis our deliverance comes not from earthly powers, but from God Himself (Isaiah 31:1).
It seems, then, that Christian citizens should recognize their earthly citizenship as part of God’s good providence toward them. I am an American by God’s grace, just as my friend Jaime is Mexican by God’s grace, and my friend Xin is Chinese by God’s grace. I must rejoice in my “Americanhood” while doing nothing to interfere with Jaime’s rejoicing in his “Mexicanhood”—for God’s providence is equally good for all of His people (Romans 8:28). I can be a loyal American—America really is the greatest country on earth, isn’t it?—while not belittling the good will of God for non-Americans. Jingoism, like racism, is incompatible with the biblical view of a sovereign Creator-God. And being ashamed of one’s country, like being ashamed of one’s stature, is to question the goodness of God Himself.
On the other hand, countries are bad just as certainly as they are good, and God expects His people to reject the bad and side with the good (Ephesians 5:8–11). When Israel chose a path of rebellion against God, Israelite prophets condemned the evil, sometimes risking charges of treason (Jeremiah 26). “My country, right or wrong” is a distinctly unbiblical sentiment. Yes, it is still “my country,” even when it is wrong; but it is wrong, and it is my responsibility to say so.
The difficulty comes, of course, when well-intentioned professing Christians disagree as to whether a particular action is right or wrong. A most obvious recent example is the invasion of Iraq; feelings are deep and deeply set on both sides of the issue. A less emotionally charged issue, perhaps, is the proposed drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). Most evangelicals view the proposal as justified by man’s God-given dominion over the earth; a minority views it as having a strong potential for violating man’s God-given stewardship over the earth. I have a clear opinion in this debate, as you probably do. It is worth noting that both sides agree that we must not lay waste to the Reserve; where they disagree is to what extent the proposed drilling represents an actual risk and whether that risk is an acceptable one.
The disagreements are clouded by the fact that we all have motives that are less than honorable. We want to win the argument; we want to justify our past decisions; we want to humiliate people who disagree with us. During the war in Iraq, opponents were criticized for appearing to hope (and in some cases, actually hoping) that their own country’s soldiers would be killed in battle—hardly consistent with the supposed liberal sympathy for the difficulties of others. Conservative online discussion forums sported language just as vitriolic.
As fallen creatures, we must maintain the humility that is the heritage of the non-omniscient (what I sometimes call “kinda-niscient”). We must endeavor to distinguish between actual biblical teaching—the deity of Christ, for example—and applications of biblical teaching, such as drilling in ANWR. We must focus on the facts of the issue, not the personalities and techniques involved in debating it. And we must remember that We Are One (John 17:11, 21), even when we are wrong (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
In a charged atmosphere like this, teachers have a particularly good opportunity to challenge students to careful research, objective biblical analysis, and Christ-like character. The negative examples are literally everywhere. In addressing “hot-button” issues, emphasize the following principles:
1 See discussion at Urban Legends. The line does not appear in the complete works of Jefferson at the Library of Congress. Jefferson uses the word dissent in 6 letters, his autobiography, and 1 opinion he wrote as Secretary of State. He uses the word patriotism in 32 letters, his autobiography, his 2 inaugural addresses, and 1 message to Congress. None of these references is the source for the quotation though, of course, there are many interpretations of how that relationship should be played out, and it is noteworthy that Ephesians 5:21–24, which most directly enjoins wives to be submissive to their husbands (vv. 22–24), occurs in the larger context of mutual submission within the body of Christ (v. 21).
2 Not surprisingly, there was more to this story than was commonly reported in the mass media. The pastor did not expel the members; he merely made an off-handed comment during the sermon to the effect that they should leave. Succeeding events made it clear that his remarks merely brought to the surface an ongoing division between older, less conservative church members and newer, more conservative ones. In any case, the pastor resigned the following week.