When visiting Australia this past year, I happened to catch a taxi ride with an Australian citizen from India who began asking about my religious background. That encounter led to a fascinating conversation about his own Christian experience. He converted to Christianity in India as a teenager and then sought to witness to a group of gypsies in his hometown. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he had so much success that he gained the attention of the local fundamentalist Hindus who physically persecuted him. He rolled up his sleeves to show me the extensive scars on both of his arms. He said he was forced to leave India even though he did not want to leave because his life was in danger.
In Australia where he immigrated, he became a successful businessman by creating and selling a business, but he did not forget his love for his home country. Now, he drives a taxi, so that he has the freedom to travel back to India to do educational charitable work among northern tribes in the name of Christ. He loves both his countries—even the abusive one he had to flee. He still strives to heal his home nation.
Interestingly, my national identity story also contains themes of persecution and deprivation, but these hardships were not something I experienced personally. My father’s Hutterite Austrian relatives were kicked out of their home country for their religious beliefs (after enduring prison and other forms of persecution) in the early 1700s. They travelled to Moravia and Romania for a short time and eventually immigrated to Ukraine. When Tsar Alexander II rescinded an offer to respect their pacifism, they immigrated to the Dakota territory in the late 1800s.
Although they received land, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl wiped them out. My father grew up poor, and he remembers receiving one shirt for a Christmas present. He remembers also that his family stopped speaking German in public due to the American antagonism against anything German during World War II, so unlike his older sister, he was not fluent in German. Still, he worked hard and became a food-insecure first-generation college student. Eventually, through God’s grace and his hard work, our family enjoyed a level of flourishing he never dreamed was possible in light of his childhood. He loves imperfect America and the opportunities it gave him. Interestingly, I have been able to return to Europe on mission trips as a result of my great grandparents fleeing persecution.
As with my family, my Australian-Indian taxi driver (from today’s post), and the Russian family I described in yesterday’s post, sometimes one’s country is so fallen and abusive it requires fleeing to find greater flourishing and healing. And perhaps one day, one can return to help take part in that country’s further redemption and healing.
Yet, how do we evaluate countries beyond these obvious cases of persecution? I find it takes students more in-depth comparative education to help them recognize the relative health or dysfunction of their countries. Some of that education occurs simply by exposure to diversity. For example, one Christian student at a regional state university shared a discovery derived from making a parental comparison:
I’ve noticed with my other friends a lot of their issues stem from not having a good relationship with their father. My dad was always really good about that with my sister and me. He would always tell us that we’re beautiful. That we don’t need to change anything. Every Sunday, when I will come down the steps, he would be like, “You look really nice today.” And I’m like, “Thank you.” Some of my friends, they’re like, “My dad has never told me that I’m beautiful.” And I was like, “How can he not?”
Often, students like this one return much more grateful to their parents when returning from college. The student recognized her father had reflected God’s love for her. In the same way, hopefully our countries at least simply mirror some aspect of God’s character, such as God’s justice or hospitality.
Also, like this student the method for achieving this intellectual breakthrough comes from exposure to other countries and/or the ideals of God’s kingdom. That combined exposure can especially develop creative, critical, and redemptive thinking among students about their own country (or countries if dual citizens) and other countries. They will then better realize when their own country at times partially reflects the Kingdom of God in some important ways but does not in others and still needs redemption.
One simple source I like to use for this comparative education involves immigration rates. One thing Canadians should celebrate on Canada Day and Americans on the Fourth of July is the hospitality our countries have extended to the persecuted. After all, where the abused choose to go tells us something about the relative health of a country—in this regard Americans, Australians, Canadians, Germans, Franch, Italians, Spaniards, and the British should take notice, thank God for, and take pride in our high immigrant nation status. Few people want to immigrate to Cuba, Venezuela, or China. If we live in a country where others want to live, we should not take the comparative health and prosperity of our country for granted.
Yet, we should not brush aside the fact that even these prosperous countries that receive immigrants have promoted and still do promote human flourishing unevenly. That’s why every American should read Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” every Fourth of July. Not everyone came voluntarily to America and was given land. Some were forced to come and received torture and abuse. Like our fallen families, we usually cannot choose the country in which we live and must learn to love it.
Indeed, Native Americans were already here and fought against the American government. My father’s family received land because the American government conquered and then gave away the land. I recently had lunch with a Native American who talked about his own relatives’ experience as a conquered people. His grandmother was forcefully taken from her parents and sent to a boarding school where she was forbidden to speak her native language.
In cases like these, loving one’s country means learning to love an entity that has historically been an enemy and abusive to one’s people and one’s own family–a tremendously challenging and difficult love to which we are called. And in fact, this Native American provides an example of what it means to love the country that conquered one’s people and seek its welfare. He joined the Marines and later became a twenty-year missionary to the Philippines. By God’s grace, he loves God, his country, and people in other countries.
Of course, since all countries fall short of God’s kingdom, we all need to witness to our particular nation-state in appropriate ways to encourage progress toward God’s virtues and Kingdom. I still find John Howard Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State one helpful guide for how to go about this type of redemptive witness.
Overall, neither thanklessness, blindness to sin, nor lack of redemptive love, when it comes to parents, communities, or countries, is a Christian virtue. Moreover, we should remember at the end that God loves the nations (meaning distinct people groups vs. modern nation-states) and will restore the Tree of Life “for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
Editor’s Note: For good advice to American church leaders, I encourage you to read my friend, Thomas Kidd’s post, “What Should Churches Do for Fourth of July.”