“A man may have to die for his country, but no man must, in an exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.”
~C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
“I love my country.” I rarely hear that sentiment, even in the Southern United States, but it was jarring to hear it from our program’s graduate student from Pakistan. After all, she had shared with me how her Christian family lives under the constant threat of being accused of blasphemy (e.g., see the consequences to one Sri Lankan here) and has faced intense forms of persecution (including physical threats). Her husband is a pastor and a leader of a Christian denomination, so they have to live in a guarded compound, and his parishioners have difficulty finding jobs since they are Christian. Yet, she passionately told our class how she loves her country. Was that an unhealthy or blind form of Christian nationalism? After all, we are not specifically commanded in the Bible to love our own particular people group or nation. Or was it something healthier?
Like love for one’s tribe, country-love takes limited teaching to develop. Thus, for most Christians it should be a love that receives less time and attention than other important loves specifically commanded in the Bible, such as our love for God (Dt. 6:5; Mt. 22-37-39), our neighbors (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:37-39; Rom. 13:8-10), our brothers and sisters in Christ here and around the world (most every epistle–e.g., I Thes. 4:9-10), our spouses and children (Eph. 5:25-33; Titus 2:4), foreigners outside one’s people group (Lev. 19:34), and our enemies (Mt. 5:43-46). In fact, as the C.S. Lewis quote at the beginning implies, the sign of a healthy country is that it allows these difficult loves to take a citizen’s primary focus.
Although love for one’s country is not specifically mentioned in the Bible (just “be subject to” authorities and of course pray for them-Romans 13:1-6; Titus 3:1; I Tim. 2:2-2), we still need to think Christianly and expansively about what it means to be an excellent citizen and love our particular modern nation-state by seeking its flourishing (defined Christianly). Moreover, we must recognize that it is a love that is easily manipulated and distorted into a love for one’s self or one’s tribe.
Yet, I find college students think narrowly about the issue. A question I often ask students in interviews is “What does it mean to be an excellent citizen?” Usually, their answer involves “voting” or something along those lines—a practice that even the most politically committed only do once a year. We need to teach college students that excellent Christian citizenship involves more than voting but also sophisticated and continual rightly-ordered loving.
In this regard, I often find it helpful to draw upon comparisons to parental love. First, Christ called us to order our familial loves in respect to God, and our country love should be no different (Luke 14:26). Currently, I find most North American academics and Christians too emotionally invested in their country’s political story, especially those who habitually watch the nightly national news. Moreover, what I call the Meta-democracy narrative is too often a person’s or institution’s primary identity and love.1
Even at Christian universities, country-love may not be the primary love, but it often still receives inordinate attention. For example, at the Baylor University graduate ceremony we sing the national anthem and give special attention to those serving in the military and not those undertaking other callings, some of which may also involve significant bodily risk (e.g., being a missionary in certain countries). I make this point as someone with one of my undergraduate degrees in political science, a master’s in church-state studies, a doctorate in social ethics, and four years of experience in public policy–I care about politics and justice. Yet, we should be careful about the ways we elevate national identity in our personal lives and institutions.
Second, on the flip side, we should not have an unhealthy preoccupation with constantly criticizing our country. All of our parents are fallen, but we don’t express healthy and rightly-ordered love for our parents by constantly pointing out all their faults in front of other people. Similarly, properly-ordered Christian love for one’s country should not be shown by constantly complaining about its shortcomings in front of other people. In this respect, I found my Pakistani graduate student’s comment refreshing. She knows her country’s numerous shortcomings on a deeply personal level as a religious minority in a majority Muslim country. But she knows how to balance critique with expressing love for her country.
In fact, I think Western Christians would benefit from much more interaction with Christians from other countries who understand the shortcomings of their countries but still love them. It then forces one to acknowledge important similarities and differences. Drawing inspiration from Leo Tolstoy, the most important similarity is that like families, every nation is fallen in unique ways. Yet, the most important difference is that like families, some countries promote human flourishing more than others.
I was reminded of this truth when my Canadian wife and I recently visited some old Russian friends who now live in the United States. One of our Russian friends shared with me, “Perry, we tried so hard in Russia.” They loved their country and sought its welfare. Yet, the family of four lived in a one-room apartment. The father, an accomplished doctor, worked two jobs to make ends meet and made around one hundred dollars a month. The wife, a teacher tried to do her best to provide for her two daughters. She shared with us how during Soviet times she took a five-hour train ride to Moscow to find shoes for her daughter. She then stood in line all day. Unfortunately, they ran out of shoes when she got to the front of the line. Russians know how to suffer. On top of that, this family had an additional form of suffering. On their Soviet passport, they were not identified as Russians but as “Jews” (today they are American Christians). Ultimately, they realized they needed to leave this abusive country they loved (and still love).
When they immigrated to the United States, only one member of the family was able to obtain a teaching job. Despite that fact, the family eventually bought a house. Being Russian, they did not mind sharing the financial details of this house purchase (sidenote—Russians find the American resistance to talking openly about finances puzzling). They bought the house using a fifteen-year loan. The mother told me proudly that they paid off the loan in five years. They understandably loved that their new country rewarded their hard work, frugality, and stewardship.
Sometimes when our home country moves so far from supporting human flourishing, we may decide to move to another one that supports it better. Indeed, most North Americans reading this post are descendents of voluntary immigrants or immigrants themselves (I talk about those who were not in tomorrow’s post). For that, those voluntary immigrants should be thankful for the hospitality and openness of their home countries and celebrate the flourishing they currently allow (which could always change). Of course, that does not mean we overlook the ways our home countries are fallen–a topic I cover in tomorrow’s post.