Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Patriotic Alien at the PCA General Assembly

Patriotic Alien

The following was published as Soul Food column in the July 1/8, 1995 issue of World .

Render your patriotism unto Caesar and your worship unto God

It’s Saturday evening, June 8, 1991 – Desert Storm Victory Day. The week has been busy and the day hectic and still there’s work to do. But about 7:00 p.m. I declare victory over the unfinished Sunday evening sermon and head for the Washington Monument to experience the day’s climactic event, a gigantic fireworks display. That evening I felt, as on so many occasions during our four years living near Washington, D. C., the joys of free-spirited patriotism. The monuments, military bands, and holiday celebrations of the capital provide regular, healthy stimulation for the sensuous patriot.

Less than two weeks later, at a national meeting of a conservative protestant denomination, there’s a service featuring patriotic music and a message by General Schwarzkopf’s chief chaplain. And while others join the celebration, I’m feeling like an alien. I’m feeling, in conservative context, almost what I felt nearly 20 years before in a liberal context as my church body voted to urge the president to pardon my contemporaries who deserted rather than face the draft.

Israel, in Babylon, asked, “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?” Tonight, in my spirit, I’m thinking, “How can I sing the songs of a foreign land in Zion?”

What’s the matter with me? Why is the United States my country when, with my fellow citizens, I’m watching fireworks explode over Washington, but a foreign land when I’m with fellow Christians worshipping? Why do I join without restraint in celebrating America on the Mall, but find I can’t do it in church?

On the Mall I experience those patriotic feelings that are natural and good. Those feelings should be strong in a person privileged to be a citizen of the United States. But in church I am reminded of a more important identity and a higher loyalty. I am, first, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, ultimately loyal to King Jesus. Since his coming into the world, no country on earth has been, is, or will be the kingdom of God. Though I gladly live in my country, work for its welfare, and pray God’s blessings on it (Jeremiah 29:4-7), I am still an alien and stranger on earth looking for a country of my own, longing for a better country – a heavenly one (Hebrews 12:13-16).

On the Mall I “render unto Caesar” the patriotic fervor he is due and then some. In a country such as this, I give it not merely as my patriotic duty, but as my delightful privilege. But in church I render unto God the worship that belongs to him and no one else. To mingle worship of country with worship of God may be unintended idolatry, but idolatry it is.

On the Mall I join with fellow citizens of the United States to reaffirm our loyalty to our country and to experience a sense of common identity. In church I join with my fellow citizens of the kingdom of God to reaffirm our loyalty to Christ and to experience the communion of the saints that rises above all political, national, racial, and cultural divisions. There I want to put my arm around my American Christian brother who opposed the war. And there I should feel more at home with my brother in Christ who fought in the Iraqi army than with an unbelieving American who fought in the U.S. Army. Though we may, in good conscience and duty, have tried to kill each other as soldiers, in church we eat from one loaf and drink from one cup.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 3:25). Here I’m a patriotic alien waiting for my king to consummate the kingdom his coming established.

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