Should a Christian Be a Patriot?
July 06, 2003
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Reading from Swedenborg
Many people do not know the real meaning of the word neighbor. They suppose that individual people are the only neighbor, and that bestowing benefits on them is loving them. But the term neighbor has a wider meaning, and the love of the neighbor increases in proportion to the number of people covered by the term. Who cannot see that a love for the community is greater than a love for one of its members? Therefore a smaller or greater community is the neighbor because it is a collective human being. (True Christian Religion #412)
There are people who in this world love the good of their country more than their own, and the good of their neighbor as their own. They are the ones who love and seek the kingdom of the Lord in the other life, since there the kingdom of the Lord takes the place of one's country. Further, people who love to do good to others not for self-centered reasons but for the sake of the good itself are people who love their neighbor, since in the other life the good is one's neighbor. (Heaven and Hell #64)
Two days ago we celebrated the birth of our country. Is this a matter for Christians to be concerned about? The word "patriotism" does not occur in the Bible, nor does patriotism as a virtue get much attention. Is this because patriotism is not a religious value? Or is there some other reason?
Patriotism in the Bible tends to be disguised by the fact that the nation, people, and church were viewed virtually as one-- especially in the Old Testament. A Jew's obligation to God overshadowed any obligation to the nation or to the Jewish people. The nation's primary obligation was not to itself or its people, but to God, who had chosen Israel to serve him. "Patriotism" would simply be a by-product of dedication to God, whose will the nation must serve. There was no church-state problem because there was no separation between church and state. To be devoted to God was to be devoted to the nation of God's chosen people.
You and I are not citizens of a nation where church and state are one. We can hardly see patriotism as synonymous with our duty to God--"our reasonable worship," as Paul might have put it (Romans 12:1). Where else might we look for the roots of patriotism?
Patriotism can be merely an extension of self-love. I love my country because it is my country. If it is great and powerful, that enhances my self-image as a citizen. If it is renowned for something, that redounds to my glory. If its peace and prosperity are secure, my peace and prosperity are more likely. If it is a major power, I can feel like a superior being. The patriotism of Hitler's Nazis was certainly of this kind. It can result in great dedication and sacrifice without any ennobling results. Indeed, it can have very unchristian results. But there is a nobler basis for patriotism.
The two great commandments are to love God and to love the neighbor. The latter gave rise to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Swedenborg's answer to this question gives us the soundest foundation for patriotism. In our reading from True Christian Religion, he writes of the larger neighbor. Certainly our nation is such a larger community. In loving and serving it, we fulfill our Lord's commandment to love the neighbor--loving not one or even a few, but loving the many whose well-being depends upon the well-being of our nation.
In Arcana Coelestia #6821 Swedenborg gives a different reason for loving our country: "Our country is the neighbor above a community because it is in the place of a parent. We are born in it; it feeds us and guards us from injury. We are to benefit our country from love, according to its needs, which are mainly its means of support, its civil life, and its spiritual life." He goes on to make another interesting point: "When we love our country, and from good benefit it, in the other life we love the Lord's kingdom; for there the Lord's kingdom is our country." Apparently, then, patriotism can be a means of extending our concerns beyond ourselves and our immediate families, and counting the needs and concerns of others as equal to our own.
George Bernard Shaw once made the comment, "You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race." Shaw can hardly have been talking about the same kind of patriotism as Swedenborg. The great Swedish theologian does not hold to the doctrine, "Our country, right or wrong." He holds that "our country is the neighbor according to its spiritual, moral, and civil good" (On Charity #83). This clearly means we are not obligated to support it in all it does. Protest, passive resistance, or even civil disobedience might be in order if a country's practices and policies are highly questionable--for our country is not the highest neighbor to whom we owe the duty of love.
According to Swedenborg, "the church is our neighbor above our country" (The New Jerusalem #94), and "the Lord's kingdom is the neighbor that should be loved in the highest degree" (True Christian Religion #416). In this, he is not referring to a human institution, but to the spiritual well-being of all women and men everywhere who worship God as they know him, and seek to do his will as they are given to see it. The state is not by nature dedicated to the highest values humankind knows. Nor does it have as great a commitment to people everywhere as it does to its own citizens. But God does. And those who believe in God should. Without giving up our national patriotism, perhaps we should seek the broader patriotism envisioned by Tom Paine, who said, "My country is the world and my religion is to do good."
I know of no country founded on higher or better principles than those embodied in the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. In seeking to free ourselves from British oppression, we also sought to establish a land where our freedoms and our rights would make possible fuller lives. Neither the government nor the American people have always maintained those rights and freedoms for all people. Some religious groups would even restrict some of them in the name of their brand of truth.
I believe it is our duty not only as citizens, but as Christians, to know what our country stands for, and to do our part to see that it serves the material and spiritual well-being of all its citizens. Our country will always be one of the larger and more important neighbors for dedicated Christians to serve.
Dear Lord, as we celebrate our country and take pride in its accomplishments, keep us mindful that we are not to love our country blindly, but rather to love the good that is in it, while being willing to recognize and correct its faults. Guide both the leaders and the citizens of our country in the ways of justice and righteousness. Give us a love of our country that seeks the good of all its people, and the higher good of your divine kingdom. Amen.
Rev. Edwin Capon