Previous article in this series: C.S. Lewis on the Good and Bad of Patriotism.
Patriotism is commonly defined as love for one’s own country. This definition risks oversimplification, but it’s where most people begin. We can probably agree that patriotism is at least love for one’s own country. Patriotism entails expressions of partiality or favoritism toward our own nation. To be a patriotic American, for example, means that I favor America over other nations in some way. I will argue here that love for our country can be a virtue when it is tempered with unconditional loyalty to Christ and His Church. When it isn’t, patriotism becomes a vice. Here I will consider this question: is there an inherent inconsistency between the partialism entailed in patriotism and the kind of Christian love we are called to? I think an argument can be made that partiality may be shown toward one’s country without violating the second commandment.
Does Partiality Ever Have a Place in Christian Love?
Is it ever right for a Christian to show partiality? In short, yes. The Bible prescribes specific acts of partiality and expressions of special concern for familial relationships. Take, for instance, the fifth commandment to “honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12), or the command for a husband to love his wife (Eph. 5:25), or a father to provide for his household (1 Tim. 5:8). All of these directives require partiality and acts of love not shown toward other fathers and mothers, or other wives, or other households. It is, in fact, love shown toward my wife that keeps me from being married to another wife. Without this partiality the family intended by God would break down.
The command to honor our father is especially interesting in regard to patriotism. It is not farfetched to construe the command to honor our biological or familial father as a command to honor our cultural fathers also. Love for our fathers (pater) naturally extends to love for our fatherland (patria) as families grow through successive generations. Each successive generation has more fathers and mothers to honor than the previous. Eventually there is a village, a tribe, a nation.1 It isn’t the linguistic connection between pater and patria that matters so much but the logical and conceptual extension that honoring our father entails honoring our grandfathers.2
The Limit of Christian Patriotism
By the first Christian century, exceptionalism among the Jews had become exclusivism: no Gentiles allowed at the table (Gal. 2:12).3 The ethnic and patriotic devotion of the early Jewish Christians, including the Apostle Peter, had become problematic and divisive. Earlier Jewish factions before Christ had deeply divided the people of Israel. Some brands of patriotism had become dangerous and destructive. The bloody brother of patriotism is nationalism. Remember Masada. Anticipating this continued bloodshed and national division, Jesus warns his followers against uncritical and unconditional loyalty to one party or another: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The hyperbole tells us that loyalty to Christ must run deeper than loyalty even to our own family members.
Love for our country can be a virtue when it is tempered with unconditional loyalty to Christ and His Church. When it isn’t, patriotism becomes a vice.
When Jesus looked over his beloved city of Jerusalem, he wept. He wept because he longed for the city to know the peace of God, yet it was a city torn by conflict. His words in Luke 19:41-44 echo the Psalmist who said in 122:6, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they be secure who love you!” Jesus felt special concern for Jerusalem, the Zion of God. He wept for Jerusalem because it was the city of his heritage, his people, and his fathers. Jesus came to his own people (John 1:11) and wept at the knowledge of their rejection of him. Jesus was also rejected in Nazareth which elicited this response: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). Why? Because a prophet speaks as one whose loyalty to God often does not align with the uncritical, unconditional, and unwavering loyalty to a person or party. So how may Christians who are called to take up a prophetic posture toward the world (1 Cor. 14:1; Acts 2:17) practice a Christ-honoring patriotism? I believe the answer begins with the great command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Patriotism in the Parable of the Good Samaritan
When God added “as yourselves” to the command to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39), he offered a standard for loving others. The love equation is unbalanced without proper self-love. We cannot love others well when we do not care for ourselves well.4 The command to love our neighbor as ourselves means there is something essentially similar in our love for ourselves and our love for others. I suggest that that similarity is a loyalty to the welfare of ourselves and others. This seems to fit the other command in this category: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28).
When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he was asking, “Who all do I have to love that way?” We shouldn’t gloss over this question quickly, especially in light of Luke’s explanation that the lawyer was seeking to justify his own indifference toward some people. This is precisely the point where our moral reflection on patriotism intersects with the lawyer’s self-justification. Our love for our country does not justify indifference (in the form of hate or carelessness) toward others, ever.
The lawyer posing the question thought he could trap Jesus in an absurdity: how is it possible to express the same level of care toward everyone else as I do myself? That sounds exhausting and, quite frankly, impossible. This is where the Good Samaritan comes in.
The subject we know only as “the Good Samaritan” is an example of how to live out the second great commandment. There are a lot of ironies to untangle here. First, Jesus is teaching that the opposite of love is not only overt acts of hatred but also indifference. Second, indifference is illustrated by the first two passersby who ignored their fellow countryman. The whole story rides on the kind of affinity and special concern they were expected to have for their kinsman. The impact is heightened by Jesus’ description that these two passersby were a priest and a Levite, spiritual leaders. If anyone had a responsibility to care, surely the priest and the Levite did. Jesus is piling up the sense of moral obligation these guys had in contrast to their egregious indifference. Third, the irony grows when love is shown by a foreigner, an enemy, and one from whom the least would be expected.
Insofar as our patriotism promotes a boundless love, patriotism is a virtue.
The story rests on the common sense that one begins loving their neighbor by loving those nearest them—their household, their family, their countrymen. But Jesus makes the point that love limited to one’s own country is not enough to fulfill the great commandment. Much to the lawyer’s chagrin, Jesus’ explanation of godly love blows through the walls of exceptionalism and nationalism. The Samaritan is called “good” because his love was not bound by ethnic, national, social, or religious boundaries. He saw a man in need and cared for him. Who is our neighbor? To whom are we most morally obligated to show the same care as we show ourselves? Jesus doesn’t deconstruct love for one’s country; he offers something better. The priest and Levite should have helped their fellow countrymen, not on the weak basis that they shared an ethnic or national identity but because they possessed a common humanity. The lesson is this: love is not bound by artificial lines.
The command to love our neighbor is like a centrifugal force emanating outwardly from one’s immediate neighbors to our most distant neighbors. We can be a Good Samaritan to every individual we personally encounter and we can be a Good Samaritan by acting as a nation collectively for the welfare of other nations. Insofar as our patriotism promotes a boundless love, patriotism is a virtue.
Next article in this series: Being a Catholic Christian in a Nationalistic Culture.
- The idea of “nation” is relatively new although the idea of extended tribal connections is ancient. I am using “nation” here not in the modern sense, but in a tribal community sense. One significant difference is that the ancient concept was not defined by borders as we know them today. A discussion of land, ownership, and boundaries is beyond the scope of this article.
- The extension of honoring our fathers and mothers is important to both the Old and New Testament people of God. Israel was duty-bound to the covenant made with their fathers although they failed as a nation to do so. The Church is the new Israel of God (Gal. 6:16), the new holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). If there is any sort of legitimate Christian nationalism it is only in our identity as the Church.
- Religious exceptionalism is the idea that God has raised and designated a particular nation for a special purpose. Old Testament Israel fits into this category. Exclusivism is the view that the exceptional nation must only be populated by a certain ethnic group.
- John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” does not conflict with this point. A cause worth dying for oneself or for another fits the standard God set in the great commandment.