Last year, my family and I were blessed to be able to visit my nation’s capital. I have to specify that second “my” – the fact that my wife is an Australian citizen is actually what brought us to Washington D.C. She needed to renew her passport, which unfortunately requires an in-person visit to the Australian embassy. We decided to make the most of the trip, as I had received some tickets to the Museum of the Bible (a place I highly recommend by the way). We planned to settle matters at the embassy, visit the museum, and then take another couple of days to see as much of D.C. as we could.
Patriotism and I have had a strange relationship. Like most children in America, I grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance and celebrating Independence Day. I also grew up attending the services of Christ’s church and was added to that church when I put on my Lord in baptism, calling upon His name (Galatians 3:27; Acts 22:16). So, from the beginning, patriotism and faith were both there, but I remember them existing in separate spheres.
As evidence of that fact, I remember in the 9th or 10th grade going through a sort of rebellious period. I didn’t rebel against my faith – that remained intact throughout my upbringing; I instead rebelled against my country. I refused to say the pledge of allegiance. I spoke to anyone who would listen about the evils of capitalism and the corruption of the government that upheld it.
Looking back, I wonder what impact former President Bill Clinton’s affair and the subsequent impeachment had on all of that. That happened during some formative years in my life and certainly made the government seem less reliable and less worthy of respect. In any event, my rebellion was short lived; it weakened when I entered the 11th grade and was killed altogether by the events of September 11. Everyone was a patriot after that.
I still remember a sermon one of the evangelists at our congregation preached following that terrible day. I honestly can’t remember if it was on the Wednesday night the day after or the following Sunday, but an American flag appeared in the auditorium where we assembled and the preacher declared that American Christians were dual citizens: citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and citizens of United States. I believed it. I believed it so much that I even flirted with the idea of joining the military. If I hadn’t been guided towards preaching school by some dear Christian brothers, that probably would have been the path I took.
I became a voter soon after I entered preaching school. It was all very simple: 1) a Christian ought to vote; 2) voting ought to be determined by moral platforms, not economic or social ones; 3) when all else failed, pick the party that supported moral platforms. I voted accordingly.
Life took some interesting turns after preaching school. Within three years of my graduation, I was living overseas. Paul said the testimony of a certain prophet who said that Cretans were always liars was true (Titus 1:12-13). He wasn’t saying that all Cretans were liars; he was saying that the sin was common among Crete’s denizens. If Paul visited America, he might repeat or make the assessment himself that Americans are always prideful.
Australia is the perfect place for a prideful American. Aussies are quick to point out that how you did it in America is both irrelevant and likely not as good as you thought it was. And, to be honest, they’re absolutely right. There are many different ways of living. I truly enjoyed life in east TN where I first went out of preaching school, and, after a year or two, I truly enjoyed life in Australia. When I relocated to Singapore with my Aussie bride, I found plenty of things to enjoy there too. And the more I enjoyed life overseas, the weaker my patriotism became.
After my first son was born, it became increasingly obvious that we were not going to be able to remain on the mission field. Life was too expensive in Singapore on a missionary’s salary and because it was too expensive it was just too hard. It was time for me to go home. However, as I began to research going home for me and my Australian wife, I began to wonder what home I was going to find upon returning.
The year was 2016. The Singaporeans absolutely loved following the American election dramas that year; Singaporean politics is nowhere near as interesting. When the presidential field narrowed to two candidates, I was asked ad nauseum what I thought about it. My reply might seem judgmental and potentially unpatriotic given that one of those candidates became my President. However, my King, who is higher than any earthly ruler, teaches me to judge righteous judgment which involves knowing people by the fruit of their life (John 7:24; Matthew 7:20). Given that, I believe my assessment of the situation was true then and may still be true. When asked about the two candidates, I said, “It’s like being asked to choose between Jezebel and Nebuchadnezzar.”
Interestingly (providentially?), one of my tasks at Four Seas College in Singapore as the election neared was to teach the book of Daniel for the first time. I had studied Daniel before, but as I prepared myself to teach Daniel 4, my heart was touched by the picture of Nebuchadnezzar as a mighty tree which provided a dwelling place for animals and food and shade for all flesh (v. 12). I was then touched by the fact that Daniel, a man who had been captured and emasculated (see Daniel 1) by Nebuchadnezzar, was troubled by the fact that that tree was going to be chopped down (4:19). Then, I noticed a fourfold repetition like I had never seen it before: “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (4:25, 32; cf. v. 17; 5:21).
Those realizations produced in me a peace that passes understanding concerning the impending election and any elections that might follow it (Philippians 4:7). American democracy is at least in part an illusion (and no, I don’t mean because of the electoral college, which, at the risk of alienating some, I see as a good thing). I won’t go so far as to say voting is an illusion; in some way beyond my understanding, God works His will through the voting process. What I will say though is this: When an American President (or any elected official for that matter) is selected, it is because God selected him, not because I or anyone voted for him.
Don’t get me wrong here. No President has any special mandate from God any more than any other President or any other ruler. God’s selection of someone for the US Presidency is no sign that He approves of all that they do. The same God that selects the US Present also selected Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and a host of other wicked rulers over a host of other countries. And Nebuchadnezzar.
Being at peace with the election didn’t make me at peace with the choices. In my communion with God, I told Him that I did not want to be responsible for either of the two major party’s candidates being elected. I also was embroiled in impending move (including the stressful, paperwork-rich process to obtain a visa for my wife) and simply didn’t want to invest the additional energy into working out the overseas voting process, only to cast a vote for a third-party candidate. I prayed for God to select whichever ruler would be best for the country now and in the future, and I simply did not vote.
A strange thing happened in the 9 years I lived overseas which hit me like a hammer when I returned to the country and, at the same time, opened my first social media account. It might have always been there in some places, but upon returning it seemed to be there in every place. What once existed as two distinct realms with a bit of overlap on moral issues, namely faith and politics, had become interwoven. Instead of preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, preachers were taking to social media to preach politics. Christians have a moral obligation to vote! No immigrants! No gun control! Bomb those Muslims! All of these things and more I have heard from my preaching brothers.
Again, don’t get me wrong. These brothers are generally good men. I am sure they believe they are engaging in righteous warfare through their keyboards. I just don’t understand it. Governments have the right to close borders or open them. If they close them, they protect us from harm for sure, but if they open them, they give us the opportunity to teach more people the Gospel. Governments have the right to take away guns. But the Constitution! Well, yes, Christian friend, the Constitution, but tell me: would Paul resist government with a sword? Would Jesus? Did He (Matthew 26:52)? And, sadly, governments can choose to wage warfare. The duty of bearing the sword falls on their shoulders (Romans 13:4), and some evil will not cease unless it is destroyed. But Paul said to pray for kings (note the plural) so that we can lead “quiet and peaceable” lives because this is the will of a God who wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:2-3). Tell me honestly: are more people saved in war or in peace? And for which then should we pray?
Now, let me add that the Bible contains prayers of vengeance. They’re a part of the life of faith. In studying the Psalms, I sometimes come across language that makes me blush. Can a person of faith really say this? But then I think about the atrocities committed against God’s people throughout history. And then I think about September 11. And then I understand. But then I think of Jesus. I think of what He died trying to show me. And then I realize something very important: while I can and should bring all of my desires for vengeance to a God who metes it out, I must leave those desires there with Him at the foot of His throne (Romans 12:18-21). How could it possibly be my place to promote it over social media? Should my enemies ever hear that I seek vengeance upon them, or should they hear me praying instead, “Father, forgive them” or, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60)?
Please keep reading.
If you’ll remember, all of this began with me describing my relationship with patriotism. I suppose nothing could seem more unpatriotic than an American who doesn’t assert American superiority over other countries in terms of ways and means of living, who doesn’t treat the inalienable rights promised by his government as truly inalienable, and who didn’t even vote in the last Presidential election. You might be right in judging me unpatriotic if certain metrics are applied to my patriotism, and there was a time not too long ago when you might have been right in general.
When I returned to the United States and introduced my foreign bride to life here, I suffered as most missionaries do from something called reverse culture shock even as she suffered from the regular kind. Briefly described, culture shock is when you go overseas and confront a different set of rules and expectations than those to which you are accustomed. Similarly, reverse culture shock then is when you return to your country only to find that 1) it is has changed without you; 2) you have changed without it; 3) your idea of rules and expectations is now at conflict with the idea of a place you once called home. It’s an unsettling, depressing experience, and it was probably only complicated by adjusting to Alaska, one of the uniquest of the United States, and, on top of that, welcoming our second child into our family. Needless to say, my bruised and tattered patriotism didn’t spring back to life the moment I repatriated. It limped along until that trip to Washington DC that I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
For three of the four mornings we were in DC, I got up well before dawn and well before the family. My aim each morning was to study a Psalm and then to go and record one of my Mountain Strong devotionals with a DC landmark in the background. Providence or happenstance, I don’t know, but the Psalms I had scheduled to study and record that week were remarkably suited to the backdrops I had chosen (see below). On day 2 of recording I had the opportunity to record at the World War II memorial, a memorial to a war in which my grandfather had fought. I was so touched by everything that I saw that I brought my family back there later that morning. The day happened to be VE day, and at that very spot they had planned a ceremony honoring the living legends as well as the fallen and departed of WWII. By executive order from the paterfamilias, we sat through the whole thing, children aged 3 and 1 notwithstanding.
I had wept at the Bible museum the previous day, but now, during that VE ceremony and for a very different reason, I was weeping again. At the Bible museum, I wept because of the simple but moving presentations of the Gospel and New Testament messages that I found in various exhibits as well as the beauty of the Bibles and manuscripts produced by people of ages long since passed. Now, I was weeping because I had discovered patriotism and in a truer form than I had ever known it; I was all at once joyous that I had found it and ashamed that it had taken me so long.
I’m no constitutional expert, but I’m pretty sure that no two words in the Constitution have done as much to shape the American experience as those words written before the Constitution in our Declaration of Independence: “inalienable rights.” Ensuring those rights for those who in real or perceived ways do not have them through dialogue, diatribe, and even denying them of perceived opponents is the daily preoccupation of some. Demanding those rights for oneself or one’s family at the expense of foreign and domestic fellows is the preoccupation of others. For many, too many, for my former self, those words have created an expectation of what should and should not happen simply as a matter of course in American life.
There is nothing matter-of-course, nothing inherently inalienable about rights. Throughout history many have lost their rights, and many have gained the rights of others. In order for someone to have his rights, that one or someone else on his behalf must pay a great and terrible price. The thing that destroys what patriotism ought to be in America is that too few have obtained their access with this great price, and too many have been born into it (cf. Acts 22:28).
True patriotism is to understand the price of rights – to weep hard if you have paid that price and to weep harder if someone has paid it for you. It is to understand that the Creator has bestowed upon men unalienable rights but to understand at the same time that God uses the sacrifices of countless men and women to allow anyone to enjoy them unimpeded. True patriotism is profound gratitude to a giving God and the hands of the men and women through whom He has given.
It is not with a hint of prideful superiority that I say that few have been so blessed historically and globally as the average American. Wealth flows throughout many western nations and peace reigns in many of those nations, but the average American also enjoys an economy of scale that sees him pay lower prices than those in many other western nations and also sees him have greater opportunity to improve his lot socially and financially. True, the price of education is great and growing and, forgive me conservative readers, the healthcare system is ridiculous and over-lorded by money hungry corporate entities, but no nation is perfect. The fact remains that America is uniquely and especially blessed.
I don’t know why God has blessed America, but I know what He has every right to expect from the average American. He has every right to expect the average American to give “thanks always for all things” (Ephesians 5:20) both to Him and to the ones through whom He has granted blessings: civil servants, public servants, first responders, and former/active military members. He has every right to expect the average American to be confident in the face of each election that the God who has so richly provided “every good thing” to this country (Deuteronomy 26:11) will certainly provide what is needed when every vote is cast, every incumbent is stayed or stood down, and every newly elected official is sworn in. He has every right to expect that no American take any right for granted, but to expect that each American use his or her rights to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people possible. He has the right to expect these things and more.
The full weight of my VE day experience didn’t hit me until the next day. That morning I got up early as I had done the previous two and went to film Mountain Strong, this time at the Lincoln memorial. I had the opportunity to have moments at the Vietnam and Korean memorials all to myself. After those quiet reflections and recording my devotional reflections on my Psalm for the day, I lingered at the reflective pool in front of the statue to the 16th president of my country.
It was still early. I saw joggers making their circuits around the pool; a large group of students gathering to take graduation photos on the stairs to the memorial; several international visitors scurrying around to see the sights before the crowds hit and notable among them a French speaking couple who seemed to be arguing over which place to visit next and who ultimately and spectacularly went their separate ways. I wondered, which of them realized the great price that had been paid to make all of this possible? And then I realized it: I hadn’t. And then I prayed to this effect: “Father, forgive me for taking all of this for granted. Thank you for all you have given me, all I have experienced, and all that I am. Thank you for all you have done, and thank you for all others have done to make this possible.” -PS