A few months ago, I visited, for the first time, the the few months ago, I visited, for the first time, Prisoner of War (POW) National Memorial at Andersonville, Georgia, about 150 miles south of Atlanta. Having served in the Navy as a pilot for almost twenty-five years, and having known some POWs from the Vietnam War, I was quite moved by the museum, video interviews of living POWs, and the overall setting.
Andersonville was the location of one of the Confederacy’s largest prison camps during the Civil War. Just outside the POW exhibit is a large open area where tens of thousands of Union soldiers were confined outdoors during the mid-1860s, and where thousands died of exposure, malnutrition and disease. During my tour of the park, I was brought to tears several times by the testimonies and written records of these POWs, which documented their sacrifice. They languished for years in stockades, waiting for the war to end, hoping they had not been forgotten, praying that they would survive, and in most cases emerging with their dignity intact, proud that they had served their country.
THE PROBLEM TODAY
But can one be both a patriot and a Christian — or is that a contradiction in terms? Patriotism is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” The word patriot is described in the same dictionary as one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests.
I must confess that there are many things about our country’s policies at home and abroad that bring shame, and not love or devotion, to my mind today. I grew up loving America, its ideals, its heritage, and its hope for the world. My father served with distinction in World War II and the Korean War, and I am proud of his sacrificial service to his country (he is still alive at age 95, and has plenty of war stories left to tell).
Sadly, I would be hard-pressed today to recommend to my sons a career in the military because of our current commander-in-chief and his policies, our national policies abroad (where our soldiers can be put under United Nations command), and the feminization of the armed forces. However, if they were called to serve, I would advise them to do so with honor. Just because one is not in favor of his country’s current policies, does it follow that the whole idea of patriotism is unbiblical or even sinful? Can I be a Christian patriot today and a devout Christian at the same time?
THE USE AND ABUSE OF STATE AUTHORITY
It is insightful to see the reactions of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the apostle Paul, when confronted by the military or the rulers of their day, as well as their comments concerning authority and the state. When soldiers asked John the Baptist, “What shall we do?” he answered in Luke 3:14 that they should neither abuse their position nor resign (and they represented the bloody and corrupt King Herod).
When Christ responded in Matthew 8: 5–13 to the Roman centurion’s request that he heal his servant, he was astonished at the faith of the soldier, whose commander-in-chief was King Herod, who thought of himself as a god. Jesus did not call upon the centurion to flee the corrupt, occupying government that the soldier represented.
When Paul was being persecuted by the crowds in Jerusalem, and being prepared for a flogging, he appealed to the Roman commander, based on his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22–29). Paul used his citizenship to protect himself from the mob and gain access to Roman rulers, and he never openly called for an end to the Roman government.
We know that governments are established by God (John 19:11; Ps. 2; Rom. 13:1–5). Governments are necessary because of man’s sinful nature. Government officials are God’s servants, called to do good by bringing punishment on wrongdoers (Rom. 13:4). We are to submit to governmental authority, show proper respect for every legitimate institution of government, and honor the king (I Pet. 2:13–17). Even though ancient Rome was unjust and cruel, it established a time of peace and stability that fostered the spread of Christianity throughout the empire.
In this century, we have seen much harm done by organized government taking away human freedom. The battle in Kosovo was fought largely over the Serbian government’s mistreatment (“ethnic cleansing”) of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. How could a Kosovar be a patriot, one could wonder! As is so often the case, we are faced with a dilemma. How can I obey a government and honor the ruler, and at the same time love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and body?
OBEYING GOD FIRST
The source of our respect for, and obedience to, our governments must be our relationship to, and faith in, Jesus Christ. We sometimes misuse Acts 5:29 (“We must obey God rather than men!”) when we disagree with a judgment made by a higher authority (whether it be our husband, our employer, or the civil government). I maintain that we must be very careful in using that verse. We must clearly demonstrate that a clear ordinance of God is being violated, forcing us to disobey our legal authorities. Are we indeed obeying Christ when we disobey men? We must be certain of it!
When I was a young naval officer, I heard a fellow officer quote an old adage taken from a poem: “America, may God always make her right, but America — right or wrong.” The same idea of blind obedience and misguided patriotism caused officers of the Third Reich during World War II to commit grievous crimes against humanity. The same principle has been abused by tyrants throughout history. There is a higher law that we live by as bondservants of Christ.
I do believe that it is possible to be a “Christian patriot,” even when one’s country is guided by less than honorable policy. Daniel served the pagan Babylonian and Persian kings of his day until the ordinances of the land clearly violated the teachings of the Lord God (Dan. 6). In his disobedience of King Darius’s law to worship only the king, Daniel put himself in danger of incurring the wrath of the king, but brought great glory to God. Indeed, after Daniel survived the lion’s den, Darius declared that “in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel” (Daniel 6:26–27).
The Christian patriot can love his country with devotion, and respect Its authority and rulers, but always with a clear caveat: to King Jesus, the highest ruler, we owe our first loyalty. Everything is under His authority and control. Our secondary devotion to and respect for men and institutions must always be in the shadow of God Almighty. We may find ourselves in direct opposition to our government, even to the point of disobedience, when the Holy Spirit has convicted us that we must obey God rather than man.
To desire the best for the country of which God has made you a citizen is to want that country to be righteous and just (sin is a reproach to any people). Christians are the best kind of citizens, for they should be able to see what is best for the country (to turn from its wicked ways and to embrace the lordship of Christ). Christian citizens in high places can be a force for good.
God places us in positions (sometimes not to our liking) and wants us to serve Him faithfully in them. This requires courage. For example, Queen Esther was in a high position when the decree went out to destroy the Jews, and God used her for good in that position, even though her royal husband was arbitrary and cruel. Her godly uncle Mordecai became prime minister as a result of the whole incident, serving the same king and becoming “second in rank to King Xerxes, pre-eminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews” (Est. 10:3). Was Mordecai a “Christian patriot”? He could have shirked his civic duty because of the obvious discrimination against his people, but instead he (and Esther) rose to the occasion. Their first loyalty was always to the Lord God, but they honored the king — Mordecai even saved his life!
There will never be a perfect government on this side of heaven, but God has placed Christians in every organization to be instruments of good and mercy. It is easy today to give up on our government and our military. In the wake of presidential scandals, it would be easy to adopt a hermit’s approach. But a Christian patriot may not be a light hidden under a bushel. Rather, he should be a herald of the gospel and a force for good in a dying age. The consequences for speaking God’s truth in America at the turn of the millennium could eventually be persecution and the charge that one is not a “loyal American.” Someday Christians may find themselves prisoners of war because of their beliefs. But may they even there, as did Daniel and Paul, show their Christian patriotic colors.
Mr. Winsted is an elder at Redeemer OPC in Atlanta, GA.
Reprinted from New Horizons, July 1999.