A friend asked me yesterday how I celebrate Memorial Day given my beliefs about Christians and war. One of the things I told him is that I feel a lot like a foreigner on these patriotic days. Every year I struggle a bit to know how to think about and participate in the celebration of military sacrifice and national birthdays initiated by war.
You see, my perspective is that I’m legally a citizen of the United States, but that my whole allegiance is to Jesus and His kingdom. There is a no competition. Jesus has total claim on me and if there is ever a shred of conflict, Jesus wins my loyalty.
Now some people, probably most American Christians, would respond by saying ‘sure, Jesus is #1, and if there is ever any conflict, I’ll choose Him too.’ We say this while accepting, with little to no questioning, the idea the idea that there really isn’t conflict between God’s kingdom and our earthly kingdom. Most specifically, we don’t question if war and violence are actually compatible with a King Jesus.
Sometimes I don’t think we see how ‘political’ the Kingdom of God is. Often we think about God’s Kingdom as being the place we will go when we die. We think about Jesus’ Lordship as being a personal and purely ‘spiritual’ authority. However, from the perspective of the New Testament perspective, THE KINGDOM OF GOD (or heaven) and JESUS IS LORD are profoundly political statements as well. They represent an alternative government and King that is a present reality.
In the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is the people and place that is submitted to God’s reign. It is where people live and love His way. It is not just another word for the spiritual realm or heaven. It is here now on earth and it is also coming. It is breaking in, promising to engulf and transform the whole creation. John the Baptist announces “The kingdom of God is at hand!”- the rightful King is coming back! “Jesus is Lord” was to say that Jesus is our King… and Caesar is not. Caesar has been demoted. Our citizenship is in His kingdom and our allegiance is to King Jesus… here. now.
Now it is important to note that Jesus makes clear when speaking to Pilate that His Kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world- otherwise his disciples would be fighting! We in God’s Kingdom don’t win through the power of the sword. We win through the power of the cross. Our ethic is one of love for enemies and neighbors alike. The ethic of worldly nations is generally self-serving and self-protective. It is too much to expect an earthly government to mirror God’s Kingdom. Their foundation is built on the power of the power of the sword, the threat of force. The foundation of God’s Kingdom is built on the King dying FOR traitors, not cutting down the traitors. It’s upside down.
This makes us aliens, exiles, ambassadors, subversive rebels… but not real citizens. We are loyal to the true King who is at work to win back this whole world into his dominion, not ultimately loyal to the nations in which we live.
So what’s a Kingdom person to do while living in a kingdom of this world during seasons of patriotism?
Well for starters, I think we must carefully consider where our allegiances really may be in conflict. We shouldn’t just assume that America’s interests are God’s interests and that America’s ways are God’s ways. We need to prayerfully sort through how to navigate our realities. We need to ask ourselves if we’ve fallen into nationalistic idolatry. Jesus followers must commit to making Jesus Lord of our whole lives. Some may do this and feel that military service is compatible for them as a Christian. It’s a messy space and can feel less than clear cut, I get that. I sure won’t judge another’s honest conscience. I might challenge it, but I won’t judge it. I expect the same in return, as I realize there are people who would genuinely question how one can be a Christian and committed to nonviolence. My primary concern is that we prayerfully ask and keep an open mind to how we best live in a way that leans into His reign.
Next, a way we live as exiles is to honor the good and seek the thriving in the nation we live. There is much to honor and appreciate on a patriotic holiday- we can honor the discipline, bravery, and sacrifice of those who have served in the military. There is much we can applaud- we can applaud a nation who aims for opportunity, liberty, and equality. There are also many ways we can partner with our nation in common goals- we can partner in caring for those in need, in taking care of our land, in working for as much thriving as possible.
Also, we also call out our nation when it is acting unjustly and foolish. Whether we are comminted to non-violence or not, we must not be afraid to speak up when our nation or it’s leaders are acting power hungry, abusive, and exploitative.
Lastly, we get to live out the way of love, showing the world (and ourselves) how magnificent it is to experience the love of God. The Church should be a standard bearer of sorts- people who live by a different way and display what is truly possible for people completely committed to God’s Kingdom. We live as people who aren’t constrained by national boundaries or driven by self-interest. The whole world is God’s. All of the people are loved by the King- Americans, Iraqis, Vietnamese, all. And we, people reconciled to Jesus, get to partake in His boundless love. This is a gift we partner with God in giving to our earthy nation and the world.
Patriotic holidays can feel strange to me. but feeling out of place in the land of my birth is a small price to pay to be part of this beautiful Kingdom of Jesus.