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This is post probably has something to make everyone unhappy. But here goes.

With Memorial Day on Monday (in the U.S.) and, no doubt, a number of patriotic services scheduled for this Sunday, I want to offer a few theses on patriotism and the church. Each of these points could be substantially expanded and beg more detailed defense and explanation, but since this is a blog and not a term paper, I'll try to keep this under 1500 words.

1. Being a Christian does not remove ethnic and national identities.

In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28), but this does not mean men cease to be male or Jews ceases to be Jewish. The worshiping throng gathered around the throne is not a bland mess of Esperanto Christians in matching khaki pants and white polos. God makes us one in Christ, but that oneness does not mean we can no longer recognize tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples in heaven. If you don't have to renounce being an American in heaven, you shouldn't have to pretend you aren't one now.

2. Patriotism, like other earthly "prides," can be a virtue or vice.

Most people love their families. Many people love their schools, their home, and their sports teams. All of these loves can be appropriate. In making us for himself, God didn’t mean to eradicate all other loves. Instead he wants those loves to be purer and in right proportion to our ultimate Love. Adam and Eve should have loved the Garden. God didn't intend for them to be so "spiritual" that they were blind to the goodness around them. In the same way, where there is good in our country or family it is right to have affection and display affection for those good things.

Of course, we can turn patriotism into an idol, just like family can be an idol. But being proud of your country (or proud to be an American or a Canadian or a Russian or whatever) is not inherently worse than being proud of your kids or proud to be a Smith or a Jones or a Dostoevsky. I find it strange that while it is fashionable to love your city, be proud of your city, and talk about transforming your city, it is, for some of the same people, quite gauche to love your country, be proud of your country, and talk about transforming your country.

3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.

Sometimes Christians talk like you should have no loyalty for your country, as if love for your country was always a bad thing. To be sure, this must never be ultimate loyalty. We must always obey God rather than men. But most Christians have understood the fifth commandment to be about honoring not only your parents but all those in authority over you.

Moreover, Jesus shows its possible to honor God and honor Caesar. This is especially clear if you know some of the Jewish history. The tax in question in Mark 12 is about the poll tax or census tax. It was first instituted in AD 6, not too many years before Jesus' ministry. When it was established a man by the name of Judas of Galilee led a revolt. According to Josephus, "He called his fellow countrymen cowards for being willing to pay tribute to the Romans and for putting up with mortal masters in place of God." Like the Zealots, he believed allegiance to God and allegiance to any earthly government were fundamentally incompatible. As far as they were concerned if God was your king, you couldn't have an earthly king.

But Jesus completely disagreed. By telling the people to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" he was saying there are duties to government that do not infringe on your ultimate duty to God. It's possible to honor lesser authorities in good conscience because they have been instituted by a greater authority.

If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state. In general, then, it's possible to be a good Christian and a good American, or a good Ghanaian or a good Korean. Patriotism is not bad. Singing your national anthem and getting choked up is not bad. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country do not have to be at odds.

4. God's people are not tied to any one nation.

When Jesus says "go ahead and give to Caesar what belongs to him" he is effectively saying, "you can support nations that do not formally worship the one true God." Or to put it a different way: true religion is not bound with only one country. This means-as we see in Revelation 7 and Isaiah 49 and Psalm 87 and Matthew 28 and Acts 1and a hundred other places–the Church will be transcultural and transnational.

While American churches are in America, they must never be only American churches. We must keep in mind (and when applicable, explicitly state) that our congregations are filled with brothers and sisters from all over the world. Likewise, we must work hard to help people see that Christianity is not just a Western religion or American religion. Christianity started in the Middle East and quickly spread to North Africa, and parts of Asia and Europe. The Church was always meant to be international. Today there are more Anglicans in church in Nigeria than in England, more Presbyterians in South Korea than in the United States. The promise to Abraham way back in Genesis is that through his family God would bless the whole world. Christianity is not tied to just one certain nation. Following Christ is not an ethnic thing. You can be from any country and worship Jesus.

5. All this leads to one final point: while patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.

We should pray for service men and women in our congregations. We should pray for the President. We should pray for the just cause to triumph over the evil one. We are not moral relativists. We do not believe just because all people are sinners and all nations are sinful that no person or no nation can be more righteous or more wicked than another. God may be on America's side in some (not all) her endeavors.

But please think twice before putting on a Star Spangled gala in church this Sunday. I love to hear the national anthem and "God Bless America" and "My Country, Tis of Thee," but not in church where the nations gather to worship the King of all peoples. I love to see the presentation of colors and salute our veterans, but these would be better at the Memorial Day parade or during a time of remembrance at the cemetery. Earthly worship should reflect the on-going worship in heaven. And while there are many Americans singing glorious songs to Jesus there, they are not singing songs about the glories of America. We must hold to the traditions of the Apostles in our worship, not the traditions of American history. The church should not ask of her people what is not required in Scripture. So how can we ask the Koreans and Chinese and Mexicans and South Africans in our churches to pledge allegiance to a flag that is not theirs? Are we gathered under the banner of Christ or another banner? Is the church of Jesus Christ-our Jewish Lord and Savior–for those draped in the red, white, and blue or for those washed in the blood of the Lamb?

In some parts of the church, every hint of patriotism makes you a jingoistic idolater. You are allowed to love every country except your own. But in other parts of the church, true religion blends too comfortably into civil religion. You are allowed to worship in our services as long as you love America as much as we do. I don't claim to have arrived at the golden mean, but I imagine many churches could stand to think more carefully about their theology of God and country. Churches should be glad to have their members celebrate Memorial Day with gusto this Monday. We should be less sanguine about celebrating it with pomp and circumstance on Sunday.

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167 thoughts on “Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day”

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  4. Thank you so much for this article, Kevin. Really. Very helpful.

  5. Jonathan says:

    This was a very good and balanced article and well in line with what I’ve come to expect from Kevin DeYoung. I especially appreciated the last point.

    Born in the 60s and having my formative years in the 70s in rural heartland of the USA, my earliest memories of church was a community where the elder statesmen (and “stateswomen”) were of the WWII generation. This was also an era where it seemed that most senior pastors in their 50s and 60s were combat veterans of either WWII or Korea (or both).

    Days of national remembrance that took place on or near Sundays were handled as a Cross centered community…in the same way that we handled Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. During my childhood, Memorial Day was time of remembrance of personal and community loss that made for an excellent first for a local body of believers. I’m convinced that the older generation’s experience during WWII where local church was the central driving force in these small communities during times of major cultural upheaval like the Great Depression and a war against an evil that threatened, for 3-4 years, to force tyrannical rule on the globe. There were men who served as deacons and ushers and Sunday school teachers during this time who had missing arm, legs, eyes from their combat service in Europe, Africa, or Asia. There were elder ladies who bore the internal scars of lost brothers, sons, and husbands back during their own youth in the 1940s They understood the privilege of a weekly gathering together in a way that few of us do today.

    The primary difference in the 2010s and the 1970s, in my experience, is that the local church has become so consumed with preaching and the elevating of preachers that much of this type of a community of people of collected experiences gathered to worship God amidst this daily memory of massive delivery is a distant memory. Preaching is THE center of our gatherings now, not community. This does have some benefit but frequently at the cost of seeing those who seek meaningful community slowly being driven elsewhere to find it. In some instances, it feels like we’ve replaced the jingoism of “America First!” with the jingoism of “Preacher/Preaching First!”

    We’re a collection of flawed people. Each generation is going to make mistakes due to the nature of our own individual flesh. But we live under a banner of Grace and this Grace, while applying to every generation, has the flavor of the needs and experiences of each generation. In this present generation of church leaders with a haste to be more Gospel centered than every previous one, let’s not forget that there is much to remember on days like this that can amplify our worship of our Redeemer.

  6. Curt Day says:

    Point #1: True, being a Christian doesn’t does not remove our other identities–all of the time that is. But being a Christian does put those identities in their place. For being Christian not only acknowledges that our first love belongs to God, it also says that our only savior is God. And the more zealous our patriotism, the more we are challenged in terms of whom we will love the most and to whom we will be most loyal–our loyalty will go to the one on whom we are most dependent.

    Point #2: We need to ask how we can reconcile pride in our other identities with key scripture verses like Romans 3:27, Galations 3:28, and Philippians 3:1-11. Is there goodness in at least some of the groups to which we belong? Yes. But who is the source of that goodness. And just like each of its members, there is sin in each of the groups to which we belong. Thus, we should ask if we should have the same kind of pride in our groups that we are called on to have in ourselves. We also need to ask if the lives of those outside of our nation are just as important as the lives of those who belong to our nation. And we should note that the more pride we have in a group, the more unnecessary divisions there are between us and others especially fellow Christians.

    Point #3: Honoring those in authority is not the same as allegiance to a group or loving one’s country. Submission to authority is a recognition of part of how God rules over us and not how much we should love our nation. In addition, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that submission to authority includes properly resisting those in authority who pass unjust laws.

    Point #4: This point is true and we should note how the implications of this point should modify or challenge both our own patriotism as well as how patriotism is defined by those around us.

    Point #5: Yes, we should pray for those in the service. But we should not allow those who make the policies that send our troops here in there to use the valor of our troops as a moral shield for their policies. In addition, just as in a conflict where one nation or group is less sinful or more righteous than the other, we cannot afford to sweep the sins of our own group or nation under the carpet of the greater number of sins of our opponents. For how can righteousness be automatically assigned to the lesser of two evils? There are at least some, if not most or all, conflicts where the Christian response would be to oppose all involved in the conflict.

    This post really doesn’t adequately define patriotism so that the points made by Kevin can be fairly evaluated. So below is a definition of Patriotism given by Emma Goldman:

    What is patriotism? Is it love of one’s birthplace, the place of childhood’s recollections and hopes, dreams and aspirations? Is it the place where, in childlike naivete, we would watch the passing clouds, and wonder why we, too, could not float so swiftly?…If that were patriotism, few American men of today would be called upon to be patriotic, since the place of play has been turned into factory, mill, and mine, while deepening sounds of machinery have replaced the music of the birds…

    Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot consider themselves nobler, better, grander, more intelligent than those living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.

  7. Doug Herron says:

    How should we pray for our troops?

  8. Along with these helpful insights further teaching is needed on the possibility and necessity of a just war.

    If wars are viewed as necessary, at best, most people would consider them necessary evils.

    Many Christians feel that, “…resorting to force in certain situations is ‘necessary’ to save the lives of victims of injustice (including ourselves). Yet such actions are also held to be ‘evil’ because warlike acts are ‘inhuman’ and do not follow the model of Christian living found in the life of Jesus” (Darrell Cole, Good Wars, First Things, October 2001).

    Those who think this way put war in the category of “dirty hands” morality.

    “The thought here is that we cannot both follow Jesus in living nonviolently and be ‘responsible’ citizens at the same time, so we go ahead and behave ‘responsibly’ (i.e., we use force), but we admit that in doing so we get our hands dirty, which calls for repentance. There is no such thing, in this view, as a warlike act that does not demand repentance. So, we commit sinful acts when we use force, even when it is employed for the sake of just ends. Thus warfare is viewed not as a possible positive good but as a necessary evil that taints all who touch it” (Cole).

    Others believe that it is possible to have a just war that is Godlike in its purpose and implementation.

    “Defenders of Christian Just War doctrine typically argue that we ought to be reluctant to fight wars that lack sufficient moral and rational justification. Defenders of the Just War tradition regret that they live in a world where they have to kill human beings in order to restrain evil; that is to say, they regret the Fall. But they find it to be even more regretful for Christians to stand idly by while people are being abused and killed unjustly” (Cole).

    “The Christian who fails to use force to aid his neighbor when prudence dictates that force is the best way to render that aid is an uncharitable Christian. Hence, Christians who willingly and knowingly refuse to engage in a just war do a vicious thing: They fail to show love towards their neighbor as well as toward God” (Cole).

    Some will insist that it is impossible to have a purely just war where sinful humans are involved. Yet it must be asked if the possibility of wrong motives and actions overthrows the necessity to pursue just ends.

    Although this is a fallen and broken world, sometimes aggressive violence must be stopped by principled force. In such cases, as Carson concludes, “…war may be the right thing to do, the moral thing, the loving thing—even if, God help us, war is hellish and inevitably casts up some injustices on all sides.”

    Steve Cornell.

  9. Ryan Moran says:

    Curt Day:
    Emma Goldman was a Nitchse disciple, anarchist/atheist and didn’t have a biblical view of patriotism among other things. It’s odd you quoted this opponent of Christianity as if her view on patriotism squared with any part of scripture. Although I am a sinner, I will take my imperfect patriotism to an actual land over her patriotism to wicked ideas any day.

  10. I must wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiments expressed in point 3. You said “By telling the people to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” he was saying there are duties to government that do not infringe on your ultimate duty to God. It’s possible to honor lesser authorities in good conscience because they have been instituted by a greater authority.”
    However, when Christ said “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s,” He knew full well that the Scriptures say “The Earth is the LORD’S and the fulness thereof; the world and all it contains.” There is nothing that belongs to Caesar. This is why at his trial, His accuser declared that Jesus was encouraging tax revolt (Luke 23:1-3).
    Furthermore, 1 Samuel 8:6-18 shows that acceptance of a secular government (a king) is rejection of God. And in the temptation of Christ, Satan offers Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world if He will just worship Satan. Christ did not deny that Satan owned the governments of the world. Including the American government. Which brings me to Romans 13, which begins “”Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…” Since God has not established kings, and since Satan has ownership of secular governments, these are NOT legitimate authorities, nor has God ordained them. We should follow their rules (they are not real Laws) when they agree with Christian principles, but we should NOT follow them when they DON’T. (Acts 5:29).
    Which brings us to the government’s ultimate sin: War. Nowhere in the New Testament is war justified as an occupation of Christians. Soldiers are ordered to “do violence to no man”, not even in self defense. (Luke 3:14) In fact, James 4 teaches us that wars come from our lusts. And the Bible clearly says we are to “flee youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22). In fact, we are called over and over and over throughout the New Testament to pursue peace. Our Lord is even named the Prince of Peace.
    The flag (American or ANY OTHER nation) has no business in the church. It is the symbol of a government that belongs to Satan. Warriors should not be “honored” in church because their profession flies directly in the face of biblical commandments. The church has no business being an advocate or follower of the state. To do otherwise is to disobey God.

  11. Joanie says:

    My comment is referring to…”Render Ceaser’s things to Ceaser’s and God’s things to God.” If we give our life to Ceaser, what will we have left to give to God? You cannot serve two masters…live and die for both.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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