Maybe you’ve heard it said that the United States is often caught in the cross-fire of its uncritical lovers and its unloving critics. I try for a third way: to be a loving critic—to practice what Lutheran-turned-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus once called “critical patriotism,” [see The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America].
Critical patriotism recognizes that followers of Jesus are citizens, at one and the same time, of two orders: their homeland and the kingdom of God. Most of us the people who will read this post are citizens of the United States, and, in the strictest and most original sense of the word, we are “patriots.” The root meaning of “patriot” is, simply, “a lover of the place.” We love our homeland. We are grateful for the freedoms it affords us, and we are loyal to its highest and best ideals.
But, we are not only citizens of the United States; we are, most of all, disciples of Jesus. Our ultimate and final loyalty is to the rule and reign of God. We love our nation, and we love it in the name and spirit of Jesus, which means we love it enough to hold it, and ourselves, accountable to his will and way.
It is not a denial of love for our country to admit that it sometimes fails to live up to it ideals and honor its promises. A nation is a a collection of human beings; and, like all things human, is limited, fallible and flawed. No nation is perfect, not even our own. We are not immune, as a country, to infections of greed and corruption. That is why I resonate to the stanza in “America the Beautiful” which includes this honest prayer for national reformation:
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
What’s more, the will and way of God always transcend, sometimes judge and sometimes affirm, our “political” arrangements. There isn’t a political party which perfectly matches God’s agenda for the world: not the platform of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or the Libertarian Party, or the Tea Party. Politics is an arena of compromise where the art of the possible is the highest art. When we pursue our political commitments, we are not pursuing something ultimate; and the world does not stand or fall on elections and policies. The world stands or falls in the power and mercy of God. When it comes to politics, we are doing our best to live-out our convictions and commitments in the give-and-take of diversity and difference and in communities comprised of nothing but fallen and sinful human beings.
On this Independence Day weekend, citizens of the United States aren’t, at least I hope we aren’t, simply grilling hot dogs, enjoying fireworks and engaging in the great American pastime—shopping. I hope we are remembering the founding and guiding documents of this always-fragile experiment in liberty, among them, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s potent summary of both, the Gettysburg Address.
The nation has its founding and guiding documents. And, the Kingdom of God has the foundational and shaping words of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto for his revolution of mercy and love; his charter for God’s new order of justice and peace, and his constitution for God’s new society of holiness and wholeness.
We are citizens of our homeland; but, even more, we are disciples of Jesus. Our overarching loyalty is to him, to his will and way, to his voice and words.