While standard Americanized Christian theology has found it easy to merge devotion to God and Country, my own understanding of following Jesus can't help finding contrasting and conflicting visions of the proper loyalties and loves required by nationalism and Christian faith. The assumption that the modern fiction of borders should create divisions of ontological hostility--meaning that it is right for me to love and support people on my side of a border and wrong of me to equally love and support people on the other side of a border--contradicts most of what the New Testament teaches. Moreover, adopting a stance of suspicion, fear, and animosity toward those across the border, which much nationalistic religion seems to affirm, requires a Christian to disavow the very virtues that the Lord exhibited and taught.
While Jesus observed among his closest followers a kind of ethnocentrism that is akin to nationalism, he took numerous opportunities to challenge their prejudices. When they would have preferred to walk around the territory of Samaria, Jesus walked straight through it. While they would have avoided talking with a Samaritan woman, he was direct and friendly in acknowledging the common humanity they shared. While they would have denied sharing the good news of Jesus' transformative ministry among neighboring peoples, Jesus lampooned their views by first refusing the request of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, then granting it with compassion and respect for her faith. There are other examples from Jesus' life and words, but let these suffice to point toward a refusal on Jesus' part to let human-constructed ethnic and national boundaries determine who we should and should not love.
In the New Testament Epistle to the Ephesians, a crucial text further addresses the ways that human beings divide themselves into antagonistic groups. Ephesians 2:11-22 draws the focus upon the divisions that exist between Jews and Gentiles. The writer asserts that in the work of Christ, those "who were once far off have been brought near." The made-up and hyped-up reasons that would keep groups apart have become nothing. Jesus "is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." Whatever sorts of ethnic, linguistic, nationalistic barriers that human beings want to erect have been made irrelevant by the love of God in Jesus Christ.
The book of Ephesians is talking about ecclesiology, that is, about what the church is supposed to be. When people become part of God's family, when they become part of one body, when they are joined together into the household of God, the other kinds of divisions take on a very different meaning. They are no longer excuses for domination of some by others. They cannot justify violent behavior; on the contrary, in Jesus' dying, he is, "putting to death that hostility." They exist as the beautiful mosaic of divine blessing in the world: not as reasons to resent and reject one another.
Thus, the church should not know boundaries. If you are a brother or sister of mine, regardless of what political power wants to claim you within its borders, we are in the same church. If you are my sister or brother, my duty is to care for you and seek your good. Jesus has set out to "create in himself one humanity in place of the two, thus making peace." A Christian church should know no nationalisms, no ethnocentrisms, no jingoisms. When two modern nation-states enter into conflict and war, a faithful church would refuse to join that cause. The loyalty of the church and its members should be transnational, because we are "no longer strangers and aliens," but one family.
A key difference between the demands of the calling of Christ and the demands of the calling to patriotic nationalism can be found in Jesus' own words in the Gospel of John 15:13. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." Jesus' understanding of love, demonstrated in his own resistance to the empire and its oppression toward the poor and outcast, was to continue his resistance until he was arrested, tried, tortured, and executed as an enemy of the state. He laid down his life. Along the way, people suggested he should take up the sword, but he refused.
Here is the difference. Nationalism asks me to be willing to lay down my life, but first it asks me to be willing to kill other people. Being willing to die for one's friends is not the same as being willing to kill for national interest. The religion of nationalism calls for a full sacrifice of one's life and of one's conscience and character. As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I must not submit to a wholly contradictory vision of the world in which I am expected to be a killer.
So for decades I have not offered anthemic devotion to country by singing "The Star Spangled Banner." Nor have I made an idolatrous pledge of allegiance to affirm my ultimate loyalty to the god of nation and war. A song which glorifies the technology of war and the steadily operating machinery of death asks me to turn from the way of Jesus.
Colin Kaepernick's reasoning is not the same as what I have offered so far. He is not addressing a conflicting pair of faiths as I have described and advocating what I am--conscientious objection to war. He is not directly questioning devotion to country as a high ideal. Kaepernick is protesting for the sake of the high ideals of country--he is expressing a longing for the ideals to become reality. He is asking for a nation of high ideals, such as equal justice before the law, equal opportunity, and due process of law, to live up to those ideals. On these matters, I agree with him. To refuse ultimate loyalty to the nation and to reject the religion of nationalism does not mean that I also reject any good that might rise from the political community of humanity here in the United States. The ideals of justice, of equality, and of fairness are ideals I also hold. I appreciate the good that I receive from being a citizen of this nation, and I long for the goodness to overcome the many ways this nation has fallen short of its ideals.
This particular song upheld as the national anthem was originally written with multiple stanzas. In public events, people sing only the first stanza. There is a third stanza which has stirred significant controversy as historians have studied it. It speaks of vengeance against the enemies, particularly those who as "hirelings and slaves" have spread their "foul footstep's pollution" on the "land of the free and the home of the brave." Frances Scott Key was a slaveholder, and while fighting in a previous battle at Bladenburg, his troops faced and were defeated by the British who were employing escaped slaves to join in the war with the promise of emancipation. Some historians argue that Key held a special resentment and hatred toward these slaves fighting for their freedom, which he expresses in this stanza. Other historians dispute that conclusion, and Key recorded no commentary on the meaning or context of these particular words. It seems to me to be a compelling argument, and it adds another reason to question the practice of singing such a song with patriotic fervor.
Political dissent is at the core of what it takes for human beings to do better toward one another. People must be able to articulate and challenge the failures of society to live up to its ideals. The often unspoken, yet original sin of racism and white supremacy continues to bear fruit of bitterness in the United States. Challenging the ways that social behaviors fall short of moral aspirations is the duty of those who have eyes to see and a voice to speak. There was a time in our family's life when my beloved Everly asked me the question that must not be so different from the one Colin Kapernick heard echoing in his own conscience: "How will we explain our inaction to our children when they ask us why these things have happened in our community?" The only answer we could have given would be that we had failed our morality, failed our conscience, failed our God. So we did what we knew we had to do.
I am pretty sure Colin does not think his kneeling is going to suddenly make injustice go away. But if no one asks the hard questions, demands a hearing, and ultimately enacts resistance in public, there will be no chance of seeing change come. No doubt, he realizes as other who risk to take a stand against the dominant ways that more people will misunderstand and be hurt than will be awakened and inspired. There really isn't any easy way to confront systemic injustice. People will get angry. They will accuse you of the opposite of what you are trying to do. But in the words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan,
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk.I pray for all of us that we can get clear on who it is we are going to serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Let me invite you to do the same. I ain't mad with Colin Kaepernick.
You may be the head of some big TV network.
You may be rich or poor; you may be blind or lame.
You may be living in another country under another name.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are.
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.