As many Zambians woke up on the 12th of August to go and cast their votes in the general elections, various considerations and factors would have been on their minds. However, for Christians, I want to believe that we did so as a mark of our love for God and for our country. Because, more than other citizens, Christians should be patriotic. Patriotism is simply love for your country.
Zambia is a concrete, well-defined nation. We are a community of citizens created by political power. But most of us share a commitment to Zambia. We love our country. Such loyalty is not idolatrous. Rather, it is a limited affection for the community of fellow citizens bound together for purposes of government.
Patriotism is a limited affection for the community of fellow citizens.
A nation cannot be unified around the mere basis of the mutual satisfaction of utilitarian needs. Instead, it must be bound by an active dedication to the maintenance of the body politic. To call this dedication ‘love’ is proper. Though we understand that this particular form of love is distinct from that shared between friends, spouses, or families. Thus patriotic loyalty is bound up in the shared commitment to do public justice. This is located within the context of the political community and national identity. But patriotism can become warped, turning into an idolatrous love with unrealistic expectations.
Patriotic Love Without Idolatry
There is a legitimate place for loyalty and love towards our nation in a modest and non-idolatrous sense. Our love for this country must flow from an ultimate love for God. It expresses itself to our various and diverse fellow citizens, our “neighbours” (Luke 10:25-37). It is God who has given each one of us this territorial setting in which we live (Acts 17:26). Christian citizenship is a good and important calling.
Christian citizenship is a good and important calling.
It is our calling as Christians to strive to maintain our patriotism within biblical parameters. To show our devotion to Zambia, or whatever country you live in, in a godly manner is to participate in justice, love and mercy in the nation (Micah 6:8). It is to pray that: “God’s kingdom come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. And one way we contribute to making our nation better is to participate in the electoral process.
Four Dangers of Patriotism
However, as Christians we are not immune to earthly tendencies and the appeal of ideologies. Concern for one’s political community is right and proper. Christians can hardly be faulted for wishing to correct their nation’s deficiencies. But we must be wary of unhealthy Christian nationalism masquerading as patriotism. There are at least four expressions of this dangerous trend, which we’re seeing throughout the world today.
- We must be careful not to apply biblical promises intended for the body of Christ as a whole to one of many particular groups of people bound together under a common political framework. There is no single leader or political grouping that should claim to be God’s exclusive choice.
- We must not identify God’s norms for political and cultural life with a particular, imperfect manifestation of those norms at a previous period in our nation’s history. By this I mean that we must judge our nation’s present actions by transcendent norms given by God and not by precedents in our nation’s history.
- We must refrain from paying our nation the homage due only to God. In other words, we must not see our nation’s history as a ‘Christian nation’ as somehow revelatory of God’s ways and making us a special country in the eyes of God.
- We must not make the mistake of conceiving of our nationhood as an undifferentiated community with few if any constraints on its claims to allegiance. Nationhood must remain within God’s normative limits placed on his creation.
Christ Demands Your Ultimate Loyalty
No country can legitimately make an absolute claim on the loyalty of the Christian. Recall Peter’s response to the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). However, we must take note that the apostles didn’t resist arrest. They also acknowledged the right of the Sanhedrin to try them. But they would not deny God’s overriding commission to preach Christ (Acts 5:20). Therefore Christians must submit to the governing authorities, recognising that political leaders and institutions have been established by God for the good order of society (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17). Yet this cannot undermine our fundamental calling to declare God’s praises as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
Patriotism will not unite all peoples under a single banner.
Christians are called to ultimate loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is our identity in Christ and the gospel of the kingdom that offers hope and reconciliation in a divided world. Neither national identity or patriotism will unite all peoples under a single banner. Only Christ can do that. Yet we live in the context of a range of social, cultural, and political communities. That is an integral part of a God-given humanity as created social creatures. Thus patriotism may be a worthy disposition for Christians in their earthly citizenship within the wider loyalty and horizon of the heavenly city. But the love we show for our countries must be discerning.
Putting Our Countries In Their Place
The scale for assessing the worth of one’s country does not lie in some innate national spirit or genius. All cultures and countries possess a God-given creativity as well as a partial grasp of truth, even after humanity’s fall into sin. All of us express that creativity and grasp of the truth in distinctive ways. But no single country or people is endowed with a monopoly of wisdom. No single ethnic group possesses a unique destiny.
The church of Jesus Christ alone is the herald of the coming kingdom of God.
The church of Jesus Christ alone is the herald of the coming kingdom of God, a community which draws its membership from every country and culture. Only from within the loyalty and perspective of the kingdom can we exercise a true patriotism for country deserving of a penultimate loyalty and provisional commitment.
Practice Proper Patriotism
At its core, Christian patriotism must expose fully all that is evil and morally compromised in the history and identity of a nation in the light of the gospel. Yet Christians must still love that country. Christian patriots like the biblical characters Joseph, Moses or Jeremiah and the German Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer demonstrate the cost, honesty, and courage required for true love of God and country.
If you woke up very early in the morning, braved the cold, and stood long in the line to cast your vote for your preferred candidate, you showed that you love Zambia—or whichever country you live in. You showed how much you want to see this country prosper and put its fragmented and fractured past behind us. But your patriotism cannot end in the polling booth. You must continue to pray that God will use what you perceived as a seemingly insignificant vote to shape a new and better trajectory for your country.