On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jul 9, 2022

We celebrated Independence Day this past week. If you’re like me, this one felt strange. For the first time in recent memory, large swaths of friends boycotted the holiday. And, in general, as our country gathered for its most patriotic celebration, our country felt more divided than ever.

I’ll be honest. I was among those who considered boycotting. In addition to some of the anger and frustration I’ve felt about current events—especially the details coming out from the January 6th hearings, though not limited to them—I also have serious misgivings about what we might call Christian “nationalism.”

I would distinguish what we might call “nationalism” from “patriotism”—with the former always being bad, and the latter often being good. In fairness, this is an artificial and somewhat simplistic semantic distinction. But I think it offers us a helpful lens through which we can process the present moment as we attempt to follow Jesus.

“Nationalism,” we could say, is the belief in the ultimate, enduring, even transcendent goodness of a given nation. Nationalists tend therefore to deny the faults and flaws of their nation, and so, offer their nation the sort of allegiance, obedience, and obeisance that belongs to God alone. Nationalism, in this sense, is a kind of idolatry.

By contrast, Scripture (Cf. Heb. 11.13-16) describes the identity of the people of God—patterned after the identity of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as a “pilgrim” people. We are “foreigners and strangers” in every country on the earth, because we have left our countries of origin in order to look for a country whose founder and architect is God. We are therefore, fundamentally, not a people who have a country, but a people who have left country, on the way to a better country—a heavenly one (Heb. 11.16). We may participate in and contribute to the goodness of the nations in which we find ourselves (Jer. 29.7). But we are always already in the process of leaving these places behind.

So if that’s “nationalism,” what is “patriotism”? I think the best way to think about the ways in which we may still be “patriotic” is in the language of the “great commandment”: “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, as the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us, “neighbor” does not only mean our fellow citizens. And yet, it certainly means at least our fellow citizens. Even, as Jesus suggest in the Sermon on the Mount, when those neighbors turn out to be our enemies.

The idea that we are to love our “enemies” may feel especially difficult on this particular Independence Day. How, after all, can we love people when we see them doing such harmful and destructive things? Isn’t that too much to ask people who are hurting and in pain? And won’t that “love” become “enabling”?

But Jesus’ call to neighbor and enemy love is not a call to ignore the faults and the flaws of our fellow citizens—again, that’s “nationalism.” In fact, to call these people “enemies” is precisely to acknowledge and name the fact that these enemies are acting in ways that are wrong—that they are harming us and hurting us. It does not, in other words, try to relativize the harm that’s been done to us, or say it doesn’t matter. It does matter. And it matters most of all to God.

Rather, we love our enemies for two reasons. The first is that, even people who have faults and flaws—even people who hurt and cause pain—even they are still worthy of love, just by the mere fact that they are human beings made in the image of God. All of us deserve love, no matter how righteous or unrighteous we are. Second, we love our enemies because we believe that the best way to heal those faults and flaws—the best way to stop our neighbors and enemies from harming and hurting us—is not by returning evil for evil, but by “overcoming evil with good” (Rom. 12.19-21). We believe, in other words, that love wins. And so, we love our neighbors and our enemies, not to endorse their behavior, but in the hope that our neighbors and our enemies might one day become our friends—and that, on that day—as friends—the hatred and the violence we have experienced will, finally, be put to rest.

This is so hard, I know. So we ask that the Spirit of God might help us as we do this.