If the Bible were a systematic textbook and not a loose gaggle of history, poetry, and personal letters, there would be a chapter on "Christianity and Patriotism," and it would settle the matter lickety-split. As it is, we find ourselves, as "people of the Book," drawn into a labyrinth of layered truths whose study seems to foster more wrestling and humility than cocksureness. This is a strength of Scripture and not a flaw. Ours is a religion of interiors and not exteriors only, where every presenting issue-whether it be patriotism or parenting-is the doorway to heart searches and focus that shifts from horizontal to vertical dimensions.
For this reason I have been slow to jump on certain bandwagons that have come my way since Sept. 11. I have not been able to call this conflict classic Good vs. Evil when the reality is less flattering. I cannot bring myself to affix the predicate "coward" to a man who's willing to strap explosives to his body for a cause. (Call him hateful, call him evil, but don't ask me to twist the English language into a pretzel.)
I have no problem with emotion. As I understand it, in the first Adam the whole man fell- intellect and emotion. And in the second Adam, the whole man is being redeemed-intellect and emotion. Phinehas in anger skewered a treasonous Israelite in his tent, and was commended for it (Numbers 25). Agag the Amalekite, wagering that a diminishment of Samuel's emotion would spare his life, wagered wrong (1 Samuel 15). Paul the apostle granted that "it is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good" (Galatians 4:18). And notwithstanding the English Bibles' timid translations, the Greek word depicting Jesus' emotion as he observed the handiwork of his great nemesis Satan at Lazarus's tomb is the word for rage that the ancient dramatist Aeschylus used of war horses snorting before battle (John 11).
But whatever patriotism is, it should be clear-eyed. It should not set up a straw man to knock down. It should not confuse the United States of America with the Chosen Race. It should not automatically exempt itself from the charge that "in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin" (Psalm 36:2). It should not impudently imagine that by invoking the name of God in slogans, it will harness the Almighty to its cause any more successfully than rebellious Israel did when Eli's sons took the ark of the covenant out of mothballs and propped it like a talisman before the armies marching against Philistia. It should not let itself be manipulated by media mantras into a pumped-up, hockey-bar madness that drowns out other voices.
Like Jesus' voice. His zeal was coupled with 20/20 vision and razor-sharp analysis: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." To Caesar, then, our bodies and wills for the national defense (Romans 13). To God, a contrite spirit. No contradiction, no conflict of interest.
Likewise, Daniel practiced a patriotism of fine distinctions. He knew how to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jeremiah 29:7) while at the same time not bowing to its "image of gold" (Daniel 3). Here is the patriotism the Lord enjoins for His pilgrims who in every age sojourn in Babylon while "longing for a better country" (Hebrews 11:16): "Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper"(Jeremiah 29:7). But at the same time, "Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies" (Jeremiah 29:8-9).
Who is the true patriot? The one who proclaims to a rebellious people, "Go, for the Lord will give them into your hands!" (1 Kings 22:6)? Or a prophet like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in his 1978 Harvard commencement speech brought warning of "defects in the Western view of the world" and "the bill which former colonies will present to the West"-and was roundly booed for his trouble?
Is our only choice the tweedledee and tweedledum of mindless, hysterical hawkishness or mindless, limp pacifism? How about a loyalty to country based on truth rather than lies, and a manly, unflinching patriotism based on reality rather than a popular fiction?