If asked, “what is the most challenging Sunday to preach a sermon?” I suspect few pastors would say July 4th weekend. But as leaders providing spiritual guidance in a country that is often associated with strong nationalistic tendencies, offering a word that speaks to the messy relationship between “God and Country” is a task that American pastors cannot take lightly.
This dilemma of competing loyalties is not new. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus is approached by opponents who sought to trap him by asking whether they were obligated to pay Roman taxes (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17). An affirmative response would have been a betrayal of faith but a negative answer would be perceived as an act of sedition. Faced with this paradox, Jesus wowed his inquisitors by telling them to give Caesar what was due to Caesar and God what was due to God. Yet, as Franklin Gamwell, notes in Politics as a Christian Vocation, this only raises the question of what belongs to each of the competing authorities. If Christians are called to love God with all our being, then how can anything not belong to God? How can any other authority make a claim of allegiance on our lives?
The answer, of course, is that ultimate loyalty is owed to God. When the convictions of our faith conflict with cultural demands, we are called to trust and follow Jesus regardless of the consequences. Martyrs, both ancient and modern, show the ultimate sacrifice this obedience can require when we take seriously Jesus’ call to pick up our crosses and follow where he leads (Matthew 16:24).
In modern times, national identity is perhaps the chief competitor for our personal loyalties. Citizenship comes with obligations and responsibilities to our country and fellow citizens. We pay taxes to keep the government functioning. We respect the laws of our society when interacting with others in both personal and commercial settings. At times, we may take up arms and go to war when our nation faces an existential threat (though the appropriate response of Christians to such expectations has been deeply contested throughout Christian history).
Paul’s letter to the Romans explicitly states that Christians have an obligation to respect government authority (13:1), but goes on to state: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (13:6-7). Many theologians, biblical interpreters, and pastors have wrestled with the meaning of these words. What do Christians owe to political authority? What happens when government leaders take actions that are morally questionable or violate the basic tenets of our religious beliefs? Paul would certainly have faced these questions as often in his time as we do in ours.
However we interpret this passage and the obligations it entails, we can certainly agree that governments can act in evil ways, such as oppressing or killing their own citizens. In such circumstances, they are no longer servants for our good, and we no longer owe them our loyalty or service.
The obvious truth is that nations act in good and bad ways. They wage war for reasons of ideology or material self-interest, but they can also altruistically defend the vulnerable from aggressors. Governments can help feed, clothe, and shelter those whom Jesus calls “the least of these,” or they can ignore their plight and deny any responsibility for assistance.
The nation is nothing more and nothing less than the way we organize our common life together. We should celebrate what we can accomplish together and we should be serious about the commitments we have made to each other. Far too often though, this organized life together becomes an idol that asks for our complete devotion. Pastors have an obligation to remind people of this danger, but this can be a hard message to offer in today’s hyper-patriotic world. This is not a challenge from which we can or should run.
We should celebrate the blessings of freedom and pause to reflect on the health of our life together as a nation, but we must remember that it is God, not Uncle Sam, in whom we ultimately trust.
This post was featured in Sojourner’s monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.
Beau Underwood is Campaigns Manager for Sojourners.
Image: U.S. coin motto, I. Pilon / Shutterstock.com