In many pulpits during this Thanksgiving season, love of our country and pride in our citizenship will be pronounced in the same breath - and often with the same intensity - as declarations of love for our God. But we must be careful, for patriotism can be destructive as well as constructive. Worse, it can become idolatrous.
Constructive patriotism, or what James Forbes, pastor emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City calls "prophetic patriotism," is the willingness to strive in word and deed to ensure that this nation is healthy, whole, secure, and conducting its affairs at home and abroad according to the political doctrines we claim to hold dear.
Destructive patriotism, however, is primarily focused on discrediting or destroying those it perceives as opponents of America. The purview of destructive patriotism is "us" against "them" - "them" being not only foreigners, but also any American who openly disagrees with the official actions of the leaders of the United States, no matter if their policies contradict our Constitution, harm the public good, or violate the most basic ethics of the biblical faith they claim to hold dear.
If we who call ourselves patriots are to be true to our faith, our patriotism must ever be constructive, because constructive criticism of governmental policies and practices is squarely in the tradition of the biblical prophets and the gospel of Jesus. It is not only concerned with political affairs - it is also concerned with the spiritual and moral health of America. Constructive prophetic oversight is the highest and healthiest form of patriotism because it seeks to help the nation become its best and most righteous self,.
That is why true patriots will welcome prophetic critiques of our government - because they can help America become its most righteous and most just self. Conversely, the true patriot will reject uncritical abdications of our prophetic responsibility to make our nation its best self that are expressed in such slogans as "America - love it or leave it" and "Criticism of our government equals support for our enemies." To the degree that patriotism causes division and enmity between God's children, it is in opposition to the gospel, pure and simple. But when patriotism seeks to silence prophetic criticism, it is more than oppositional; it is idolatrous, because by following its own beliefs, judgments, and interests rather than the prophetic mandate, it makes an idol of them. This blind, idolatrous brand of patriotism is blasphemous because it values the welfare and even the humanity of some of God's children - that is, Americans, and not all of those, either - over the welfare and humanity of all others, particularly those who look, speak, and worship differently. In contrast, a God-centered patriotism will confess, like the apostle Peter, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God" (Acts 10:34-35).
Therefore, if we are to be true patriots and true followers of the biblical imperative of justice on earth as in heaven, then each day before we pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands, we must first recommit our allegiance to the gospel of Jesus, the justice of God, and the love of our neighbors it commands. We must never forget that the flag does not supercede the cross.
Thus, if it is the gospel that is truly the object of our faith and our allegiance, this Thanksgiving let us give thanks to God for the faithful voices that, despite the derision and even the personal physical harm they risk and sometimes suffer, nonetheless continue to speak out against every action, policy, and pronouncement of our leaders and our government that distances us from the liberating gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
Obery Hendricks is the author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Teachings of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted