Several years ago, while on a family trip to London, we were making our way up from Trafalgar Square to St. Martin’s Place. As we headed toward the National Portrait Gallery, I glanced at one of the many statues that surround this area of Britain’s capital. My glance at the stone monument, however, quickly turned into an intense focus and reflection on the words below the figure carved there. The words read, “Patriotism is not enough.” The woman whose representation was situated atop that citation was Edith Cavell.
I later discovered that Edith Cavell had been a nurse in Brussels during WWI, and that she had been executed by the German army in 1915 for helping Allied troops escape German occupied Belgium. But I also discovered something about her that brought a sense of meaning to the words inscribed on her monument; words she apparently spoke to a minister on the night before her death. Edith Cavell had not only assisted Allied soldiers during the First World War, she had also given aid and comfort to German troops, the very enemy of her home country of Britain. And on the eve of her death, she expressed her rationale for doing so; “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
While reflecting on these simple words, I have often felt that Christians have become too ingrained in American patriotism that we have lost a sense of identity and mission that views God as the God of all humanity and that witnesses to Jesus’ love for all, friends and enemies. There is a great danger to the church and its bold witness of the gospel to our world if we continue to blur the lines of division between patriotic loyalty to country and faithfulness to Christ. When we do so we run the grave risk of allowing American culture to influence, weaken, and indeed, supersede the church’s prophetic witness to the state.
This is why, as I have written before, we should not have symbols of our nation, including patriotic themes and songs, incorporated into our worship or our areas of sacred space. Doing so not only profanes the sacred time and sacred space of worship, it also brings into question and confuses our loyalties. The mixture of patriotic themes with Christian worship and witness reinforces beliefs that America and Christianity are inseparable, and that America is the Christian nation.
Moreover, if we celebrate patriotism within the context of Christian worship and practice, how does such a witness affect non-Americans? A pastor once shared with me that on a Sunday before Memorial Day, at the close of the worship service, the minister of worship lead the congregation in the singing of “God Bless America.” As the congregation sang this well known song, the pastor noticed many non-Americans in the audience and he noticed that they were not singing. They were not citizens of this country and this was not their song. The worship of God in Christian unity that had characterized the service to that point, ended on a patriotic note that excluded those who were not American.
We can certainly be good citizens of both the kingdom of God and America, for Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. And in a democracy where there is the free expression of religion, the church must participate in promoting just governmental policies for all. But our ultimate loyalty must be to the life and teachings of Christ, particularly his call for justice and peace for all people, especially toward the marginalized of our society.
If we are forced, as were early Christians, and as was Edith Cavell and Dietrich Bonheoffer, to choose between loyalty to Christ or loyalty to country, will we be able to distinguish between the two?
Loyalty to Christ means always choosing peace over war, love over hatred, poverty over wealth, forgiveness over revenge, and inclusion over nationalism. True freedom is found not in preserving security through power, war, or torture, but is discovered in being bound to Christ, his cross, and his gospel that extends beyond the boundaries of nation and culture to embrace the world.
As we celebrate Independence Day, let us do so with a sense of pride in what is good and right about America. But let us also witness boldly against America when policies and practices are put in place that are unjust and that ignore the gospel’s message of peace, justice, and life for all. We should always remember Nurse Cavell’s last words, and her life should cause us to consider the dangers inherent in uncritical and xenophobic patriotism. If we are to be faithful followers of the one who came to save the world, the words of Edith Cavell must become ours. “Patriotism is not enough.”
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.