For the first time in my adulthood, I live in a neighborhood where I actually know my neighbors. Whether I lived in an apartment complex or townhome, people next door were often strangers before now, and we usually ignored each other. But some Anglicans on my street in Virginia have done a good job building community and have led ecumenical efforts to host regular get-togethers like yard games, dinners, and snow-day brunches for both Christians and non-Christians. Obviously, the neighborhood isn’t perfect (none is), but I do love the community.
Seek the City’s Peace & Prosperity
This love for my neighborhood and neighbors has led me to reconsider Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” There are different ways to seek a community’s peace and prosperity, whether by helping each other in a natural disaster, ensuring schools adequately teach children, supporting sound economic policy, advocating a foreign policy that prevents unnecessary deaths but still supports our interests (and prevents a nuclear strike on DC nearby), and so on. The decisions government makes can reverberate in my neighbors’ lives, for good or ill. So for me, there’s an obvious connection between sound government policy, both foreign and domestic, and my neighborhood’s peace and prosperity. Considering and (civilly) debating government policy can therefore be a way to love my neighbors, even if and when we disagree.
Loving the people, nature, restaurants, and so forth in the few blocks around my house has also given me a greater appreciation for the rest of my city, metropolitan area, and country. Driving home to Mississippi for Christmas last month meant spending over 30 hours in the car passing countless other American neighborhoods. Yes, they’re different from mine, but also similar. I want to seek their peace and prosperity, too; my love of neighborhood has enhanced my love of country. After all, if I don’t love my neighbor I see and know, how could I claim to love my fellow Americans I’ve never met?
Tim Keller & C.S. Lewis on Love of Country
In his new book The Prodigal Prophet (which I’m reviewing in Providence’s Winter 2019 issue; be sure to subscribe), Tim Keller writes favorably about love of country and patriotism, albeit with caveats. I heard one millennial Christian express shocked to discover that Keller would demean himself so much as to “side with the nationalists.” But the Presbyterian pastor emphatically rejects “anti-patriotism” where “virtually any expression of national pride is seen as fascist and/or racist.” He explains that love of country and attachment to one’s people and culture can be good and righteous—though if such sentiment causes someone to feel superior to others or to feel justified in committing injustices, love of country can become a demon.
Here Keller relies on C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves to help determine how and when love of country is appropriate. For Lewis, the best form of love of country, or patriotism, is “love of home.” He explains:
First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; … love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells… With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it…
It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned…
Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs—why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.
But when a country proves sinful, as all do, should citizens stop loving and hate it instead? Lewis suggests this would be like loving a child or spouse only if they’re perfect, which is absurd for the Christian since that means never loving them. He goes on to quote a Greek saying: “No man loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.” God, of course, loved us and died on the cross while we were still sinners, and we could not have reformed otherwise. So Christians should understand forgiving and loving others, even when they’re imperfect and still sinners. This concept can help believers maintain a healthy love for a sinful home and country. A country may need this type of love if it is to reform and turn toward justice.
Should the fact that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” for those who are in Christ mean Christians shouldn’t identify with their countries or any other label? No. Keller explains that “when you become a Christian you don’t stop being Chinese or European, but now your race and nation don’t define you as fully as they did.” Moreover, Jesus maintained his Jewish identity and love for Jerusalem throughout his life; it wouldn’t make sense for modern-day Christians to abandon these types of loves and identities if Jesus didn’t.
Between Lewis and Keller, we see the outlines of a healthy Christian patriotism—a righteous love of one’s imperfect country and home, including the people there and much more. When combined with Jeremiah’s call to seek our city’s peace and prosperity, I see how this version of patriotism can be beautiful and righteous. The problem comes when citizens turn their country into a god or use their love to justify injustices.
Love Your Neighbor, Focus on Local Politics
Assuming love for home and neighbor inspires Christian patriotism and participation in politics, Christians should therefore focus on the politics that affect their neighbors most. For instance, last year I learned how local regulations affected housing prices and renovation costs, which irritated me and affected how I voted. Remember, local governments affect citizens’ day-to-day lives much more than the federal government usually does: a county sheriff or city police officer is much more likely to arrest someone than an FBI agent; state and local governments determine the laws people are most likely to follow or break.
Yet how much more do we pay attention to the federal government in DC than the local government down the street? As I write, the federal government is partially closed because President Donald Trump and US House Democrats have refused to compromise over a border wall on the US-Mexico border. I’ve seen numerous people post strong opinions on social media, and I agree that border security is a critical issue. But how many of those social media posters could articulate as much of a developed opinion if asked about the local school district, zoning laws, building codes, public transportation, etc.? These types of topics affect their neighbors’ daily lives more than whether a concrete wall or border fence is built along the Rio Grande. Could they even tell me who serves in their cities or counties, or whether they have a strong-mayor, weak-mayor, council-manager, or some other form of local government?
If love of country, home, and neighbor inspires Christian patriotism and involvement in politics, we should focus more energy closer to home. Otherwise, what animates political participation may not be this healthy love but something different. Anger and rancor in Congress or on cable news may captivate us more than mundane proceedings in city hall, but neighbor love should inspire a different kind of Christian patriotism that is willing to learn about the sometimes- (or maybe always-) dull local government.
Word Choice: Country, Not Nation
Notice my word choice thus far: I’ve mentioned country, not nation or nation-state. And I’ve mentioned patriotism, not nationalism. Tomorrow Part 2 explain why.
Mark Melton is Providence’s deputy editor. He earned his master’s degree in international relations from the University of St. Andrews and his bachelor’s degree in foreign language and international trade from Mississippi College.