Patriotism and Christianity

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Patriotism and Christianity

August 12, 2021

Many years ago, Fr. Richard Cassidy, a Detroit priest and well-respected Scripture scholar, wrote a book: Jesus, Politics, and Society, a study of Luke’s Gospel. In this book, Fr. Cassidy presents the idea that Luke’s Gospel, more than the others, portrays the faithful Christian as a faithful citizen. Nearly 100 years after Luke’s Gospel, Christian apologist[1]* Justin Martyr writes to the Roman Emperor, Antonius Pius, a self-proclaimed philosopher, explaining to him just how Christianity was not a threat to the civil rule of the empire; but that to be a good Christian, one must also be a good citizen. It has been nearly 2,000 years since Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and yet many still think that “Civil Authority” and “Religion (Christianity)” are mutually opposed. And without question, there are civil laws that dramatically oppose the values of Christianity; abortion being one of the most dramatic.

A point that I believe is important to note, is that as the Roman Empire acquired more territory, she allowed the newly acquired territories to maintain their provincial religious practices and belief structures as a tactical maneuver to reduce the possibility of revolt. Rome had her own, a polytheistic religion, very much similar to the Greek gods. The Jews however, were quite unique in not just their “monotheism” but also in the overlap between their religion and legal system. Rome, constantly in fear of sedition by one of the “territories” viewed any distinctions between the “Roman way” and the “local way” as a threat to the Empire. As the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem became more militant toward Roman occupation, Rome began to impose stricter controls on the Palestinian territories. Many in Rome had difficulty distinguishing the difference between Christians and Jews because, as they saw it, Christianity grew out of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, the Apostles were Jews, most of the bishops, deacons and presbyters were at first Jewish. It was not outside the realm of possibility that to the casual observer, Christianity was nothing more than a different, but still a Jewish sect. Sometime around the martyrdom of St. Paul, the Jewish population in Palestine began an armed revolt against Roman rule, ending in 70 C.E. with the total collapse of the Jewish revolt and the second Diaspora.

Long before the time of the Jewish War, the Christians had already been expelled from the Temple. The Pharisees and Sadducees branded the Christians as “blasphemers”. In the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there is a vivid description of the Jews persecuting the fledgling Christian church. So, while it is possible that some of the members of the Christian community were sympathetic to the Jewish cause, and may have even taken up arms against the Roman occupiers, there is no evidence of the church publicly or privately endorsing the revolt. Josephus Flavious an ancient Jewish historian, provides the world with the best account of the historical period before, during and after the Jewish revolt. In his book “The Wars of the Jews” Josephus never makes mention of the “Christian” church endorsing or rejecting the revolt.  However, to many Romans, the Christians were still “Jews”[2] and thus to be regarded with suspicion.

I am not offering the above as an excuse for the persecutions that plagued the church throughout her early and formative years, but suggesting that fear and suspicion is always and forever an easy sale. If we consider that the Roman soldiers who died fighting against the Jewish revolt, left behind parents, wives, children and friends, to those on the home front and even battlefield; their son, husband, father, or friend was, to them a hero, fighting an enemy. I believe that it would be unreasonable to think that the Roman citizens at that time, would not look upon any church, however loosely or incorrectly associated with the Jews, with suspicion and even anger. And it is here that I believe there is a lesson in history for us, in our own day.

Patriotism is not unique to the United States, to our “modern era”, or any country in the history of the world. People (in general) believe in their country. They know their history better than anybody. Throughout history, soldiers have fought and died for their king, their homeland, their way of life. Soldiers on both sides of the battle lines show great courage and stamina. Both sides of a war see “protecting” a home or a principle worth dying for, and when the soldier dies they leave behind a national and personal sense of loss. I do not believe that we mourn our dead any more than anybody else. Perhaps maybe, keeping this in mind, all deaths cause pain in those left behind, might help us be more compassionate toward the refugee, the immigrant, the “enemy”.

Remembering that I started out by eluding to a point made by Fr. Richard Cassidy; that according to St. Luke, being a “good Christian” is synonymous with being a “good citizen”, we might consider how Luke opens his Gospel: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for a some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed”.[3] Later, as St. Luke begins his Acts of the Apostles, he again reminds his friend Theophilus to remember what Jesus taught, and the Apostles learned and were expected to carry out: “In the first book,  O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen”. We are challenged to consider the possibility that we too might be found acting more out attitudes of fear and suspicion rather than motives of Christian love.

I propose that genuine “patriotism” correctly understands the truth buried within the principles that form a national consciousness, and supports this truth with the maximum effort. I do not believe that genuine patriotism accepts without question the agenda of government, but looks for the Christian purpose to be served. Within the Christian value structure, all life is sacred (even the life of the enemy) and that all life needs protection. Yes, the Church has identified the criteria for a “just war”, but those criteria are very strict and limiting. Perhaps the single difference between the Jewish War of ancient history, and the persecutions of the early Church is that while both were suffered for religious freedom, the former acted on a principle of a cause worth killing for, and the latter on a cause worth dying for.

[1] Note – an Apologist is one who defends by way of explanation a certain idea or practice. They are not saying “Sorry!”.

[2] Note – In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul primarily goes to the synagogues to preach the message of salvation. Yes, he does establish new churches, but only after being expelled from the synagogues.  

[3] All Scripture quotes are from - The Ignatius Bible. Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.