My dictionary definition for citizen reads “a native or naturalized member of a state, nation or kingdom who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection.”
On July 4 we celebrate the 254th anniversary of the rebellion, at the end of which the United States of America was established as an independent nation – separated from the British Empire. We become citizens of this nation by native birth, or by naturalization in which we pledge our loyalty and affirm our desire to live by and live out its principles.
A similar definition fits being a Christian as well. And baptism is the “naturalization” process by which we become its citizen, pledge our fealty and affirm the values of God has revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus.
This raises the question of where our ultimate loyalty lies? St Paul wrote “But our citizenship is in heaven…”. Recall that Paul lived and died as a proud citizen of the Roman Empire. What he is telling us is that for followers of Jesus the values and principles of the Gospel are primary and foundational and when they conflict with the actions and values of the nation state, our primary loyalty is to God. Does this make us disloyal to the nation state? No. Paul indicates that in so doing we help live into being values, policies and processes that are life-giving for all of God’s people and consequently for the nation as well. And bit by bit living out those values make things “on earth, as it is in heaven”.
If our primary loyalty and allegiance is to the nation we create idols of the nation and its symbols. This is true because we know humans and human systems are flawed and imperfect. The fact that ideological positions warp our view of one another has been on prominent display in the past decade or more of political life.
It is good for us to celebrate our nation, just as it is good to have a well-balanced sense of self. America’s experiment in democracy, like each of us, includes great good and positive potential, as well as human folly, and shadowed history where pride, misogyny chauvinism and greed has derailed our living out of the founding ideals. By giving our primary allegiance to God we open ourselves to be influenced by the values we find enshrined in scriptures of faith communities and in the lives of holy men and women throughout the ages. Our democratic experiment is continually called by God to values of justice, inclusion and caring for the vulnerable in our society – not “we’re number one!”