Patriotism, the Bible, and Citizenship

The bunting is out all over town.  Flags are waving.  I love July 4 in Williamsburg.  Nearly every year I go down to Duke of Gloucester Street to hear an interpreter read the Declaration of Independence.  What a thrilling experience!


When do you feel most patriotic?  For me, it’s when I’m entering my assigned polling place on election day, when I’m mingling with my fellow citizens as we identify ourselves and receive our ballots and vote.  I find that the more names on the ballot of women and people of color, the more patriotic I feel!  It’s become clear in recent years that we have never been taught a full sense of “American history,” because so many voices have been excluded.  For white males like me, it’s painful but absolutely necessary to pay attention to the Americans who have felt empowered to speak, by “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter,” to describe American history from their perspectives, perspectives that have not been heard in the dominant culture.


This is a God thing.  That’s because all human beings, of all lands and races, have been created by God, and God’s fundamental, primary concern is for the common good.


That’s all through the Bible!  The problem, as Jim Wallis describes it, is: “Too often, we don’t seriously study the Scriptures; it is much easier to just use God to justify our own politics.  Yet if we really look into the biblical texts, we find a God who speaks about ‘politics’ all the time – about what believing in God means for this world (not just the next one), about faith and public life (not just private piety), and about our responsibilities for the common good (not just for our own religious experience)….The big ‘political’ questions that face us ultimately have to do with how we are to live together in human community.”


And so, when we actually read the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), we find that God judges Israel’s kings on just two criteria: Does the king live according to the 10 Commandments (especially the First Commandment; the rest follow from that one), and does the king care for the poor and the helpless?  In other words, does the king care for all people, for the common good?  Charles Gutenson writes: “God is concerned for those on the margins, those who are weak, or those who are in some way vulnerable.  God did not call the Israelites to be his people because they were a strong people, but rather because they were weak.  God is most concerned for those we would consider ‘underdogs.’”


When we actually read the New Testament, we find stories of God in human flesh who spent all of his time with those who had been excluded from the common good!  You may remember Jesus states this as the keynote for his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19.  Jesus shocked his listeners when he said this, but he was simply quoting the prophet Isaiah!)


We read everything in the Bible through this lens of God’s primary concern: for the common good, for all of God’s children, of all nations of the world.  For those of us who are Christian, Jesus shows us what God is like and how God intends us to live together as human beings: in self-giving love, caring for the needs of those who do not have enough.  How does that motivate you in your citizenship?


I’m always uncomfortable when someone prays in favor of or against a particular political policy proposal.  That’s because I think people of faith can be faithful to Christ while coming at an issue from multiple ways.  For instance, I was raised by people who believed that government should be small, and who also gave away tons of money and time to the church and other organizations in service to the poor.  One of my Christian social activist heroes, Dorothy Day, frequently wrote about her desire that the government would get out of the way of her work.  But, on our own, can individuals and churches and other organizations meet the needs of those who have been excluded from the common good?  We certainly cannot approach the scale of resources that governmental programs provide.  It’s complex, and we need to be very careful before we say something like, “If you don’t support [name the particular policy proposal], you’re not a good Christian.”


But, it is certainly legitimate to insist that our role, as followers of Jesus, is to care for those who have been excluded from the common good, and to serve them, because then we’ll be imitating Jesus.  How does that motivate you in your citizenship, which includes your political activity?  How does that motivate you to oppose governmental policies that exclude, and to support policies that increase inclusion – when it comes to tax policy, for instance, and safety nets, and access to health care, and bankruptcy laws, and monopoly laws, and civil rights for those of all sexual identities and racial backgrounds, and receiving asylum seekers, and immigration policy, just to name a few specific issues?  How does this motivate you as you choose which candidates you will support during the next election?


The dismissal that concludes our worship – “Go in peace!  Serve the Lord!” – charges us to serve the common good in our private actions and also as citizens of this nation that we love.  Maybe I’ll see you down on DOG Street on Independence Day!


— Pastor Andy Ballentine

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!