Last Saturday, the boy scout troop that our church hosts awarded the rank of Eagle to four high achieving young men. I myself am an Eagle Scout and proud of that fact. It was the result of years of work, persistence, and truly helped train me in the practice of leading others, working with and organizing others, and humbling learning at the feet of others.
My reflection for the day is the delicately balanced phrase from the scout oath: "To do my duty to God and my country". It is a wonderful phrase, reminding us of those higher purposes in life and recommitting ourselves to serve them. No wonder then that so many scouts enter into the military, and that I myself entered into the ministry. There is a profound sense of duty -- doing what is expected, what is best for the greater good -- that was instilled in me and other scouts from a very young age.
But what happens when those two duties conflict? Because one of the great dangers of Christianity is the belief that these duties are one in the same: that by serving country we are always serving God (ie. that God has sanctioned our country above all others as the favored one, and so God sides with us in all things.) Christians in the United States are particularly susceptible to this falsehood, but all we have to do is look at the bible to remind ourselves that such a connection is idolatry. The prophets of ancient Israel called out to kings and leaders time and time again to bring themselves back to God, and certainly we cannot claim more of God's special favor than those leaders from the line of David serving the holy land. Given time and given human proclivity, sooner or later we will veer off course; what God wants and what our country wants are going to come into conflict.
What worries me is how often Christians choose to fall into the hands of nationalism rather than considering their duty to God. I know one pastor who moved the American flag out of the sanctuary, who had a man in his church say to him, "My first priority is my country, even before God." The suggestion was that he would die for country before dying for God, that he would worship country before he worshiped God, and given the choice of removing the flag or the cross from the sanctuary he would remove the cross. Now, I realize that most Christians would not go so far as to say that, but often they act like it. We act as though our duty to our country and its laws is greater than our duty to God, as though there is a US flag in the citadel of heaven and not a crucified redeemer.
The best example of this misplaced nationalism that I see is our attitude toward foreigners, whether they are immigrants (who are here illegally), or they are people in China working for minimal wages (and who stole our jobs), or beneficiaries of mission giving (when we have people who have needs here as well). The words in parentheses are nationalistic attitudes that simply cannot be held up to Judeo-Christian ideals. Strangers are to be welcomed as friends (as the old saying goes, you might be entertaining angels unawares), all people deserve a fair wage and a productive life (not just Americans), and the poverty here at home cannot hold a candle to the scale of those places far off where there is no infrastructure, no schools, no clean water source, no sewers, and no electricity (even before a natural disaster occurs).
As Christians in the United States we need to get our priorities back in line: put our duty to God first (as it is in the Boy Scout oath) and then our duty to country. Don't automatically assume that decisions made by our country are okay with God. We need to be people with a global vision, perhaps even a universal vision as we look at issues. Ask yourself, "What does God say about that issue? What would Jesus advise?" We may not like the answers that God speaks to us. I suspect that our real reason for putting our duty to country first is one of self-preservation, where we are hiding our self-serving attitudes behind a cover of our duty to our country, and when we are honest most of us really don't want to love our neighbors as ourselves.