The Nation or the Kingdom?

I thank God that I am an American. Even though America has stepped on the accelerator in its rush to escape from God, I still love my country, and I honor its 237 years of existence. In practical terms, I know that my lifestyle is measurably better than it would be anywhere else in the world. In a nation created from an ideal rather than shared language, culture, race, ethnicity, faith or geography, we are unbound from traditional labels which in other nations determine who we are and how far we will go in life. That is why more people immigrate to America than any other nation despite its flaws. As I wrote in my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch:

…[M]y ascension as a black man in America isn’t based on being in the right tribe, having the right bloodline or being in the majority or the faction with the most guns. I succeed in America because I matter as an individual and I am empowered to chart my own direction. As long as I play by the rules, there are thousands of fellow Americans, some I’ve not even met yet, who stand ready to help me and cheer me on.

It was America, not the supposedly more enlightened European or Asian nations, which elected a person of color to lead the most powerful, most prosperous, most influential nation that has ever existed on the planet. Am I better off in America than in any other country in the world, even as a black man? To quote a certain former governor of Alaska, “You betcha!”

Some Christians are uncomfortable with such expressions of patriotism, because God loves all people, not just Americans, and the fate of all nations rests in His hands. “He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them” (Job 12:23, New International Version).

Just as God creates and destroys nations, however, He places us in nations with a plan and a purpose. Even Peter, the most impetuous of Jesus’ disciples, declares:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority,or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

Honoring America, therefore, is an act of obedience toward those “who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

What happens, however, when the nations in which we are placed reject and violate God’s law? What if the nations punish those who do right and commend those who do wrong? What if the nations oppress the people of God?

I believe the answer is also found in Peter’s words: “…live as God’s slaves.” Philippians 3:20 says, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…”

We are, first and foremost, surrendered to the authority of the living God. We are His ambassadors to the nations where He has placed us, and He expects us to be good citizens not because the nations rule over us, but rather because “by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” This means that, no matter what is said about us, our actions should speak louder than their words.

Look at it another way. When diplomats  are posted to another nation, the expectation is that they will comport themselves in a way that does not sully the reputation of their home nation. They are expected to obey the laws and respect the customs of the nation where they’ve been posted,

Should that nation, however, violate the universally understood rules of conduct toward its people or other nations, however, diplomats are empowered to speak out on behalf of their home nation, and against the atrocities of the host nation. At the appointed time, if nothing changes and the threat to the diplomats’ safety reaches a critical point, they are called home.

If our citizenship is in heaven, then we are here in America as diplomats of God. We need only look to the Bible to see how God expects us to conduct ourselves in our posts.

Daniel is probably the best example in Scripture. He served under four pagan kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius and Cyrus. He served these kings with honor and dignity, but he never did anything to violate God’s law, even when his obedience could have cost him his life.

The story of Daniel in the den of lions is illustrative of Godly citizenship in full.

Daniel had acquitted himself honorably under King Darius:

Daniel so distinguished himself  among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally, these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God” (Daniel 6:1-5).

Note that Daniel’s conduct as a citizen was beyond reproach, and those conspiring against him realized the only way to trap him was to create for him a conflict between the laws of man and the law of God. They pandered to the king’s ego, and persuaded him to sign a decree that made it a crime, punishable by death, to worship any man or god other than him.

Daniel’s response was to continue to pray three times a day to the one true God, even though he risked death if he were discovered. Since he prayed with his windows open toward Jerusalem, and his door unlocked, he knew he would be found out. It didn’t matter to him; he would be true to God before men, as would Peter and the apostles centuries later who, when told by the ruling authorities in Jerusalem to stop preaching about Jesus Christ, declared, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).

In accordance with the king’s decree, Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den, a fate Darius did not wish upon Daniel but had to carry out because his advisors had trapped him into enforcing the law. Even then, the king’s first words the following morning were words of hope: “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?” (Daniel 6:20).

Indeed, the Lord had saved Daniel, and the king not only punished those who sought to entrap Daniel, he surrendered his kingdom to “the God of Daniel” (Daniel 6:26) and “…Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (Daniel 6:28).

There are other examples in Scripture for us to emulate.

Daniel’s companions in exile, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were “set over the affairs of the province of Babylon” (Daniel 3:12) but refused to bow down to an image of King Nebuchadnezzar, and were thrown into a blazing furnace. God saved them from the fire, however, and the king not only promoted them, but declared that anyone who spoke against “the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” (Daniel 3:29) would be punished.

When the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew babies in Egypt to be murdered, the midwives refused to follow his orders, “so God was kind to the midwives, and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own” (Exodus 1:20-21).

Rahab the prostitute shielded the Israeli spies who had entered Jericho (Joshua 2), and she and her household were spared when Israel conquered that city (Joshua 6:17). She and her family lived among the Israelites from that day forward (Joshua 6:25), and she is in the lineage of Jesus Christ, forever acknowledged as a champion of the faith (Hebrews 11:31).

Queen Esther appeared before King Ahasuerus without being invited, which was a violation of the law punishable by death. Still, she risked her own life to save her people, declaring, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Sometimes the reward for our faithfulness as citizens of heaven is not success in this life, but being called home to be with the Lord. John the Baptist stood up to Herod Antipas for his immorality, and was beheaded (Matthew 14).

Two of my heroes of recent history, William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood against the evils of the regimes in their respective homelands.

Wilberforce devoted his entire life to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself in Great Britain, and he sacrificed his status, his health and eventually his life in the pursuit of his Godly calling.

Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to escape Germany and live out his days in America as a teacher and preacher, but chose instead to confront Nazism in the land where God had placed him, and he was hung for his resistance to evil.

So this is the essence of good citizenship. We are called to love our country – “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” - and honor its leaders and the law, and to be exemplary citizens so that no one can find fault with us. We are also called, however, to put God above all else and, as the times change and the culture becomes hostile to the Lord and His commands, we are to stand with Him rather than men, regardless of the cost.

Whether He permits us to endure suffering for a time in His name, prospers us in the land He has placed us, or calls us home, we are to be obedient. By His plan and purpose, we are Americans, but we are still and always His.

Happy Independence Day!