As a student of politics I’ve been thinking about my citizenship. I love the United States, and I love our history, our diversity, and our shared values. At the same time, as a Christian I get frustrated by what I see in our nation’s evolving culture. While some changes have been good, many cultural changes have not been good, in the sense of being objectively good the way God sees things. If the US ever was a “Christian Nation,” we certainly aren’t anymore (even back in the 1970s Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer labeled the US as “Post-Christian.”).
It’s useful, then for me to return periodically to a biblical definition of where my loyalties actually ought to lay. That is, when I look at the culture of death that is growing in our nation, the intractability of human trafficking, the passing away of our society’s moral standards and fabric that for so long supported our culture, and the growing antagonism toward traditional Christianity in the public square, I wonder whether being American is all it’s cracked up to be. If I travel abroad and meet up with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, would I be proud to say I’m an American?
As usual, scripture must guide my thinking, so what does the Bible say about being an American? Nothing directly, of course. The British colonies were just a twinkle in Europe’s eye when the canon of scripture closed. But the apostles Peter and Paul both address citizenship in interesting ways. In Phillipians 3:20, Paul writes that “our citizenship is in Heaven,” which enables us to bear earthly problems with a heavenly mindset. But Peter provides a more thorough teaching.
Nestled between the metaphor of The Church being a building of “living stones” with Christ as the cornerstone and instructions on submission to governing authorities, such as the king or one’s employer, Peter writes,
But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, aA PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.
11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12, NAS)
The capitalized letters tell us that these phrases are quotations, and these are from the Old Testament—phrases that were used to describe the nation of Israel (e.g., Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Hosea 1:10, 2:23). This is consistent with other New Testament passages demonstrating that Christianity is an extension of Judaism, Israel’s spiritual heritage and co-heir to the promises God made to Abraham (this is a major theme of Galatians and Romans, for example).
Our National Identity. But in the context of Peter’s first century letter the phrases suggest that Christians have a distinct national identity, just as Israel did…now Christians are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. The identifying mark of our national identity is that we once weren’t unified (we “were not a people”) but now we are unified as “the people of God.” Our nationhood is based on the mercy we have received through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We now have received mercy—the undeserved forgiveness for our sins—and that is what distinguishes us from other people groups, not circumcision, skin color, sex, socioeconomic status, or nation-of-origin.
Our National Mission. Peter provides a mission statement for this nation: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This means the purpose for our existence is to proclaim the truth of God’s excellence to those around us, and the most excellent thing we could proclaim is the gospel message. Thus, we are to be about acting out Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). By definition, this means we ought to be known by our unusual message, wherever we are. If we are going out and making disciples our values are going to conflict with the culture where we find ourselves. This is likely to be uncomfortable and it will sometimes get us killed. (Just this week the North Korean government executed 13 Christians for obeying Christ in this way.) If we compromise this message and the teachings of the Lord out of some sense that we don’t want to be offensive to others or “old-fashioned” or intolerant (the values of a certain nation in which I happen to reside), we will be soon be off-track in obediently pursuing our true mission.
Our Immigration Status. Peter then uses two interesting words to describe us: “aliens and strangers.” These actually are two legal terms in the Greek. The word translated “alien” is paroikos, “a stranger, a foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship,” while “stranger” is parepidēmos, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” or “sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner.”
Did you catch that? Christians are foreigners wherever we live. We have come from our home country into a place that is not our home to live side-by-side with the natives. Our loyalty must not be displaced: we are Christians who happen to be living in a foreign land called the United States, China, Nigeria, or [insert where you reside]. This helps us make sense of our mission, because we don’t have to proclaim the excellencies of God to our countrymen, because we already know about them. It’s the citizens of the nation where we temporarily reside that need our message, so they will want to acquire naturalized citizenship and we can help our King grow our nation.
Our testimony in a foreign culture. We serve a different king than whoever is in charge of the country where we happen to reside, and we therefore represent Him where we live. In the same way that we observe foreigners and make judgments about their people group or nation, our behavior reflects on our King and the rest of our nation. Thus, Peter instructs his countrymen to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.” Why? Because when we speak and act just like the people who belong to the country where we live, there won’t be anything special about us. If we’re thinking and acting just like the Gentiles around us, adapting the teachings of our true nation to the values of our temporary lodging, why would any of them see the need to change their citizenship?
Our good deeds are supposed be evidence to counteract what our opponents will say about us. Imagine living in a country where your motives are questioned, your language is defined as “hate,” you’re accused of being a threat, and your values are so unusual that people will trash you and say bad things about your home country. They’ll slander you because of your foreign ways and values; you won’t talk like them, act like them, you’ll disapprove of things they tolerate, and this will earn you their ire. UNLESS your good deeds outweigh your weirdness. It will be our good deeds that testify to why we sojourners are good to have around, why our King is righteous, and why it’s worth renouncing one citizenship for a better one. As Jesus put it, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
Fellow Christian, you are part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse, chosen, redeemed, holy nation of priests, who are temporarily residing in a foreign country. If you’re pursuing the mission our King has assigned us, expect to be rejected and hated, because His ways will contradict the ways of this land. Nevertheless, live uprightly and do good in this land so that your King and citizenship in His Kingdom will be attractive to others. In the same way that the United States was for two centuries the destination of choice for people around the world because of its freedom and opportunities, let us make citizenship in our true Kingdom a desirable thing.