On Holy Patriotism

July 4, 2010 Length: 22:54





In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. [Amen.]

I greet you, brothers and sisters, on this Lord’s day, this beautiful Sunday, that coincides with one of our national feasts that I love. We’re blessed to have a number of civic holidays, chiefly Thanksgiving, but also our day of national independence, today, that are established by the authority of the state. We, as Orthodox Christians, joyfully embrace them and enter into the celebration of those civic holidays. We make them truly holy days.

I would like to speak to you about something that I rarely speak to you about, but an important matter, and that is the subject of sacred patriotism—sacred patriotism and what that means to an Orthodox Christian. You know the late Ayatollah Khomeini said, “If Islam is not politics, it is nothing.” Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and we Christians would never find ourselves saying, “If Christianity is not politics, it is nothing.” We would say, rather, “If Christianity is not a pure heart, it is nothing.” That’s what we would say. If the power of God does not exist in your life to turn you into love, to turn you into faith, to turn you into hope from the inside out, Christianity has nothing to do with you whatsoever—this is what we would say.

Now the Islamic view is the traditional human view. It’s not new with Mohammed. The idea in traditional societies and universally throughout ancient society is that the religion of the ruler is the religion of the people. If you are a citizen of that state, you were obligated not just to follow their laws involving the management of society, but you are required to follow their religious laws. It was considered, religion, that is, to be a constituent element of the constitution of the state. So we Christians were often accused of being political agitators especially because we refused to exalt politics and to allow the political ruler to determine the nature of our religion. So for the first few centuries of the Christian faith we were considered political upstarts, agitators, because we refused to allow an idol-worshiping emperor—whom we loved, sometimes; easier than other times; and followed and prayed for—we refused to allow him to dictate to our conscience who God is.

So if we are to understand the Christian notion of patriotism—something that is very important for us—we have to affirm right off the top the unique contribution to the world that our faith is, and that is to affirm that the Church and the state are not the same thing. We hear often in our culture today this notion of the separation of church and state. That phraseology can cover a very broad swath of ideology. As it’s used today, it often means the eradication of religious influence and the authority of the church in society, banishing God and religious principles and moral laws which are unchanging from the public square. That separation of church and state is complete nonsense and is something that the Church opposes and is not consistent with Christian faith.

But there is another separation of church and state that precedes this secularist view which has arisen in the last few centuries, and that is the affirmation that we forced upon the world when our Savior in his teaching said this. Do you remember the day he was attempting to be tricked by some of his opponents? He was of course living under political oppression of the pagan Roman empire in the Holy Land, and some of his opponents brought to him a Roman coin. They said to him, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar, or should we not?” Their thinking was: If he says no, we condemn him as a man fostering insurrection; if he says yes, we condemn him as a collaborator with the Romans.

They thought they had him, but our Savior asked to see the coin, and it had the imperial image pressed upon it, and he said, “Whose image and likeness is this?” and they said, “It’s Caesar’s.” Then he said these beautiful words which have determined our attitude to the relationship between church and state ever since. He said, “Render to God the things that are God’s, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” They were speechless, not knowing how to answer him. This distinction between the human allegiance to God and the human allegiance to the political ruler is at the heart of our understanding of the relationship between church and state, and informs our patriotism. It is what constitutes authentic Christian patriotism.

We are and have always been accused of being and will always be accused of being divided in our loyalties. We do not deny it; we affirm it. We affirm that it’s possible to have multiple allegiances, of different gravity. We have a supreme allegiance to the Lord God and to the Church, and we have a subsidiary allegiance, borne of love and respect and commanded by God, to our nation. When those two are reversed, brothers and sisters, our faith suffers terribly.

The Church and the state are very different. The Church is not earthly alone as the state is, but is heavenly, incorporating not just the Christians who have gone before us to their rest but all of the angelic powers. The Church is divine and not just human as the state is. The Church is not defined by man-made laws and institutions, but has a divine constitution in the will of God. The Church is not temporal, as all nations are, but eternal. The Church is not destructible, as the state is destructible. The Church alone has a divine promise attached to it, unlike any nation or state. The Church does not change, and every nation and every political institution changes constantly.

We owe to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Church, his most precious body, our supreme loyalty and allegiance, and we refuse to ascribe to any earthly political association the definition of the kingdom of God, like we ascribe it to the Church.

So what does this mean for us with regards to our patriotism? Have we made an affirmation—and simply call to your attention what our Church teaches about the difference between the Church and the state? We also are resolutely committed to a fervent patriotism, to being lovers of the nation. Let me explain to you why.

Though the Church and the state are not the same thing, and though the state does not have the constitution of the Church, nevertheless the state is from God, just like the family is. St. Paul in the verse following the last verse of the epistle you heard this morning… You heard the reading from Romans 12 this morning; in Romans 13, St. Paul says, “To be subject to the governing authorities, because all authority is from God, and those who resist the authorities resist the ordinance of God.” He goes on several verses later in verses four and five, and he says, “For the authorities, the civil power is the minister”—the Greek word is “priest”—“of God, for the execution of justice. The authority does not bear the sword for nothing.” Then again in verse eight, he calls the civil authority “the minister of God.” So we are not to think of the state as opposed to God. Those who exercise their freedom improperly in the position of civil authority can make the state opposed to God and can bring down his judgment upon it—we’ve seen this plenty of times—but the state by itself without definition is from God.

The governing power is what we are to see. Governing power: it has taken different expressions. At the time that St. Paul wrote this, it was a persecuting empire, with a very nasty emperor named Nero reigning at the time, and that did not keep Paul from affirming that the state was from God. So for us to obey the Lord, to be good Christians means that we honor the state, and we are duty-bound to an act of patriotism. Let me just flesh out a few practicalities.

What does that mean, to be a good patriot? We all want to be faithful patriots before God; what does that mean for us? First it means that we have to obey the just laws of our country. We have to obey the just laws of our country, and of course we can fall on both sides of this. We can be those who don’t obey because it’s inconvenient, and in this we are keeping back a service to the Lord. To obey the state is to obey God, just as to obey one’s father and mother in the family is to obey God. So sometimes when we don’t have a high enough view of obedience to the state—and that doesn’t mean we obey all the laws we agree with; it means we obey all the laws except those that are unjust. Those that are unjust are no laws at all, and Christians, following the apostles, must confess to society that we obey God rather than men. This is number one.

Number two, we should honor and respect our nation’s rulers and pray for them, particularly both liturgically and privately. Those that are in particular need, by demonstrating an inability of character or competence to rule need our prayers especially. We also should be interested in our nation’s history. I’m not suggesting that we should create a phony history that tries to interpret American history according to ecclesiastical standards, as though we are the people of God. I mean, you study what you love, and if we love our nation, we should know her history, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. It should be a grief to us that, as a nation, we are the most ahistorical people on the planet. This should be a grief to us, and we Orthodox, who have in our very heart the embrace of sacred history, have a contribution to make to our nation as well in this area, by exalting a knowledge of history as an expression of love.

We should be prepared to sacrifice our self for the welfare of our nation and to lay down our life in her defense. This is sacred patriotism, expected of us by God. St. Paul says in Romans 13; he gives us three commands towards the state after establishing the state is from God. He says, “Therefore, render tax to whom tax is due; honor to whom honor is due; and fear to whom fear is due.” These are the three things that in his mind constitute a faithful patriotism. You pay your taxes, which is painful and always has been painful. [Laughter] You render honor to leaders. And you show proper fear. You show proper fear—this may be the least clear, but something happened in, well, let me make it generic to save myself from the wrath of Presvytera, whom I don’t think I ever told this story to.

Something happened to a priest I know once [Laughter] when he was driving home from church. It was… You know, often that’s the most dangerous time for a priest. Perhaps he’s just left the confession line. His head’s about to burst. He’s trying to remember all the appointments he mistakenly made, and all the prayer concerns that were related to him. I know a priest who was going home at excessive speed one day. [Laughter] Though he saw, out of the corner of his eyes, an officer on a motorcycle with a very large gun turned this way on the back of his cycle, going at, say, 75 miles per hour, in the lane just to the right, this priest whom I know was in some other world, and he did not even think about the fact that he was coming up on that officer very quickly and then past that officer at a greater speed. [Laughter]

The officer pulled behind the priest and put his lights on and pulled him over. The priest came back to the earth. [Laughter] And the officer was miffed, and he came to the passenger door. Before he said anything, he looked in and he recognized that the priest was a priest. He said, “Father, how dare you disrespect me like that?” He said, “I was going 75 to give you some room! And you just blew by me. Do you know what that does to everyone on the freeway when they see a car blow by an officer?” And the priest, I’ve been told [Laughter], made his low bow as deeply as he could from his chair, and said, “Officer, forgive me. You’re absolutely correct. I meant disrespect. I am ignorant and at fault. I was in some other place mentally.” He said, “Father, I never write a ticket to a man of the cloth, but society only works well when the respect goes both ways.” Touché. [Laughter]

That was an example in which this priest, poor fellow, did not render proper fear to whom fear is due. An officer on his motorcycle, with a very large gun, deserves respect, fear, and honor in society. If we expect criminals to keep themselves back from committing crimes because of the fear of the arm of the law, certainly we who are attempting to be law-abiding citizens should show such respect and should show such honor. I found it particularly of interest that he didn’t mention to me anything about the laws. It wasn’t an issue about the fact that I was going above the speed limit. The issue was disrespect for the authority, and I appreciated that.

This is how to be a patriot. This is how to be a patriot, and it’s how to be a patriot as a Christian. We honor the Lord God and we offer our supreme allegiance to the Church in all things. But that same Church has defined for us how to love your nation, and to love your nation means that you care for her. You want her and all the land that you’re upon, you want to offer thanksgiving to God for it. Those who don’t love this nation are usually those who have never gone to any other nation in their life. To go to some other place is to come back and appreciate what we have. Even if we see things developing in our nation which cause us great concern—and the rapid secularization of our nation causes all authentic Orthodox Christians great concern—this is not a reason for contempt; this is a reason for greater concern, more love.

When that which you love is going in the wrong direction, your heart breaks. You show greater interest and investment in the hope that things can be rebirthed, because the call of our Savior is that we be a light to the nations and to this nation. We cannot save what we do not love. May God birth in us and continue to increase in us, and may the young especially in this parish learn from the old. We have so many esteemed patriots in this parish, especially those who are over 50 years of age. We who are younger must learn to love this land the way the Lord God loves it. So I wish you a very happy day of sacred patriotism on this day of our national independence. Blessed feast.