Patriotism or the Kingdom of God?

As I was driving around town the other day, I noticed on the sign of another church their theme for this Sunday, July 3. It read, “Patriotic Worship.” Now I don’t know about you, but those two words put together make me a bit nervous. There are too many historical lessons of the dangers of mixing patriotism and religion. When our Poverty Education and Advocacy Team were invited to lead worship on this Sunday, a day before July 4th, I wondered what message might be appropriate.

Do I love my country? You bet. I love the open skies of Nebraska, the mountains of Colorado, the rocky shores of Oregon. I love the many expressions of diversity of cultures, music, the arts. I love that I am able to worship as I please. In this regard I am a true patriot…the dictionary definition is someone who loves their country/their homeland.

However, this is a place where our focus is on God, not our country, right? Is it either patriotism or God’s Kingdom?

I set out on a listening quest. I wanted to hear about how others define patriot. Aubrey Mancuso lives here in Omaha, but grew up in New Mexico, a state that has some of the highest numbers of children suffering from poverty. Aubrey is now the mother of two children and what she wants for her kids—access to a doctor, good education, a safe neighborhood, and food security—she wants for all children. For Aubrey, a patriot is one who is willing to stand up collectively for your neighbors.

Emiliano Lerda lives here in Omaha with his wife and two children. Emiliano is originally from Argentina. To Emiliano, a patriot recognizes that our communal strength comes from respect for others different from us.

Kait Madsen grew up in Council Bluffs, moved away for a while and now lives in Omaha. To Kait, a patriot is someone who embraces her or his responsibility to community and country; a patriot works hard to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

There are more dimensions of patriot, but let us look at these three.

One who is willing to stand up collectively for your neighbors. Does this sound as if it might be a kingdom value as well as a mark of patriotism? Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Aubrey Mancuso is Executive Director of Voices for Children in Nebraska. She loves neighbors’ children as she loves her own. She is dedicating her life work to “love of neighbor” and working collectively for the welfare of the whole community. Twenty-five point two percent of Omaha’s children live below the poverty line—that’s 30,000 school age children living in poverty in our city. First United Methodist Church members are so active in serving the our most vulnerable citizens through making meals and serving at the Francis House and Youth Emergency Services, supporting food pantries and helping build houses through Habitat for Humanity. These are all expressions of love of neighbor. Nevertheless, living Kingdom values also includes working to change structures and systems that can bring dignity and empowerment and reduce the need for charity.

Because of the advocacy work of Voices for Children and allies, our state has Kids Connection; which provides access to health care for nearly one-third of Nebraska’s children. Love of neighbor is expressed through the state earned income tax credit, which helps 115,000 low-income families by putting more of their paycheck back in their pockets. Love of neighbor manifests itself through the school breakfast program, which helps children focus on learning, not their hunger.

Our Poverty Education and Advocacy Team, along with many of you who signed petitions, wrote letters and visited legislators helped raise the minimum wage in Nebraska to $9.00 an hour (still not a living wage, but better than it was). Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

A patriot recognizes that our communal strength comes from respect for others different from us. Emiliano Lerda is the Executive Director of Justice for Our Neighbors an organization supported, in part, by our United Methodist Great Plains Conference. Justice For Our Neighbors is a nonprofit organization providing free immigration legal service, education, and advocacy for indigent and low-income immigrants of all faiths, races, abilities and ages, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus:19:33-34.

Kait Madsen is a Community Organizer focusing on Economic Justice and Health Care Access Programs for Nebraska Appleseed. Nebraska Appleseed is a nonprofit organization that fights for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans. They take a systemic approach to complex issues— such as child welfare, immigration policy, affordable healthcare, and poverty— Kait says a patriot works hard to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. When I met with her a few days ago, she was preparing to be on the road for a week listening to those most impacted by poverty throughout our state.

Jesus was always getting in trouble for listening to the outcasts— the women, the poor, the ill. He gave dignity to each voice. He pushed religious, social, political, and economic boundaries to include everyone.
There can be parallels between love of country and love of God. However, there are also dangers of linking the two. When patriotism becomes nationalism—a belief that God favors our patriotic cause, and that we are superior to all others and carry the torch of what is eternal truth…then those of us who follow the way of Jesus need to step away. Kingdom values will always be our foundation and plumb line when we are shaping our duties as citizens.

Let us get more specific about kingdom values. If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any…if you have food, share it with someone else— that is a direct expectation of sharing and caring for those who have too little. When a national value becomes greed, take care of number one, and blame those who have less than, then people of faith have to part ways; we have to pledge our allegiance to a higher order of compassion. Those who struggle in poverty have lessons to teach the rest of us. As you may be aware, studies have shown that those who have the least tend to be proportionally more generous.

When Tim and I moved to North Omaha in 1983, we were the minority on our block. As we unloaded our U-Haul, I’m guessing the neighbors were a bit suspicious of these two young white folks and our motives for being there. Nevertheless, within a couple weeks the matriarch of the block, Ms. Eula, hosted a potluck for us on her front lawn. Ms. Eula was in her sixties, was raising her grandson, and told me later she wanted to paint her house so she would buy one can of paint at a time as she got enough money—and this woman was hosting a banquet for us? Sharing her food and welcoming the strangers? In her act of generosity, she was bringing forth God’s Kingdom. Her spirit of generosity needs to be expanded in how our society as a whole treats others.

I think the most expansive and inclusive vision of God’s Kingdom is found in the 65 chapter of Isaiah. This vision is for a new heaven AND a new earth. It is meant for the here and now…on this earth.

“….never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not live out his years.”

Because there is a collective voice through Voices, Appleseed, Omaha Together One Community, and others, we will not give up the fight for the 77,000 Nebraskans who now cannot afford health insurance

“They will plant vineyards and eat their fruit… they will build their own houses and live in them”. They will work in dignity; no longer the recipients of charity. We will not give up working for a living wage so parents can provide their own housing and their own food on the table.”

The Poverty Education and Advocacy Team and others from our First church family participated in Legislative Briefing Day in February, where we learned about how we can link our love of country, love of neighbor to policies that bring dignity and life.
November 5 we will host our third poverty forum and we will learn more so we can act more.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is not only in war…that we fight for freedom. One works for freedom in personal contacts and in many phases of civilian life. At all times, day by day, we have to continue working for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from want—for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.”

On this weekend when we reflect on what it means to be a patriot, I am grateful for freedom of religion that allows you and me to gather in this place of worship to be nourished by the vision in Isaiah—a community where all will have shelter, food, health care and dignified work.

I am grateful for the freedom of speech, which allows you and me to influence our city, state and nation’s policies to reflect values of community, compassion and justice.

I am grateful to work with others so neighbors near and far will have freedom from want—so that one day we will no longer be confronted with the reality of 30,000 school age children in Omaha living in poverty—so that one day our nation will become greater because we will no longer have thousands of Nebraskans denied access to health care—so that one day our nation will become greater because people will not work in vain, but with a living wage that gives dignity.

At all times, day by day, we have to continue working for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from want. May each of us love our country enough, and love our God more so we cherish our freedoms and work tirelessly to bring forth God’s Kingdom here, now, today!