“Who is my neighbor?”
THE PERILS OF PATRIOTISM
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God…”
Who is my neighbor?
In response, Jesus told the story of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-34). He described a Samaritan—considered lower-class by Jews of that day—who’d come upon a badly wounded man who’d been ignored by several religious, upper-class travelers. The Samaritan was moved with compassion and went to him, bandaging his wounds, taking him to an inn, and paying for his care. Jesus pointed out that it was a despised Samaritan who helped the victim, whom most scholars believe was a Jew. Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, chairman of the World Congress of Faiths, notes that this story is not only about caring for the needy; it also reveals how Jesus would have us view our national, religious, and ethnic group loyalties:
The popular culture promotes displays of nationalistic patriotism for all sorts of reasons, both political and economic. Few Americans question the implications of getting swept up in an “us against them” mentality. But for those of us who wish to raise our children as Jesus would, we must ensure that the spirit in which we teach our children to embrace patriotism doesn’t conflict with Jesus’ teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves…and that every human being, of every nationality, race and religion, is our neighbor. As such, they are as worthy of our compassion and protection as are those in our own nation or group.
Patriotism versus Nationalistic Patriotism:
Love versus Pride
In times of crisis, patriotic fervor seems justified, and it can serve to unite us together for a common cause. Indeed, love of one’s country is as natural as love of one’s home, for it is one’s larger home. But nationalistic patriotism can also cause great harm and destruction at home and abroad. To better understand which is which, a distinction can be made between two forms: (1) patriotism, consisting of love of one’s country, its guiding principles, and one’s fellow-citizens, versus (2) nationalistic patriotism, characterized by pride in one’s nation, ethnic or economic group. Based on your knowledge of Jesus, what would he say about love? About pride?
Love-based (Love-of-Country) Patriotism
If we love our country and fellow-citizens, then we support its people and the values for which it stands. As I write this in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, I recognize its pull on me. First, it’s a very lovely place. Secondly, I am inspired by the historic struggles in these halls—marked by both excesses and breakthroughs—to secure for its citizens a “new deal”, including self-determination, fair representation and religious liberty. Yet I am also reminded of the Native Americans who were routed out to build these fine colonial settlements. Every country has a history of both positive and negative actions. Wherever you live now, you probably love your birth-country and its citizens, whether or not you agree with its policies.
A common assumption is that people are either patriotic and ought never disagree with their leaders, or do disagree and must be therefore be unpatriotic and disloyal. This is a simplistic and artificial dichotomy. Those nations whose citizens aren’t free to disagree, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic, ultimately lose their vitality. Without dissent, no culture can continue to adjust creatively to change, and to thrive. If citizens are told that disagreement means they are unpatriotic, they may well become alienated and begin to resent their native land. Hence, loving your country even while disagreeing with some of its actions is not only healthy, it’s good for your country
Jesus’ appeals to Israel to remember its destiny to be the spiritual light of the world rather than continue seeking greater national power reveal his deep love of, and hopes for, that country. Once he realized that dissent was not welcome, and that nothing he could say would change Israel’s determination to become the might of the world instead of its light, his longing and disappointment were palpable:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Pride-Based (Nationalistic) Patriotism
Nationalistic patriotism is characterized by pride, narcissism, and a hardening of one’s heart towards people of other nations. Overconfidence and bravado, derived from inflated group esteem (often stemming from superiority on the basis of wealth or military might) can and does lead many groups to pursue short-term gains that lead to catastrophic long-term results. Jesus viewed Israel as becoming so caught up in its own importance and superiority that devout religious people were becoming overshadowed by those possessed by nationalistic patriotism:
“Jesus was opposed to [nationalistic revolution] because he saw it as, paradoxically, a way of being deeply disloyal to Israel's God: specifically, to Israel’s vocation to be the light of the world. Within that, Jesus challenged his contemporaries to abandon the attitudes and practices toward one another which went with that xenophobic nationalism..." p.38 (N.T. Wright)
Nationalistic patriotism that trumps one’s deepest values and religious beliefs fosters mental rigidity and blindly following the group (the Hitler Youth movement a perfect example), because it assumes that our leaders can “do no wrong”. As a result, we feel increasing pressure not to question what we’re being told, and cannot readily change course when new information appears or unforeseen events occur. Corporate leaders understand this dynamic better than most, because their success hinges on avoiding “groupthink” or otherwise failing to adjust to changing circumstances. The business literature is replete with stories of successful companies that crashed and burned because no-one dared to disagree with top brass about an overly bold new direction or cause.
Pride-based patriotism hinders us from stepping back from popular slogans to evaluate how we’re doing, as individuals and as a nation, with respect to adhering to our highest principles. As parents raising the next generation, it isn’t merely our financial success that’s in the balance. At stake are the very principles that we hold most dear—ongoing self-examination, refusal to demonize those different than ourselves, and compassion for all human beings—principles that Jesus urged us to hold close to our hearts.
Forgetting one’s own
Nationalistic patriotism is dogged by another dangerous side-effect: the disregard for the nation’s internal needs. One’s own people increasingly suffer from neglected problems such as oppression, crime, and persecution. The nationalistic patriot’s narrow focus on expanding his or her group’s wealth, asserting superiority over other groups, or fending off threats, leads to an insidious “blindness” to pressing needs within. Jesus referred often to the lack of attention to the desperate needs of the poor people, widows and orphans, and the sick in a country increasingly consumed with nationalistic fervor.
"In particular, Jesus' clash with the Pharisees came about ...because his kingdom agenda for Israel demanded that Israel leave off its frantic and paranoid self-defense, reinforced as it now was by the ancestral codes, and embrace instead the vocation to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. To do this would mean, also, abandoning the practice of oppression and violence within the society itself: inward corruption was the other side of the coin of militant nationalism…The national flags of Judaism may once have stood for Israel's vocation to be the light of the world. Now that they had come to stand for Israel's determination to keep the light for itself, Jesus opposed them on the grounds of loyalty to Israel's deepest traditions and vocations," p.44-45 (N.T. Wright).
Jesus’ Way: Loving Country and Neighbor
If you or I were Jesus’ child, how would he guide us? How would Jesus express love for his country? Can you imagine him going along with the crowd, chanting slogans such as “We’re number one!” or “My country, right or wrong”? How would he respond to the bumper sticker that reads, “The Power of Pride” or the billboard shouting, “God Bless America: Let’s Kick Some Butt!”? We can get an idea of what he would say by thinking about his conversation with the lawyer, the parable of the good Samaritan, and his responses to the nationalistic patriotism in the Israel of his time.
If Jesus would warn us away from prideful, nationalistic patriotism, how might he guide us towards a positive love of country? Since one of his primary warnings has to do with the us-against-them attitude, is there some way in which we could cherish and support our country, its founding principles, and its citizens, yet not view the people of other countries as “outsiders”, excluding or looking down on them?
How would Jesus teach us to be loyal to our nation yet more loyal to the principles that he stood for? In other words, how would Jesus guide us towards a healthy sense of community within and beyond the group? How would Jesus guide his child to love her country, without discarding compassion for those outside its borders?
By Dr. Teresa Whitehurst