“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – James Baldwin
I was reading the book of Jeremiah and came across a very interesting account. In Jeremiah Chapter 32, Jerusalem is under siege by Babylon and King Zedekiah of Israel has Jeremiah imprisoned in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace. Why would one of Israel’s premiere prophets be under house arrest? The reason is, Jeremiah kept prophesying that God was about to hand over the city to the Babylonians and that King Zedekiah would be captured. Jeremiah told the King, “if you fight against the Chaldeans, you will not succeed.” This was not a very popular thing for Jeremiah to say and it ended up getting him imprisoned. It is still not popular to speak out against your country, especially when it comes to war. To question our political leader’s rationale for war, whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, can easily get you branded with the label “unpatriotic.” To be pro-peace is taken to mean anti-soldier instead of anti-war.
Why does it seem like we have to choose between being a prophet or a patriot?
Dr. King was certainly one of the greatest prophets of the last century. One of his most powerful speeches was “A Time to break Silence, ” when he first spoke publicly against the Vietnam War. Many within his own ranks warned him to stick to civil rights and not speak out about war. He was killed exactly a year after this speech. That is what can happen when you call your country’s actions into question. But that is the role of the prophet.
The reason prophets often get in trouble with their own government is that their allegiance is first to God, not their country. The prophet has a way of exposing the idolatry of nationalism. We are guilty of nationalism when we put our faith and hope in country over our faith and hope in God. When we imprison the prophets because they tell us our actions are not endorsed by God we are guilty of nationalism. When the prophets of God are labeled “unpatriotic” by their country for following God over government, then patriotism has become idolatry. The prophet’s primary concern is not in being patriotic, but in being faithful to God and committed to speaking truth.
I heard Dr. Cornel West speak at a politically connected church on the South side of Chicago before the 2008 presidential election. I remember he stunned a pro-Obama Chicago congregation when he said he loved his brother Obama, but that he would become Obama’s number one critic if Obama were elected President. West knows that the church is to be prophetic whether our candidate is in office or not. King said the Church is to be “the conscience of the State, not its tool.” Prophets seek to be faithful to God over country, race, class, or any other tribal identification.
I hear a lot of Christians quoting Romans 13:1 when their political party is in office, and then hear a lot about Revelation and the anti-Christ when the opposing party is in office. We can show respect and pray for those in government while also holding them accountable to their highest ideals. The prophetic call of the Church is not lifted when our candidate is in office. We cannot place our party loyalty over our kingdom mandate to love God, love our neighbor, make peace, share what we have with the poor, remember those in prison, welcome the stranger, seek justice, defend the widow and orphan. This is what the prophets were constantly calling the nation back to. This is what Jesus was all about and it got him into trouble too!
I am so encouraged to read in my Bible that there have always been people of God who have chosen to be prophetic over being patriotic. I am part of a tradition that has always had prophets to speak out against the evils of war, injustice, and poverty. Although I love this country, if I have to choose, I would rather be a prophet than a patriot. I refuse to let my love of God be overshadowed by a sentimental, uncritical love of country.
The thing that many people misunderstand about prophets is this: they critique the country not because they hate it, but because they love it and want it to be better. Even though Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept bitterly over the city when it happened (just read Lamentations). Prophets are not afraid to call their nation out so that it can become even greater. That is true patriotism. It means loving your country enough to want it to be better and live more faithfully to the ideals it claims to believe.