In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the third of July, which makes tomorrow the fourth of July, Independence Day, the anniversary of the day on which, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, it became necessary for our people, “to dissolve the political bands which [had] connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle[d] them…” I therefore thought it would be appropriate to reflect on how Christians ought to think about our citizenship in the nation.
Across the secular political spectrum, pundits have felt free to comment, sometimes very loudly, on how people of faith ought to regard and to inhabit the responsibilities and privileges of their citizenship. And conversely, sometimes, more detrimentally, the pundits have presumed to comment on how citizens ought to practice their faith.
I have noticed on the right side of our secular political spectrum an insistence on America as a “Christian nation,” frequently with reference to “our founding principles” – or to the fact that many of our “founding fathers” were fairly pious Christians, in keeping with the norms of their times and circumstances. (And I would just note, in passing, that most of them were Episcopalians.)
I have noticed on the left side of our secular political spectrum a deep appreciation for the “establishment clause” of the first amendment of our nation’s constitution (“…congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”), together with an often tendentious and free-form exposition of its significance. The worst form of commentary from this direction would make the practice of religion in America something entirely private, to be exercised only within the home, or within the walls of the church, or (perhaps best of all), strictly within the boundaries of the practitioner’s own skull.
I don’t want to get embroiled in controversializing, but I would like to make a few observations that may be pertinent to how we think of ourselves with respect to the civil authority.
Firstly, it is incumbent upon us to think of ourselves FIRST as children of God, and citizens of his kingdom. And only secondary to THAT citizenship, are we citizens of any earthly nation or kingdom. Indeed every human relationship is subordinate to THAT relationship. Hence, whatever an earthly authority calls us to do, we may not regard ourselves as free to do it if it would mean a renunciation of our citizenship in God’s kingdom. And so, if the civil law requires us to sin, God’s law requires us to disobey the civil law. Many Christians down through the centuries, and throughout the world, have gone happily to their deaths in obedience to this principle – as for example when, during classical antiquity, all citizens were required to participate, even if only symbolically, in the civic religion, acknowledging the emperor to be divine. Christians could not, in good conscience, do that. Hence, many were killed. When the Roman Proconsul told St. Polycarp of Smyrna to denounce Christ and swear by the fortunes of Caesar, so that he could set Polycarp free, the old man replied, “Eighty-six years have I served [Jesus], and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” And for that he was burned at the stake.
On the other hand, Christians have always prayed for those who bear the authority of civil government, both in private and within the context of the mass. One of the earliest Christian apologists, an adult convert named Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, who was born around the middle of the second century, wrote that Christians “offer prayer without ceasing for all our emperors. We pray for long life; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever… an emperor could wish…” Indeed the benevolent Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in a letter to the Roman Senate, credited the prayers of Christians in his army with saving him from a tight spot in a battle against barbarian hordes. He wrote that the Christians…
“…began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience…. [And] having cast themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood, that they might be delivered…”
And indeed this has remained the practice of Christians from the earliest times right down to the present. At every mass here – and hence just about every day – we pray “For our nation, our president, for the state of Texas, and the city of Dallas, and for all in civil authority,” as well as “for those who serve in our armed forces,” and “for their spouses and families.” And the content of our prayer is that the Lord would “have mercy.” This is not only in our own interest – because when our nation prospers, we prosper with her – but also out of obedience to our Lord’s command that we should pray to God on behalf of ALL men, and that we should even pray for God’s blessing on those who intentionally do us harm.
Even apart from our obligation to pray for everybody, the question of what attitude Christians ought to have toward the civil authorities in particular is taken up by St. Paul in Romans (13.1ff), where he says:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
We should note that St. Paul wrote this of the pagan authorities of his time – indeed the very government that had crucified Jesus, and who would eventually have Paul himself beheaded. How much more ought we, therefore, who are governed comparatively justly and for the most part by fellow Christians – how much more ought we therefore pray for them, that they may be led to wise decisions and right actions for the welfare and peace of this nation and of the world?
Which leads us to a second consideration with respect to the engagement of our civil situation. Considering that God is the author of all good, that every good thing we experience comes from him, we ought to consider all the very many and very good things that do come to us in virtue of our being citizens of this nation; and having considered them, we ought then to give thanks to God for them. And not least among them is the freedom to practice our faith openly and without fear of being molested by the government, or anyone else. Not only this, but we are citizens of the most powerful, the freest, and the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, and from the vantage point of eternity, there are no accidents. God’s providence has orchestrated this happy circumstance. And we should give him heartfelt thanks for these, and for every other benefit that has accrued to us from the riches of his grace.
Lastly – and I will close with this reflection – we should consider that notwithstanding all of the greatness of our nation, nevertheless it, like everything else and like the world itself, will one day pass away. There will come a time when America is no more. Like every other great nation and empire, America is provisional. One day this nation will be conquered, or it will crumble from within, or the whole world will come to an end. But our vocation as Christians is to perdure through the end of America, whenever and however it may come about. But in this and every circumstance we are to remain faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God.
In his second epistle, St. Peter writes to remind his hearers to comport themselves always with justice and in fidelity to their heavenly King, mindful of the provisional character of every earthly circumstance and of the earth itself:
“…The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Peter 3.10-14)
So let us give thanks to God for our nation and for our earthly citizenship, and for every good thing. Let us pray from the heart for the peace and prosperity of the United States, as well as for her rulers and her armies. Let us live at peace with one another and with our fellow citizens, let us obey the laws of the land, and pay our taxes. But in all things, let us always remember to whom we ultimately belong, and let us remain faithful to him in every circumstance whatsoever; let us remain conspicuous witnesses to the righteousness and peace of our heavenly King, knowing that unlike every earthly rule and authority, the his Kingdom will last forever, and that our citizenship in it is priceless and eternal.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.