I will always treasure my English birth and British heritage, but on this 240th birthday of the United States I cannot help but express my gratitude for the generosity of this nation for accepting me as an immigrant and then, more than three decades ago, enrolling me as a citizen. While I chatted recently with a Syrian who was also adopted by the USA, we discovered identical attitudes.
Yet as much as I value my heritage and my U.S. citizenship, earthly citizenship can never be the be-all and end-all. St. Paul made it clear, writing to the Philippians (Phil. 3:20) that in Christ ours is a heavenly citizenship. Marked as Christ’s own at baptism, something that became an existential reality in my teens, I bear the seal of citizenship of God’s kingdom, and that must have priority.
Paul gives an eternal perspective to what is earthly. He wrote, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14); to put it another way, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, whose glory is the Cross always outshines any national flag under whose banner I march.
But citizenship in God’s kingdom does not impair our earthly citizenship, but gives it a richness, luster, and texture that would otherwise be missing. Being followers of Jesus Christ, informed by the Holy Spirit, our sense of responsibility and obligation toward our earthly citizenship is actually heightened. We could describe earthly citizenship as one-dimensional, but when seen through the lens of our heavenly citizenship it gains three, four, or even more dimensions.
Given the ambiguities of his life and upbringing, I suspect the Apostle Paul gave considerable thought to the nature of citizenship, both earthly and heavenly. By right of birth he was privileged to be a Roman citizen. Yet as a circumcised Jew, and especially as one born and raised in a Gentile city in Asia Minor, he carried the 1st-century equivalent of at least two passports. Following his encounter with Jesus on the Damascene road another dimension was added. He wrote that “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).
When the chips are down what truly matters is not being Roman or Jewish but that new creation. And where do we find it? In Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who meets each of us at the foot of the cross.
Paul was probably childless, but Timothy was the nearest he came to having a son. In two letters enshrined in Scripture, Paul instructed Timothy about the responsibilities that citizens of God’s kingdom have toward their place of earthly citizenship.
An initial obligation is that of prayer. “I urge you that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all those who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim. 2:1). This task is not too hard for those of us who have in mind the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or Queen Elizabeth II. But leadership in the Roman world could be malign, cruel, and grasping. Paul lived through the reign of the Emperor Caligula and would die at the hands of the bloodthirsty Emperor Nero. He would also have been well aware of the perverse and corrupting power wielded by the succession of Herods in Judea, whose crass brutality often matched that of their Roman overlords. Yet here Paul urges the followers of Jesus Christ to pray for them.
The apostle emphasizes that the responsibilities of earthly citizenship begin in God’s presence and on our knees. Our corporate worship models such behavior; our personal prayers should bear the same shape. In the liturgy we pray for the President of the United States and those who lead us; in the Church of England, they pray for “Our gracious sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth” and those who govern in her name. Starting with prayer we are called to be the leavening influence in society that Jesus spoke of, and we lay at the feet of our heavenly Father those who wield earthly power here and in the wider world. I was working with the church in Russia when prayers that had been faithfully prayed since the Russian Revolution in 1917 were in 1990 finally answered.
St. Paul goes on to remind the Christians in Rome that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1ff). Again, we are in a privileged position when compared to our 1st-century forebears because we live in a representative democracy. We can play a part in selecting who leads us, and our voice is able to shape the policies and values that govern this land. However, as the fictional President Andrew Shepherd says in that shallow but entertaining movie, The American President, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.” From those to whom much is given much will be expected.
What do God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, expect of me as I exercise my civic responsibilities? Again, when Paul talked about citizenship he said, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). How does such an injunction inform the choices I make in the voting booth? Do I cast my vote thinking purely for advantage to myself or my family, or do I consider what might be best for the wider community? Despite our culture’s tendency to reduce everything to sound bites, there are no simple answers. If “America is advanced citizenship” then our citizenship in God’s kingdom asks us to dig even deeper. Whatever our personal preferences, there isn’t one political party in the world that bears the seal of God’s approval, despite efforts to persuade us otherwise.
Heavenly citizenship not only affects the way I vote, but has financial and economic implications. We moved to the United States 40 years ago in the midst of an election. An immediate difference we noticed was the intensity of arguments over taxes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, given the Boston Tea Party and “No taxation without representation.” Yet this is one fact of earthly citizenship about which Scripture speaks. The Bible does not expect you to dance a happy dance when paying taxes. Paul, who knew this, tells us, “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7).
I just sent a check to the IRS. I did not enjoy writing it, but my heavenly citizenship means that honestly paying my taxes is a key obligation of earthly citizenship. When we pay taxes we are taking on our share of the nation’s obligations. If we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, that means helping shoulder the community’s burden. There are children to be educated, roads and airports to be kept safe, diplomats to represent our republic around the world, as well as security and protection.
Jesus inspires us to be a leavening influence in society; we are to be agents of divine grace and transforming love. This is what we are doing when we apply the hopes and values of the kingdom of God to the affairs of the earthly kingdoms. “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.” But citizenship in the kingdom of God is no cakewalk, and the way we live it out has profound implications for the national and global communities of which we are part.
When we lived in Cambridge, England, I could see from our home on the hillside the American World War II cemetery on the edge of the city. At its heart is a tall flagstaff, on which the American flag is always flying during daylight hours. It is surrounded by several thousand gravestones and by a memorial wall with the names of 7,000 more soldiers missing in action. When I saw it, my heart would skip a beat. Americans have a more thorough understanding of patriotism than so many others.
But for those of us who are citizens of God’s kingdom, patriotism is about much more than getting dewy-eyed when we see the flag. It is about how each of us brings the light of Christ to an increasingly secular and hostile society. We yearn for God to bless the United States of America and make it a force for good in the world.
But, like Paul, “far be it from us to glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and us to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
The featured image comes via George Makris, and is licensed under Creative Commons.