A little over 10 years ago, we packed up our possessions, turned in the keys to our apartment in Nashville and moved overseas. We lived in Portugal for a little while before finally settling here in the African country of Mozambique. Living as aliens in foreign lands has shaped our thinking about… well… pretty much everything. It has certainly affected the way we think about patriotism and national identity.
A U.S. citizen living abroad can count on a number of advantages. Our country has well-organized embassies all over the world. Many people we encounter around the globe have a positive regard towards America because of their experiences with its citizens. And I’m aware that my status as a American has opened doors, contributing towards me being brought before governors, mayors and chiefs, as well as kings and queens (and even one King of kings!).
But, holding a passport from the United States has also brought a number of challenges. We moved to Portugal the very same week that the war in Iraq began. A number of Europeans over the years have blamed me for all manner of unfortunate American foreign policy decisions. African friends have asked me if the U.S. would ever invade their land once oil was discovered there. And most significantly, early in our time here, we were forced to leave our homes and move to another Mozambican province because of accusations that we were CIA spies. While it seems comical to think of my wife and I as stand-ins for Jack Bauer or James Bond (especially since we moved here with our small children!), the history of the U.S.’s involvement in this country makes that fear on their part understandable. Our group of Americans had to spend over a year attempting to prove that we were here in Mozambique to serve and bless its people before we were allowed to move back to our homes.
I have a number of family members who have served in the armed forces. I am thankful and glad to hail from my country of origin. And I certainly believe that it is fine and normal to be proud to be an American. On this 4th of July holiday, though, political rhetoric often strays out of good and holy bounds. So, I wanted to share thoughts on some themes related to Independence Day from my perspective as a resident alien.
An Everlasting Homeland
Americans who travel or live in Europe often are surprised at just how old everything is. There are church buildings in Portugal that were already hundreds of years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. This can be a helpful reminder for citizens of young ‘whipper-snapper’ countries like the USA. Nationalism is dangerous when it leads us to believe that our nation is the one ‘who was, and is and is to come.’ The truth is that there is only one Being that can rightfully bear that name (Rev. 1:8).
Ben Shive’s song ‘4th of July’ expresses this sentiment well. His lyrics place us on a blanket in the park, enjoying an Independence Day celebration. As the fireworks and smoke eventually fade from the night sky, the true bright morning star continues to shine brightly. This song puts national pride in perspective by reminding us that even the greatest nations of the earth, even the ones that burn brightest in the history of humanity, eventually fade. Our Lord’s light, though, will not weaken nor be extinguished – it will continue to shine brightly. We should not succumb to the lie that any nation, regardless of its heritage, will endure forever. All nations rise and fall. The only homeland that will last for all time is the one we are promised with God. A spiritually healthy patriotism will submit itself to the truth that self worth and identity must be rooted in an everlasting Kingdom.
I am thankful to come from a country that celebrates freedoms and opportunities that are rare in many parts of the world. While some focus on the freedoms to shop where you want, vote as you wish, or own a firearm, others concentrate on greater liberties such as the right to assemble and freedom of worship. Being a citizen of a global superpower does have its advantages and the apostle Paul modeled a way to use freedoms appropriately for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. If we have been given certain liberties because of our citizenship in an earthly kingdom, then our quest is to use those freedoms for the glory of an undying kingdom.
We also need to keep our national freedoms in perspective. They are good and can be used well, but they pale in light of the liberties that God offers. In Christ, we have been granted freedom from sin, death and Satan. He has liberated us from those great enemies of humanity and made a way for his royal people to dwell and reign with Him.
When we pledge our allegiance to something or someone, that promise should not be taken lightly. Followers of Jesus need to understand that their ultimate allegiance belongs to the Kingdom of God. That is what it means when we claim that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Back in the first century, that declaration was subversive, dangerous and politically explosive as the surrounding culture confidently declared: ‘Caesar is Lord’. Both Jesus’ teachings and that environment made it clear that a person may only have one Lord and Master. The challenge was, and still is, to choose well who we will give our allegiance to.
Often when people speak of loyalty and commitment, they refer to ‘God and Country.’ We may be comforted by the fact that at least God comes first in that phrase. But, the truth is that our allegiances should not belong to God and country. When we pledge our allegiance to God, should there even be an ‘and’? Would it be better to say they belong to God then country? These are difficult questions with few easy answers. It is important to keep in mind that words like allegiance, duty, and fidelity are good strong words that have been borrowed by the State but should point to a greater reality. Those words should describe what it is like to love God as Jesus instructed us – with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. That is the kind of whole-hearted allegiance that God desires.
The Songs We Sing
The reflections above have made me wonder about the nature of our patriotic songs. Music has great power to shape us. Songs are sticky and their phrases loop over and over in our minds (as any parent whose preschooler has watched Dora the Explorer can tell you!). So, we need to carefully consider the songs we sing: What messages do these songs leave us with? What lessons do they teach our children about homelands, freedoms and allegiances? Analyzing these questions is an important task for all of us who understand our primary identity as children of the living God whose kingdom is made up of people from every nation, tribe and tongue.
These questions have led me to try my hand at re-envisioning one of these patriotic songs in light of our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. May it help put our independence celebrations in their appropriate light.
A Bright Country Waits for Me
(lyrics adapted by Alan Howell, to the tune of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’)
A Bright Country waits for me
sweet land of liberty
of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers live,
land where true joy is giv’n,
it holds my heart captive,
it’s our true home.
Made new God’s world will be
when Jesus sets it free
on his return.
We’ll meet him in the air,
then with such grand fanfare,
escort the world’s true heir
to take his throne.
Let music swell the breeze
and ring from all the trees
sweet freedom’s song.
Sin, death, disease be gone,
no longer Satan’s pawn,
true liberty goes on and on
starting that day.
So, now we work with Him
as his new world breaks in.
Love lights the way.
Let hearts be full of cheer,
strive to bring heav’n near,
our Lord’s good reign starts here.
Pledge him your all.
- The King and the Kids’ Table - October 18, 2021
- Encouraging the ‘Why’ - August 9, 2021
- Knowing What Page You’re On: Waiting, Hoping, and Dr. Seuss - May 25, 2020
M Nelson says
Outstanding. Thank you.
Well written, thought provoking and encouraging. Thank you Alan.
Refreshing perspective. This past Sunday America was the subject of worship in my church and the invitation song was “my country tis of thee.” It is encouraging to hear the voice of those who remember that America is not our final and dearest home.
Kimberlee Conway Ireton says
Thank you. I’m so grateful to live in the US where I have the freedom to worship God without fear. But nationalistic rhetoric frightens me, so I especially appreciate your everlasting homeland section and that rewording of “My Country Tis of Thee.”
Thank you for this.
I don’t know if you read Ann Voskamp’s blog (aholyexperience.com). She is a Canadian and Canada Day is July 1st. In her post for today she has written a wonderful reflection on patriotism. In part she writes, “we all feel this undeniable bond with the land of our birth…: we are all born of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. And this is what makes us bound to all the earth’s people and to our homeland of heaven.”
Kris Camealy says
So good. I appreciate this perspective so much. Thank you!!