Imagine being a citizen of Germany in, say, 1939. Now imagine you are a Christian.
In the context of history, we understand the dilemma right away. Do you go along with injustice and protect yourself, or do you protest that injustice and risk martyrdom? Are you complicit, or are you endangered?
We applaud the people of faith who stood up and called out the evil being done in their names, who were then arrested and executed for opposing Hitler and the Third Reich’s completely unchristian policies and practices. We revere their bravery and their memory. We Catholics even canonize them. But do we emulate them?
I am not putting forward that we are living under a Nazi regime, but we Americans do live in complicated, as well as compromising, times. The United States has lately engaged in some pretty unchristian and socially unjust activities, but we citizens can be hesitant to go against the popular opinion. We are also sensitive to being labeled "unpatriotic." The epithet makes Americans cringe, as though nothing could be worse. Instead, we say things like, “My country, right or wrong.” But is that what Jesus would say? Sometimes our country is not right. Sometimes we do not do unto others as we would have them do unto us, because sometimes we do wrong unto others.
“We shouldn’t mix religion and politics,” we say, but just as the personal is political, the religious is also political. We religious folks take moral stands all the time, against abortion, or against the death penalty, but we prefer to stick to the narrow issues with which we are comfortable. What about the weapons of destruction we sell to some countries to use against other countries? What about the dictators we have supported and sometimes even installed who then enslaved or murdered their fellow citizens? What about our penchant here at home for mass incarceration or government corruption, or our silence in the face of racism or sexism or any other -ism? What about when our national conversation is simply unloving or uncharitable? What’s a Christian to do?
For guidance, we can look to St. Peter and the earliest Christians, who proclaimed, in the face of all-out persecution, “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men.” (Acts 5:29) In fact, after a public flogging, the apostles were “glad to have had the honor of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40). When we advocate for the Gospel in our time, we may only suffer virtual flogging, and it may not make us glad, but as Christians we are called to act on behalf of that very same faith and obedience to God.
There is the flag, but then there is the cross. Sometimes we can support them both. But sometimes we have to choose. When our country holds fast to the best of our national ideals, we can be both patriots and followers of Christ. But when our country, especially in the tweets and deeds of the leaders we elect, continually flouts the spiritual principles we say we hold close to our hearts, we must speak. We must protest. We must profess our faith, even when we would rather keep our peace, or we are merely fair-weather faithful.
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21), Jesus teaches us, a seemingly simple directive. We read this Gospel of Matthew, and we think we get it, separation of church and state and all that. Then real life happens. Then we must ask ourselves: What exactly belongs to God? And the answer: We do. Transcending our nationality or ethnicity or political party, the truth is that we are children of God, tasked with going about the work of God for the good of all. Jesus didn’t say the path of Gospel love and justice would be easy, but he did say he would stick with us all the way to the end. We are blessed to be Americans by circumstance, but our birthright is to follow a higher power.