Teaching Biblical Patriotism as Pastoral Care: God, Country, and Stories of Working Class Pain

June 13th, 2018

Patriotism is an important part of traditional conservatism, a cultural resource for most working-class white Americans. Without question, love of country can be both a motivation for the good and a problem. Love of country can become idolatry. Such patriotism can be an inordinate love that leads to excesses and extremes, to militarism, to an ethos of violence, and to a regimented mindset.

At the same time, love of country can also be valuable. To love this land, to love its people, does not require that it be idolized. Love of country does not have to be nativist. It does not have to be xenophobic or white supremacist. It depends on how wide the reach is of those to whom we belong.

We find rich teaching in biblical narratives regarding the nations of the earth. Before God, nations are as nothing, like dust (Isa 40:15). Nations are not to be idolized but rather resisted in their pretenses of deification (as in Dan 3 where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to resist Nebuchadnezzar’s gold idol). Sometimes nations require the people’s revolt and revolution (as with the enslaved Israelites in Exodus). Other times, nations provoke a need for disobedience and risk of jail because we are called ultimately to obey God and not human authority (as Peter and the apostles modeled in Acts 5:29). Furthermore, the nations of the world will be judged ultimately by how they meet raw human need (as with the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25:31), even as they march in that final eschatological parade (Rev 21). And yet, in the midst of all these teachings, we are called to be subordinate to the ruling authorities (Rom 13), albeit in a biblical context.

So what does a biblical survey of nation status and patriotism have to do with the white working class in America? Patriotism is, if you will, one of the most powerful commitments and narratives of cultural traditionalism in our country. Love of country comes up in conversations and in practices like the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem. It is often a first recourse when considering some question of national significance. And, yes, it can be combined with Christian faith and discipleship in ways that take on a divine status and therefore idolatrous character. So how do we address these powerful values in light of biblical teaching?

First, let it be said that love of one's nation as such is not denounced in scripture. An appropriate love of country is not questioned in scripture; rather, there is an attempt to give understanding to the status of nations and to condemn the ease with which they can become idols. Sometimes the overreach of a governmental authority must be resisted even to the point of revolt. It is the insensitivity of the nations to human hurt and isolation that is to be challenged. So how do we work with these?

The first task of the Christian leader is to bring greater awareness to working people of the full sweep of biblical teaching, so that the nation-state is placed in that far more compelling and realistic scriptural account of the governments and rulers of the world.

Second, working people, like others in this country, need a far better understanding of our nation’s history, both its achievements and its failures, the best of its ideals and its often wicked and unjust misuse of the land, of its nonhuman critters, of its people, and even of its children. I would begin this work with stories about white working people and the labor history of this country.

"Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain" (Abingdon Press, 2018. Order here: https://bit.ly/2Hx03Ca

In preaching and teaching I would lay this contemporary history out—not in a textbook style—but in story formats, more easily remembered so that the graphic violence, the exploitation, the abuse, and the oppression of white working people would become clear. This means giving attention to white indentured servitude early on in the colonies.

Further, I would tell stories of the labor movement itself and of the violence against working people, of the use of “goon squads” by industrial owners, and I would tell stories of today’s working people devastated by industrial closings and the people who suffer in their very concrete, ordinary lives from broad contextual injustices that continue to shatter working-class families.

There are also significant stories of farmers and farmworkers and their efforts to throw off the domination of powerful agricultural businesses and their power elite allies. Stories should at least initially take the side of working-class and rural people and thereby provide new clarity about the oppression and exploitation that have been pervasively present throughout our history. Stories like these sharply call into question the idolatries of America and its immoral complicity in the violations against working people.

Third, I would also tell stories of times when black and white and brown workers formed coalitions and opened the possibilities of real change, only to be confronted with divide and conquer strategies by owners and other power elites to break up such coalitions. The elites knew that working people together could transform unjust privilege, meager wages, and the oppressive circumstances of their lives.

The point here is that to counter the idolatries of our nation among white working-class people, you can’t rely on statistics and analysis but on story and description. These are the structural core of their idiom and the passageway into their barrel of cultural resources.

The case needs to be made that the purpose of the nation is not its own privilege; it is to serve the people. The people do not exist for the sake of the nation; the nation exists for the sake of the people. Further, there is no messianic nation. We are not saved by the nation-state. When I die, I am very clear that the American eagle will not swoop down and take me into eternal life in God.

Someone may say that the Bible is not important for all white working-class people, and I am aware of that, of course. But there are many for whom it is important, and perhaps a further word is necessary about the nature of that importance. The great majority of white working-class people are neither fundamentalists nor dogmatic believers in the inerrant word of scripture. Rather, they have a basic loyalty to the Bible. They are irritated by those whose interpretations seem like attempts to get out from under its teaching. During my work in ministry I have served a total of ten different congregations in which a majority or near majority were working-class urban and/or rural people. Without exception, the great number of that majority had a firm sense of biblical authority but were not fundamentalists. The point is they appreciated and took seriously the biblical witness. Scripture is alive and well for a great many white working-class people.

All of this offers an important teachable moment for white working-class Americans, and, indeed, for all our citizens. Sharing stories of working-class pain and partnerships across racial lines would be a good start for pastors and leaders called to preach, teach, and care.

It is, of course, no substitute for valuing black and brown lives and the ongoing work of advocacy and alliance—but it might be necessary for this kind of coalition-driven justice work to happen at all.

This article is adapted from Tex Sample’s forthcoming book Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain, available from Abingdon Press in September 2018.

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