Memorial Day was a couple weeks ago and it seems that every national holiday leads me through a series of the same thoughts. On one hand, I think Christians are too nationalistic, even too patriotic. Why do we celebrate national holidays such as Memorial Day, remembering soldiers who gave their lives, but rarely celebrate Christian martyrs? Why do we celebrate the founding of our country on the 4th of July but ignore the founding of the church at Pentecost?
On the other hand, I believe it is okay to be patriotic, to be proud of your heritage and nation. Of course, this pride ought not whitewash any faults your nation has, when it does it becomes a blind nationalism. But I enjoy parades on Memorial and Independence days and think soldiers who sacrifice their lives, whether dying in combat or spending years away from home, are worthy of honor.
Then I begin to go in circles. Because on the third hand it seems many Christians struggle to differentiate America from God’s kingdom. So many evangelicals (more than any other group) support torturing alleged terrorists in order to keep us safe (as if Jesus ever seemed too concerned with his disciples safety). And we sing patriotic songs in church or pray God bless America, while the idea of God blessing other countries or Christians in those countries being patriotic seems unheard of, to us.
This was all reinforced to me as I was recently reading the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom. Polycarp was a disciple of John, the disciple of Jesus. How cool is that! He learned from the guy who learned from Jesus and wrote part of the Bible! Polycarp served as a church leader for a long time. We have one writing by him, a letter to the church in Philippi. We also have a report of his execution in 155 AD. He was arrested and brought before the judges who would try his case:
And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? ” – Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 41). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
Polycarp, like multitudes of others over the centuries, gave his life in service of Jesus Christ. More Christians today should know the stories of such great Christians from the past.
Again, I am not saying we ought not honor soldiers who give their lives. But we should do so in such a way as to remember those who sacrificed for an even greater cause. Soldiers who give their lives, whether in death or service far from their families, offer a great sacrifice. And all sacrifices point to the greatest sacrifice. But those Christians who went out and preached the gospel of Jesus and died without fighting back, just as Jesus did, are worthy of even greater adulation.
To put it another way, soldiers fight and die for nations that will not last forever. Christian martyrs preach and die for the kingdom that will last forever. Both can receive honor, but it seems the honor given right now is a bit out of whack.
On top of that, when Christians were persecuted in the early church it was often for not being patriotic enough. The image of Roman patrols constantly hunting for Christians is a bit of a parody of what really happened. Sure, eventually it was illegal to be a Christian and there were periods of mass persecution. But most persecution was local and motivated by the populace, often during patriotic festivals. All the people would be celebrating some Roman holiday, notice the Christians were not taking part (after all, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not), get upset and attack the Christians.
Along with telling the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom, the writer sums up the great example of the martyrs:
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?—who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them.
But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour.
For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.
And, in like manner, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful tortures, being stretched out upon beds full of spikes, and subjected to various other kinds of torments, in order that, if it were possible, the tyrant might, by their lingering tortures, lead them to a denial [of Christ]. – Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 39). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
This leaves me with some questions:
Which kingdom has my greatest allegiance, one that will fade or one that will last forever?
How do I balance my commitment to God’s kingdom with my pride in my American heritage?
Being a Christian in America, at least an evangelical, often goes hand in hand with a lot of pride in country; what would it look like for being a Christian to equal being critical of our country? Instead of being the first to trump the good of America, what if we were the first to point out the faults that America, like all empires, has?
What would it look like for a church to celebrate the past of the church and not just the nation that church is in?