Patriotism amid shame

Posted: Apr 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Patriots Day -- the 230th anniversary of the "shot heard 'round the world" -- is coming up next week, and after the Schiavo tragedy, some Christians and Jews are not thinking particularly patriotic thoughts. "I'm so ashamed of our country," one reader wrote.

 We should be ashamed. We should pray and work so that Terri Schiavo's death is not in vain. But we shouldn't be surprised when bad things happen, and we shouldn't think of the United States as a holy land suddenly blemished. America is not the new Israel, and it never was.

 Some ungodly philosophies have gained greater traction recently, but they've been here since colonial days, and it's not the Christian or Jewish task to ban them in the way that ancient Israel (according to chapter 18 of Deuteronomy) was to banish fortune-tellers, omen-interpreters and sorcerers.

 Lest we feel totally downcast and God-abandoned, we should remember that the Old Testament is highly location-specific. The Holy Land was to be holy, as Leviticus proclaimed, "lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean." So important was it to keep the land clean that the policy was zero tolerance: No abominations in Israel. Nothing. Nada. Penalties for disobedience in the land were severe, and God also established many specific practices for that land: familial property was not to be sold, cities of refuge were to be established and so forth.

 What God presented, in short, was an opportunity for Israelites to set up a new version of one kind of Eden: not the Eden at the beginning of Genesis (because sin would still burden man, the earth would still yield its produce reluctantly and earthly life would still end in death), but a semi-Eden, not quite a garden but certainly a land flowing in milk and honey. God chose a particular nation to live in his semi-Eden, provided commandments so they knew what to do day by day, inspired a history so they knew where they came from and promised them that if they obeyed all would go well.

 The holy land was supposed to be spotless, a serious equivalent of Disneyland in which not a single candy wrapper is to stay on the ground for more than a few minutes. The prophets were indignant when, as God had Jeremiah proclaim, "you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination." But Jeremiah has a very different tone when he speaks to Israelites who live not only outside the semi-Eden but in the anti-Eden, Babylonia: Israelites there were to "build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. ... Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, because in its welfare you will find your welfare.'"

 Other parts of the Old Testament also indicate that Israelites outside the borders of Israel had a different political agenda than those inside. The book of Daniel shows how Daniel had to hang out with enchanters, sorcerers and the other wise men of Babylon, the very sorts of people who were banned in Israel. The books of Esther and Nehemiah show how God's people in Persia lived amid evil yet were the most patriotic of subjects: Cupbearer Nehemiah was the last defense against attempts to poison the king, and Mordecai in the book of Esther broke up an assassination plot.

 Importantly, none of the Israelites' public tolerance of differences indicated a failure to keep God's commands in their own households and gatherings -- but some other things were beyond their control. They did the best they could, with God's grace, and when they lost, started preparing for the next time biblical and pagan worldviews would come into conflict. We can patriotically do the same.