By David Gushee
It seems increasingly clear that Christians in America have no viable understanding of what used to be called “Christian citizenship.”
Let’s use these two working definitions to anchor our discussion:
Citizenship is the condition of being vested with the rights, privileges, and duties associated with being a citizen; that is, a member of a political community who owes some sort of allegiance to that community and is in turn entitled to its protection.
Christian citizenship refers to the particular rights, privileges, and duties of Christians in relation to the nations in which they are citizens, and the way these rights and responsibilities cohere with their allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord.
A first observation is that most Americans, simply as Americans, have thought very little about basic questions of citizenship. We may be aware of our rights and privileges in relation to the United States of America and its various levels of government, but tend to think very little about our correlated duties and responsibilities. Probably most of us can barely name any of those duties, other than paying taxes and obeying the law.
Nor do we operate with a broader sense of what kind of allegiance (loyalty, trust, and love) our nation ought to receive from us. Americans can be sentimental about our nation. But — scandalously — at no level in our educational enterprise and in no systematic way do we reflect on the meaning of citizenship. That is, unless we come as immigrants — who, ironically, probably know more, and think more deeply, about the meaning of American citizenship than most of us who are native born.
Understanding citizenship appears to be difficult in our individualistic age. Perhaps, then, it is predictable that understanding the more complex concept of Christian citizenship is even more difficult.
Christian citizenship is a more difficult concept because it requires reflection on how our allegiance to our nation relates to our allegiance to Jesus Christ. Serious Christians (as opposed to nominal ones) have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. For such Christians, commitment to Jesus Christ is primary, and all other loyalties must fall into place around our loyalty to him. This includes loyalty to nation.
I see two primary functional approaches to Christian citizenship among serious Christians today. Just to be provocative, I want to label these as the apostasy option and the abdication option. Neither is adequate.
The apostasy option is my term for Christian citizenship in which loyalty to the nation is primary, but is conflated and confused with loyalty to Christ. This kind of Christian citizen is passionate about America and acts as if everything that advances America’s cause advances Christ’s as well. Where there might be points of tension between our Christian and national allegiances — as in the use of torture or fighting wars of choice — this kind of Christian citizen finds a way to relax the tension so that Jesus the Lord does not in fact challenge any aspect of American national interest. I call this the apostasy option because this kind of idolatrous national henotheism is, indeed, a form of apostasy. I think it is the primary way most well-meaning American Christians do their citizenship.
The abdication option is my term for a surging trend among Christian academics and activists in which loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord leaves no room for allegiance to nation at all. In works by a number of Christian thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne, the abuses caused by the apostasy option loom so large that no surviving vision of Christian citizenship can be identified. In this view, Christians are loyal to Jesus Christ alone. Our polity is the church. Our king — our president — is Jesus. Our allegiances are entirely transnational. Our nation is (all nations are?) irremediably corrupt, filled with violence and injustice. Our role here is as resident aliens. Our social-change strategy is the creation of an alternative Christian counterculture.
These thinkers are trying to help Christians fall out of love with America so that they might fall in love once again with Jesus — and his church. But they get there through the abdication of any understanding of allegiance to the nation. Therefore, they reject Christian citizenship as defined above.
I am much more attracted to the abdication option than the apostasy option that it utterly and rightly rejects. But I think we can do better. I think we must do better. We have historical models — William Wilberforce, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind — who exercised critical and creative Christian citizenship that avoided both apostasy and abdication. We need fresh consideration of what such Christian citizenship might look like in our context.