© 2020 Robert Osburn
While conducting research for my second book, I was reminded of a pattern discovered by historian Stacey Bieler about Chinese students studying in America between 1850 and 1930: Chinese followers of Christ generally became more committed Chinese patriots. Many self-consciously declared that their dedication to God’s kingdom made them better patriots.
This challenges the traditional narrative that one can only be loyal to either Christ and His kingdom or to one’s country. The Romans could not imagine early Christians as loyal Romans, because the Christians declared that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. Most leaders today would agree with the Romans: It’s one or the other, not both.
But, on this Independence Day celebrating America’s founding, I am more conscious than ever that my Christian faith fuels my loyalty to America and the founding ideals for which we stand. While many fellow citizens demolish statues during iconoclastic frenzies and others insist on racializing our nations in ways that undermine national unity, I want to tell you about my friend the American patriot of Chinese ancestry.
A foreign student in America during the 1970s, he married an American and together parented three children. Till his recent retirement, for 40 years he worked in technical positions with large American firms. An active follower of Christ, what has my attention is his extraordinary American patriotism.
A growing strand of American conservative scholarship questions immigration because one’s national identity, so goes the argument, is conditioned on the embrace of shared institutions, symbols, art, education, culture, language, and history. These authors question the proposition that America is, primarily, a nation of ideals; rather, they suggest, American patriotism is an organic product of lived experience in America. Taken to an extreme, these scholars question how someone who came to America after a quarter century of Chinese life could develop devotion to the American nation.
But, my friend’s robust loyalty to America is undeniable: He celebrates the ideals of freedom of speech and religion, our nation’s independence from Great Britain, our political, economic, and educational systems, our flag, and our popular culture. No one can hold a candle, for example, to his collection of DVDs of American sitcoms and American movies of the 1950s to the 1970s. “Even at my age, I am willing to do whatever I can to preserve what has made this nation great over the last 200 years,” he says. Lest anyone mistake it, he means the USA.
But, here’s the surprise: Even though an undisguised American patriot, he honestly says that “I do not feel fully American, and never have.” What he means, I think, is that, compared to native-born Americans, he cannot feel the full reservoir of American experience and identity, try as he might. This difficult personal reality makes his American patriotism even more heroic.
What propels such patriotism, especially at a time in American history when the demands of multiculturalism insist that one’s racial and ethnic identity must be foregrounded, almost to the point of altogether negating American identity?
Scholar Benedict Anderson, in a famous book, suggested that a nation is an imagined community, that is, a people who understand their political and cultural connection to one another even though they have never met each other. I have always found his idea of nationhood weaker than Adrian Hastings’ proposal in his book The Construction of Nationhood that, drawing from the Bible, nationhood suggests shared geography, symbols, language, worldview, and history. A lack of shared history for his first 25 years may explain my friend’s feeling that he is not fully American.
I suggest that my friend’s healthy patriotism (not some of its bastardized nationalistic alternatives) flows out of a love for God who commands us to also love our neighbors. Let me explain this by developing the concept of “near” and “far” neighbors. I suggest that with our “near neighbors” (those with whom we share, to some degree, geography, culture, language, worldview, and history as a nation) we love when we protect one another and produce goods and services so that one another may flourish. With our “far neighbors” (those with whom, generally, we do not share geography, culture, language, worldview, and history), the command to love means that we offer them our welcome, protection, and the excess of our production so that they, too, may flourish. For those attentive to the Old Testament, you will recognize that my view of the “far neighbor” is influenced by texts like Leviticus 19:10 and 33-34.
For those of us who follow Christ as native-born Americans, let us, at this time when many from within seek to attack our heritage and ideals, learn from the example of my godly friend of Chinese ancestry who proudly, joyfully, and happily calls himself a patriotic American.