Growing up I was taught to value the greatness and splendor that is The United States of America. For a variety of reasons, The United States was the greatest and best country ever in the whole world and anybody who disagrees was suspect of treason (or hellfire and brimstone). Even in church we learned that we are citizens of God’s Kingdom while at the same time were citizens of a really awesome country (even now, we have to admit there are a lot of awesome things about living in the United States). At vacation Bible school we pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible (none of which are actually in the Bible itself!).
For a long time I reconciled dual allegiance by seeing my Kingdom citizenship as superior to my earthly citizenship. So long as my allegiance to my country didn’t dominate my allegiance to King Jesus, it was okay to pledge allegiance to my country. Unless my country asked me to disown or disobey my True King, I was free to be an active or supportive participant in my country’s agenda.
I can understand the appeal to a “dual citizenship,” and in many aspects there is no conflict of interests to claim citizenship to both. Some country on earth claims us as its citizen. So what? For many, renouncing their citizenship is not an option, and sometimes there are many benefits to citizenship in a particular country (I’m sure many world-traveling Canadians are proud they aren’t Americans!). Even the Apostle Paul leveraged his Roman citizenship when necessary to advance the Kingdom of God.
Allegiance, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter altogether. Allegiance is far more involved than merely acknowledging the claimant of our earthly home. Allegiance is announcing by our acting and living day to day in the real world. According to New Testament scholar and historian of the first-century N.T. Wright, living as Christians in the world is not merely living lives where fewer sins are committed than those who don’t claim Christ as Lord. Rather, living Christianly is walking and proclaiming with all we are that Jesus is Lord—and if we are to take seriously the first century context in which the gospels were written, that means that we are implicitly agreeing that Caesar is not Lord! That is, we do not claim allegiance to Caesar but to Jesus the Anointed One.
The trick to understanding our citizenship on earth and citizenship in the Kingdom of God is to be wary of our allegiances to another king. If Jesus, through his life, death, and especially the resurrection, has announced and demonstrated that God’s new world is breaking through into our world, then our allegiance is to anything and everything that displays that in-breaking of God’s reign. Where God reigns, the kingdoms of this world do not.
Somebody once asked me if I care about the United States remaining a nation. I replied, “I don’t really care what we call it or how big it is or how long it lasts. I simply want people to be free!” As a Christian, there’s certainly more to my desire than for people to be just free. My desire is that everyone will discover their place in God’s movement in the world. But that movement can take form in whatever manner God sees fit, from whomever from whatever country in any place on earth.
(The thoughts above were inspired by my reading of Tim Suttle’s last chapter in Public Jesus. In my next article I’ll wrap up my live blog of each chapter in the book, including a discussion on what it means to be politically-involved followers of Jesus.)