On Being a Patriot, Not a Nationalist


My parents first came to Canada during their time of training for overseas ministry. My mom came from Germany and my dad from the Philippines. Four out of their five children (myself included) were born in Canada, where we have all lived for most of our lives. This is the case for most of Canada today, as roughly 96% of Canadians come from immigrant families.

Although my parents are both immigrants and life was often quite difficult, my brothers and I have enjoyed the many privileges that go along with being born in Canada. This truly is a land of opportunity and I have so much to be thankful for as a citizen of this country.

In two days, Canada will be celebrating its 151st birthday. Canada Day is always a special, albeit conflicting, day for me. On one hand, I love my country and want to celebrate the good I have experienced as a citizen. On the other hand, I know that not everyone’s history has been positive, which leads some to wonder if we really should celebrate. I see two reasons why the church (specifically the Mennonite church) has been cautious to engage in Canada Day.

The first is the mixed view of Canadian history. There’s a certain belief out there that everyone can achieve success in Canada. Usually it’s the wealthy or the privileged who say this of the poor. “If only they worked like we did, they could be where we are.” There is some truth to that, but it’s a generalization that simply isn’t true for everyone in Canada. If you grow up in poverty, you simply don’t have access to the same kinds of resources and opportunities others have. That’s not to say that people living in poverty can’t come out of it, but we don’t all start at the same place.

But even more striking, our history shows that some of us have been purposefully hindered in our attempts to advance. Our history, like so many countries, is marred with racism, colonization, and violence. There are certainly people in Canada today who still experience this marginalization because of their country of origin, race, faith, gender, or sexual orientation.

The second reason we have difficulty with Canada Day is the biblical call to follow Jesus and to give our allegiance to God. For the early church, this was not even a question. In a time when the Roman emperor was believed to be divine, emperor worship was common practice, even required. To follow Jesus was to switch allegiance from the the kingdom of the emperor to the kingdom of God. The early church excluded themselves from positions of power and violence, refusing to serve the emperor, even to the point of death.

As times changed, so did the Christian attitude toward the state. After emperor Constantine, being a citizen of the state and a Christian were one in the same in the western world. This continued as state churches became intrinsically tied to the state, even through the Protestant reformation. Anabaptists, who went against conventional Christianity and re-baptized themselves and refused to baptize their infants, were considered traitors to the state and potential terrorists.

Historic peace churches have always maintained a commitment to following their interpretation of scripture rather than serving the state, especially when it comes to going to war. For Mennonites, this has included fleeing from nation to nation in search of a government that would allow them to practice conscientious objection instead of mandating military service. It’s a history that’s included persecution, arrest, and civil disobedience in the face of tyranny and oppression. 

That doesn’t mean that Christians are bad citizens. In fact, most of the social infrastructure in Canada stems from churches and Christian organizations. Christians have historically sought the best for their countries. However, they have also neglected the teachings of Jesus whenever they became too intertwined with the state.

So what are we left to do on a day like Canada Day? Do we celebrate with the rest of the country or avoid the holiday altogether? Here are two things I would encourage the church to do:

1) Let’s become more comfortable with patriotism. 

Being patriotic is about being proud of our country, and let’s be honest, we have a lot to be proud of. We enjoy relative peace, opportunities to work, great education, the freedom to vote, and can fulfill almost every need or want imaginable. We are a land of many races, cultures, and faiths, striving for equality and the betterment of society. We can enjoy marvellous nature and live in vibrant cities.

Compared to many other countries around the world, we have so much to be proud of, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Of course not everything is perfect, and we have come to realize that our privileges came at the cost of other people. But we can recognize and change the bad while at the same time celebrating our gifts.

But as the church, let’s position that pride in terms of thanksgiving and worship to God. As much as we may think we are responsible for the good things in life, may we never forget to be grateful to the giver of life. Let’s be patriotic by thanking God for this beautiful land in which we can live, work, and raise our families.

2) Let’s become less comfortable with nationalism.

Although difficult to define and differentiate, we can see nationalism in extreme cases of patriotism that push us to believe that our country is superior to other countries or people. As soon as we start to think that we follow different rules, are more valuable, or deserve something over and above other countries, we have become nationalistic. 

The dangers of nationalism are obvious - we only need to look to Nazi Germany to see its full embodiment. But many other countries are not far off from this kind of mentality, where they start to believe that God is on their side or that their government or military are divinely appointed. When we believe that we can never be wrong and that our role is to fight for the state, no questions asked, we have embraced nationalism.

The Bible gives Christians an eschatological perspective of the world, wherein we are reminded that a state is just a temporary, human-made institution. Borders are just human-drawn lines for which we have fought and died. But all of these are secondary and minuscule to the kingdom of God that is being built on this earth. It’s this kingdom that we are invited to become citizens of and to live in, even though we have not yet seen it in full.

Canada has only been around for 151 years. In comparison to the Earth, that’s tiny. The Christian understanding of this world is that a day will come when Canada, as a nation, will no longer exist. And so, while we are in the land, let’s work our hardest to make it the best country it can be. Let’s work for justice and peace, caring for the marginalized and oppressed. And along the way, let’s celebrate the good. That’s what it means to be patriotic.

As we sing our anthem and wave our flag, may we never forget that we anticipate the coming of the kingdom of God in full. There are no barriers in that kingdom, but all people, of all nations and tribes are welcomed in as brothers and sisters in Christ. There will be a time with no more war, fighting, sorrow, or pain. God will make all things new. Even on Canada Day, that’s what we as Christians really have to celebrate. That’s what we really look forward to.