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Confessions of a Recovering Nationalist

Written by Father Robert Lyons : September 2, 2008

Picture it (as Sofia Petrillo might have said on “The Golden Girls”)… Anderson, Indiana. November, 1988. My grandmother and I, then age ten, walk into the club house of our mobile-home park – our voting precinct. We enter into the booth, me with a fake ballot, her with a real one. My choices were George Washington or Abraham Lincoln for president. Her choices were George H. W. Bush or Michael Dukakis. She told me that she didn’t know who to pick, so she wasn’t going to vote. I asked her if she preferred my ballot, so we swapped. I voted for Bush, she voted for Washington.

Moving forward to 1995, I began considering enlisting in the United States Navy. Something nagged at me then, however. I was a patriot to be sure… I had done flag patrol in middle school, joined the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, flew a flag over my house, took the Pledge of Allegiance daily, and listened tirelessly to Rush Limbaugh. No matter, I just couldn’t bring myself to give my life to the Navy. I couldn’t figure out why.

In 2000, I voted again, for what would be the last time. I cast my ballot for George W. Bush. I voted for him on one issue – abortion. That was it. Abortion, and the fear that Al Gore wasn’t enough of a patriot to keep us safe.

Then came September 11, 2001. And everything changed.

Oh, not all at once… on the twelfth I was out front of my office, leading our staff in the Pledge of Allegiance, prayers to God, you name it. Seeing the twin towers fall on national television, seeing the Pentagon attacked, seeing a flight crash into a field on its way to kill still more people, that doesn’t leave you unaffected. For about two or three weeks I was reinvigorated. I considered joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary. I started flying a flag again. I wanted to do something for my country. And then the war in Afghanistan began… and the innocent civilians began to die in the crossfire… and I knew that my life as I knew it was over. Every death was on my conscience, and every bullet was on my heart. I had helped to create the environment that led to the deaths of innocents in a land half a world away.

I began to re-evaluate the convictions that I had, for so very long, believed, about the role of God in national life, and of national life in the Church. While I had studied the Church Fathers in my preparation for ordination, I had pretty much ignored most of that stuff they had to say about the relation between the Church and the State. After all, the Church and State had been cozy for nearly its whole history, right? Only in America did we attempt to divorce the two.

Well, I was wrong. I was wrong out of willful ignorance (or, perhaps, blissful self-deception), and boy did I ever have to repent.

Today, I am still a recovering nationalist. I probably will be for a long time. I get nervous that people are watching me at a sporting event when I either sit or sneak away during the National Anthem. I get concerned sometimes that people will look at me as somehow being a traitor or ungrateful. And yet, I am convinced it is necessary to view the Kingdom of God as a reality now, today, in this world, instead of as limiting our conception of it to a heaven that is light years away.

I still haven’t exactly figured out how to fully manifest my citizenship in the Kingdom of God as it relates to living a life in this world. Perhaps that is a part of the challenge of our faith in the culture of our day. I’m a recovering nationalist. I have traded my flag for a cross, a uniform for a clerical collar, and “The Star Spangled Banner” for “The Church’s One Foundation”. I only pray that God will give me the grace I need to remain a faithful and fearless soldier of his Kingdom, and will show me the path I need to walk to do just and rightful combat for my brothers and sisters who find themselves in the midst of fear and fright.

With God’s help, I know I can persevere.

Author Bio:: Robert Lyons is a Primitive Catholic priest. He has served congregations in Central Indiana, and now serves primarially in health care chaplaincy. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, Kristen.




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Viewing 16 Comments

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    Yup. Me too.
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    Congrats!

    I recall my days of being excited about how much arse the USA would kick in the first Gulf "War."

    I've definitely changed since then.

    I'm going to try to look you up. You can catch me at Indy Menno.
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    I can relate. I remember being up and watching it begin on CNN that night, while either Prime News or Larry King was on. The next day, at school, our science teacher turned it on and we watched live. I remember thinking of how proud I was. I didn't realize that innocent civilians, just like me, were dying that day.

    I still haven't exactly figured out my place in society these days, as I think my words reflect. It's a journey I am still on, and that I probably will be on for a some time to come.

    Good to know that another local is here.

    Rob+
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    This is a brave post. Thanks for that. I am also curious what your positive feelings toward your country continue to be. I am sure you have them, as you seem to allude to them. Can you tell us more about those--even as you hold this tension against many of its actions?
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    I am not so much sure that I have positive feelings left for the United States... I don't hold an identification on a geo-political map to be indicative of the persuasions of those who live in a given geographic area. In part I am still mulling through how to truly live out my convictions concerning being a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and protesting the negative effects of nationalism in the world today.

    Don't get me wrong, I have no issue about the physical locale of my residence, per-se... not much I can do to change that, save move to another country and become a national there. My thoughts about individual people who happen to live in a given area (which are most often positive) aren't the same as my reflection on the realities of secular power in the world.

    Rob+
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    Where my lingering patriotism comes isn't with militant triumphalism any more. It's when I watch Stephen Colbert interviewing an astronaut, and that's a hero to be proud of (the fact the Russians beat us in almost every major milestone of the space race doesn't even factor in). During the Olympic games, it was "our team" or "our swimmer."

    When Obama gave his most patriotic speech, something I haven't heard from any president or politician except in history books, that was certainly rousing the patriotism within me still. But then I temper it when I contrast the "hope" Obama points to in the USA (whatever that is), when our only hope is in the Lord of Hosts.

    Lately I'm finding myself more patriotic for the Kingdom of God though.
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    This is a story similar to mine. I was so wrapped in the ultra-conservative movement I had gone to RWS (John Birch Society) summer camps. We sang along with Rush Limbaugh to "Bomb Bomb Bomb/ Bomb Bomb Iraq" (much like McCain did with Iran).

    It was when I started reading the Bible and taking seriously what it said that I changed. I began questioning where the excuses came from. Jesus said not to make an oath, and James said taking an oath is cause for condemnation, and what we hear from the pulpit (as I heard not a week ago) is the famous word, "but."

    "It doesn't really mean that." This exception comes from somewhere, and it's extrabiblical. It's outside of the tradition of the Church.
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    Good for you and the Lord be with you.
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    I guess it's become the hip and trendy thing to do is to bash the United States. I'd rather live in a country that cherishes freedom, liberty and affords me the opportunity to worship un-inhibited. Do I like everything that our country and government stand for? Certainly not! I get exasperated as the next guy, but I'm not gonna bash away because it makes me look and feel like the cool anti-whatever revolutionary that people within the emergent/missional/New Monastic (or whatever title suits you) find compelling.Remember that scripture calls us to pray for our leaders, as hard as that may be. Maybe I'll go down to the corner Christian church and blame everyone for their part in the Spanish inquisition, the Crusades or suppression of blacks during the sixties. This would be no more fair than blaming every voting Democrat for abortion or every voting Repulican for every "innocent" life lost in war. At this paticular point you can either choose to abandon ship or start bailing water.
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    Does this bashing of America offend you? The U.S. isn't the only country that cherishes freedom, liberty and the opportunity to worship un-inhibited. There are many around the world, but most Americans seem to think that we are the only ones. But I don't think that we should simply save our "bashing" for just the good ole USA. We should be going against every form of authority that is not of the Kingdom. I actually prefer not to "bash". I simply choose to lable the worldly forms of authority as illegitimate and impotent. And how did I come to hold my views? It was not at some emergent/missional/new monastic gathering. I came to hold my views during my 11 years of service in the military of the U.S.. I saw first hand how the U.S. govt. suppresses other nations and people (many of whom are Christians) just so we can have relative "peace" at home and cheap goods to fill the shelves in our stores. That is not the type of behavior condoned by the Kindom that I pledge total alleigence to now.
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    I'm pretty sure that swabbing decks for eleven years doesn't make you an expert on the United States any more than my forty plus years in the church makes me an expert on Christianity. Would it be asking too much to read my entire comment? It appears you were fairly selective of my statements. How do you answer to the damage that the "church" has done? Do you make it a habit of critisizing it? Are you disassociating yourself from it? Or do you just kind of look the other way and act like nothing ever happened? Seems like there are two standards, one we hold others to and one we hold ourselves to. You after all should know better being in the military how many men and women have selflessly died, been wounded or sacrificed their families for your freedom and mine. When is the last time you prayed for your country? God has done many great things through our nation, we are the most charitable people in the world! When is the last time you prayed for the Church? God continues to use His Church in amazing ways to attain his kingdom purposes. Nationalism can be a real hindrance to those purposes, but I still hope and pray that God will continue to use our nation to do many great and mighty things to reach the world. I don't doubt that he CAN and I don't doubt that he WILL.. The last thing we need in a post Christian society is to make a mad dash for the desert in our self righteousness.
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    The problem is, unfortunately, divided loyalties. I cannot pledge allegiance to a nation-state and pledge allegiance to God. It's one or the other.

    The state has proven that it cannot solve the greater problems of poverty, injustice, and violence that are plaguing our planet. Only Jesus can truly bring peace.

    Those of us who choose to stand apart from the state stand in our own local communities, our personal mission grounds if you will, have the chance to be far more effective in these ways.

    I pray for the United States and for the world at large on a daily basis. That being said, I wholly reject the notion that anyone died for my freedom, save for Jesus Christ. I am no more or less free than a Christian in China. Yes, I am more likely to remain unassailed for my faith in the United States than I am in China, or Iran, or elsewhere - but the freedom to practice my faith is given to me by God, not by man. Nobody, save Christ, has died to secure my freedom.

    Has the Church done damage? Definately. But some of us are trying to to change that for the better.

    Rob+
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    I know plenty of people who love their country without pledging allegiance to it. I don't see anything wrong with the blessing of living in such a wonderful country--problems and all. I do understand the dangers in aligning yourself to and trusting in the governments of men, it's a slippery slope at best, but in removing yourself from the culture and dialouge of politics altogether has taken you out of opportunities to effect change and influence.
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    Slider,
    I don't claim (nor did I claim in my post above) to be an expert on anything. I am simply relating how I came to hold the beliefs I do through the experiences I have had. I have seen the effects of our nation's military being unleashed on people much weaker than us. I have seen the effects of America's strong arm economic tactics to ensure that third world nations stay that way in order to continue to provide us with cheap goods. It pains me that behavior is a matter of national policy. As far a criticizing the church, that depends on how you define church. Is it the church as the institution or the church as all Christians united through Christ. You better believe that I hold the church as an institution accountable for its actions. The church as an institution is a worldly institution. The church as all Christians united through Christ is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom of Christ. I pray for both the church and for the U.S. and its leaders. I also pray for North Korea's leaders and for Iran's leaders. I will also pray for Muslims and Hindus. I am well aware that many have been wounded or died in the service of this nation. Many more have been wounded or died in the service of other nations. Some our allies. Some the enemies of this nation. I have seen it with my own eyes and I will not assign a priority to one as being any more important or tragic than another. God certainly has done and will continue to do many great things through this nation. Often, in spite of ourselves. I know that the American people are very charitable and I don't wish to discount that. But I also don't wish to support a national system that seems to work very hard to make sure that there are always plenty of good causes for us to need to be charitable towards. If any of these beliefs of mine make you think that I am self-righteous, I would have to disagree. I am a wretched sinner with much to repent for in my past, present and I'm sure any future that God would be gracious enough bestow upon me. As far as your attempt to personally be-little my 11 years in the military as simply "swabbing decks", I don't believe that I will respond in kind. I will simply say this... Have you have ever answered the phone late at night and had to kiss your family goodbye, not being able to tell them where you are going or when you will be back ( if you come back ) and then get loaded on a plane with your battle gear and weapon to be deposited in a foreign country in a time national crisis as I have? If so, I would expect a little more understanding and respect for my service. If you haven't, well, is that how your 40 years of experience in the church have taught you to treat people?
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    I'm sorry you took offense. I'm used to debating in circles where people have thicker skins and can rip each other a little bit. You're the one who engaged me after I made a comment to the original article. I planned on making a few more points, but I'll stop here.
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    No offense taken. I enjoy a good debate or even argument from time to time. But I think most of the people on this site attempt to limit their conversations to the particular subject at hand and not engage in things that could be considered direct personal attacks. As we only get to type back and forth to each other, it is often difficult to convey sarcasm or other subtle nuances that we could convey with facial expressions or speech patterns when speaking face to face. On top of that, this is a Christian website and most of us try to behave accordingly. I look forward to further debates with you.

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