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Church, Mission, Theology

Negotiating Citizenship

A country always calls its people to be good citizens. This commitment to citizenship trumps all other allegiances.

We see this in American Christians who do not differentiate between being a Christian and American but rather equate being Christian with being American. We fly American flags in our sanctuaries, support our troops, and encourage Christians to support the Constitution and to obey the laws.

The fact that the commitment to one’s nation is the paramount obligation is even more evident in the national discourse on American Muslims. At every turn, Muslims are asked to prove that they are “good” Americans, which they do by affirming the Constitution, their belief in freedom and democracy, their participation in and sacrifice for the military, and their fidelity in paying taxes. But the burden of proving their American-ness is constantly on their shoulders – and the shoulders of other non-White and non-Christian citizens.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, citizenship was even more a privilege than it is in our democratic countries, and just a small portion of the population was citizens. Only males qualified for citizenship. You could not be a slave. Most were land owners. The Greco-Roman society was structured around its citizens, who were the Pater Familias, around whom other family members, servants, slaves and beneficiaries had their livelihoods and status.

Although cities were allowed to have their own civic religions, the emperor demanded utmost allegiance to himself. A good citizen was loyal to the king. Interestingly, one of the purposes of Josephus’s history of the Jews is to demonstrate that Jews are good Roman citizens.

In the early Church, there are also Christian claims to being good citizens. For instance, some speculate that Luke’s description of the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 and 4 depicts the ideal Greek notion of society.

However, most Christians were not citizens but rather, as Peter says, “strangers and aliens.” The early Church spoke about having their citizenship in heaven. Although they were not given citizenship in the kingdoms of this world, early Christians asserted their citizenship in the heavenly city. Today, I often hear interpretations of heavenly citizenship as being one’s passport to heaven. But for the early Church, heavenly citizenship was not so much about one’s eternal destination as it was a different basis for living in the present world. This citizenship shaped one’s convictions and actions. This citizenry was a place of belonging and social identity for the excluded and oppressed, particularly, for women, slaves, and non-property owners.

When the Church is later accepted and authorized by the Roman Empire, the distinction between Roman citizenship and heavenly citizenship is diluted. How did the Church respond? Many of the Church Fathers defended Christians as “good” citizens but still challenged the claims of the empire. Others renounced the privileges of the empire and lived in solitude or in small communities on the fringes of the empire, committing themselves to celibacy, poverty and other ascetic disciplines.

Usually, the ascetic commitments to celibacy, poverty and obedience are viewed as a reaction to the world’s dominant temptations of sex, wealth and power. While this is true, this view usually fails to see the social implications. Patlagean points out that these ascetic commitments redefined citizenship. The ascetic commitments challenged the foundations that shaped traditional identity: marriage, family and property. To be a “good” citizen in this new vision of society meant to choose poverty, celibacy, and ascetic generosity. This meant that relationships were based on freedom rather than power, on chastity and equality rather than progeny and misogyny, and on generosity rather than competition.

When I look at the vision of the early Church for a new society and its citizenry, I am challenged to renegotiate the places in which I commit to country and the places where I must resist its demands. I am challenged to re-evaluate my commitments to the state in light of my ultimate allegiance to my citizenship in heaven.

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About Fragments & Reflections

David Chronic

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