Where is your Citizenship?

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Philippians 3:17—4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20.

The word translated as “citizenship” in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is “politeuma,” from which we derive our word “politics.”It is better rendered “commonwealth” as the old RSV has it. As such, it refers to a body politic, a people governed by common laws, foundational beliefs and way of life. Citizenship, then, is membership and participation in a commonwealth. In the New Testament, citizenship is often used to describe a person’s status within the Roman Empire. Roman citizenship conferred certain rights and privileges unavailable to the vast majority of Roman subjects during the First Century. Among these were the right to trial before punishment of any kind, immunity from torture and the right to appeal from arrest or conviction to the imperial court. Cadbury, H.J., The Beginnings of Christianity (Volume 5, 1933) pp. 297-338; Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship (1939) cited in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 1 (c. 1962 by Abington Press).

Of course, the flip side of citizenship’s privileges are the obligations that come with it. Chief among these is loyalty to the sovereign and recognition of the rights of the commonwealth, be it an empire, nation or state. Though empires, monarchies and nation states have taken numerous forms over the centuries and have operated under diverse polities, there are some constants. The sovereign has the right to make and enforce laws obligatory for its citizens. It has the right to extract revenue to finance itself. Most importantly, the sovereign has the right to take human life both as a punishment for offenses among its own and as defense against hostility from foreign hostiles. As to the latter purpose, the sovereign has the power to conscript its citizens as soldiers authorized, or rather required to kill in order to protect the sovereign’s interests.

It is in stark contrast to this notion of citizenship that Paul describes the “commonwealth” to which Jesus’ disciples belong. This commonwealth is more than just the church. It is the coming reign of God, the “end” when God is “all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28. God’s reign, though yet to come in its fullness, has broken into our present existence compelling a radically different way of life. Under the reign of Jesus, a disciple might be called to die for the commonwealth of God, but never to kill for it. The only defensive weapons disciples possess are righteousness, peace and faith. The only offensive weapon in their quiver is the Word. Ephesians 6:13-17. The only response given to enemy attack is love, forgiveness, blessing and prayer. Luke 6:27-28. Loyalty to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims appears “foolish” and “weak” to a world in thrall to power, violence and wealth; a world in which it is taken for granted that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I Corinthians 1:26-31. But it is the way that will be shown to have been the direction, goal and end toward which God has been drawing creation from the beginning. Then the worthlessness, futility and folly of all misdirected loyalties will be exposed.

Too often, I think, we allow the issues of the day to be framed in terms of the vested interests of nation states, commercial entities and political associations. There has been much consternation these last few weeks over what should be done about Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. What kind of support and how much support should be given to Ukraine? What steps should NATO take to halt Russian aggression? What sanctions should be employed and against whom? I am not convinced that, as disciples of Jesus, we can shed much light on these questions-nor should we. Disciples of Jesus ought not to be thinking about global conflicts from the perspective of the nation states that purport to dominate our world, but from their own perspective as members of the commonwealth of God’s reign.

That brings me front and center to the question haunting me and that nobody else seems to be asking, namely, how is it that we have Orthodox Russian Christians and Orthodox Ukrainian Christians taking up arms against each other? How is it that the waters of baptism uniting all believers as one body are so easily cast aside for the sake of blood, soil and nation? That question, which, in turn, calls into question the faith, proclamation and witness of the church, is more fundamental in my view than the relative claims of the nation states currently waging this murderous conflict.

To be sure, the church in Eastern Europe is not the only one to whom this question must be directed. After all, the last two world wars were waged by the predominantly protestant and Catholic nations of Western Europe along with the United States. These examples illustrate, as does the present conflict between Ukraine and Russia, that for too many identifying as Christian, national citizenship is far more significant and formative than the baptismal community of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we confess. I wish I could tell you how many parents I have met who would proudly send their sons to kill or die for their country yet who will not pull them out of basketball practice for confirmation class. Once again, blood, soil and nation trump loyalty to God’s reign-even among those who identify as disciples of Jesus.

Nationalism is perhaps the most destructive form of idolatry in our age. Contrary to Paul’s call for loyalty to the commonwealth under God’s peaceful reign whose salvation is from God and whose call is to reconciliation, we have pledged our loyalty to principalities and powers calling upon us to kill and to die to preserve borders, uphold privilege and advance state interests at the expense of outsiders. We should know better. We have seen the dead ends to which these gods have propelled us in the past throughout two world wars to a terrifying thermonuclear stalemate. Now they draw us to the precipice of an unwinnable third world war between nations equipped with all manner of weapons of mass destruction. Terrifying as this is, it should not surprise us. The security promised under the umbrella of national belonging, like the promises of all false gods, turns out to be a mirage. The blood sacrifices demanded by false gods never buy anything that is real.

So the question I would pose for our Lenten reflections is this: What should citizens of God’s commonwealth in Jesus Christ be saying and doing in a world dominated by armed nation states demanding bloodletting and shaking their thermonuclear swords? How do “we, though many throughout the earth…” who are yet “one body in this one Lord” live and witness faithfully in a nation that proudly and defiantly screams “America First?”[1] What price are we prepared to pay for being one with fellow disciples living within nations deemed “enemies”?

Here is a poem by Karl Shapiro suggesting what a disciple’s witness might look like in a world of war.

The Conscientious Objector  

The gates clanged and they walked you into jail

More tense than felons but relieved to find

The hostile world shut out, the flags that dripped

From every mother’s windowpane, obscene

The bloodlust sweating from the public heart,

The dog authority slavering at your throat.

A sense of quiet, of pulling down the blind

Possessed you. Punishment you felt was clean.

The decks, the catwalks, and the narrow light

Composed a ship. This was a mutinous crew

Troubling the captains for plain decencies,

A Mayflower brim with pilgrims headed out

To establish new theocracies to west,

A Noah’s ark coasting the topmost seas

Ten miles above the sodomites and fish.

These inmates loved the only living doves.

Like all men hunted from the world you made

A good community, voyaging the storm

To no safe Plymouth or green Ararat;

Trouble or calm, the men with Bibles prayed,

The gaunt politicals construed our hate.

The opposite of all armies, you were best

Opposing uniformity and yourselves;

Prison and personality were your fate.

You suffered not so physically but knew

Maltreatment, hunger, ennui of the mind.

Well might the soldier kissing the hot beach

Erupting in his face damn all your kind.

Yet you who saved neither yourselves nor us

Are equally with those who shed the blood

The heroes of our cause. Your conscience is

What we come back to in the armistice.

Source: Shapiro, Karl, Selected Poems (C. by Estate of Karl Shapiro; pub. by New York: Library of America, 2003). Karl Jay Shapiro (1913-2000) was an American poet and critic. His poems range from passionate love lyrics to social satire. Educated at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, Shapiro first won critical acclaim in 1942 with the publication of his poetry collection, Person, Place and Thing. Three years later, his collection V-Letter and Other Poems, based on his experiences during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Shapiro also wrote several works of literary criticism. He was a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, an editor of Poetry magazine and taught at the universities of Nebraska, Illinois, and California. You can read more about Karl Jay Shapiro and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website and Britannica.


[1] “One Bread, One Body,” Text and music by John Foley; printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and published by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn #496.

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