Many of us grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance. At school each morning, we’d stand with the rest of our class, put our hands over our hearts and recite the famous words in unison. Some of us still do it today when we go see our favorite sports team play or at other public events.
Out of respect for this country and those who have died for my freedom, I want to be quick to honor their lives and the country for which they died. But if we think about the implications of pledging our allegiance to a country, we are forced to answer a pivotal question: Is our allegiance ultimately to the kingdom of America or the kingdom of God? It’s a question most of us probably haven’t considered because for far too long we’ve viewed our country as Zion—a sort of Promised Land—instead of Babylon—a temporal city, missing out on the bigger, better, more beautiful vision of the gospel and the kingdom that we find in Scripture.
Elect Exiles in the Already but Not Yet
We should not ignore America’s horrific history, namely the darkness of racial and ethnic injustice, but she is still a country founded upon many Christians ideas and values. The disparity of this history, though, has caused great confusion for the Church. Given the influence of Christianity on the nation, many believers have come to think of America as God’s chosen people or God’s land—even with her track record. But when we look to the Scriptures, we should see this is simply not true.
Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God in His life, death and resurrection, and though God’s people are to be a picture and a taste of the heavenly kingdom on this earthly kingdom, God’s kingdom has not been fully and finally established and won’t be until the return of Christ. And, even then, God’s kingdom isn’t simply American or western or white. His kingdom is comprised of people from all tribes, tongues and nations.
The Bible emphasizes this “already but not yet” tension over and over. It is shown in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). It’s also throughout the New Testament when Christians are referred to as aliens and sojourners, including 1 Peter, which names God’s people “elect exiles.” While God dwells with His people now by power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we are still waiting for the kingdom to be consummated. Until then, we live as strangers in a foreign land.
Despite the ways we’ve seen God move and act in this country and though we’re certainly called to honor and obey the laws of the land (Matt. 22:21), America is not our home. It is not a type of Zion or Jerusalem, “the Promised Land,” but actually a type of Babylon, where some of God’s people have been scattered in this allotted time (Acts 17:26). In many ways, it is a blessing to live in this country, but we’re still living in exile. We’re still “east of Eden.”
Kingdom Life in This Life
When we come to terms with our status as exiles living in a type of Babylon, it doesn’t mean we have to be unpatriotic or bitter toward the United States. It simply means we are no longer blind to the problems and limitations of being only citizens of America—where love and allegiance is to an earthly kingdom. Instead we begin to see ourselves primarily as citizens of a heavenly kingdom. Seeing this way can transform the way we live “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:16) because now we view America—its practices, its artifacts, its institutions—in a different light.
We will begin to view America as foreigners who are not yet home instead of as locals, blind to our faults. We will begin to follow Peter’s encouragement “as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” and to “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11-12).
As we see ourselves as exiles and embrace our kingdom citizenship over our American citizenship, it presses us where we’ve wrongly put our hope into the narrative of the American Dream. Ideas like consumerism, romanticism and progressivism are seen through different, more critical lenses. And so seeing differently, we are pushed to live more faithfully in the narrative of Scripture. It also confronts the way we engage with politics and policies that stand in contrast to God’s kingdom because we begin to value what God values instead of what our American rights tell us we can have and be.
Jesus says that no man can serve two masters; we can’t ultimately love God and love something else. Loving God primarily requires all of us, our complete submission. This is why the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, was so radical and controversial when Jesus came preaching and living it. The kingdom not only pushed back on an allegiance to the Roman Empire but also to any other kingdom that would threaten to rule and reign over our hearts and lives.
While we can be patriotic and grateful to live in this country, our ultimate allegiance can only be to one kingdom, not two. Seeing America as Babylon, instead of Zion, helps us do just that, as we are delivered from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.