I am a native Lebanese citizen. I was born and raised in Lebanon. I love Lebanon, despite the insecurity, uncertainty, and corruption that characterize the country, and despite having grown up during the civil war. Lebanon has left its mark on me. Even the years of the war have contributed to shaping me into the person that I am today. I love Lebanon with the good and the bad. Consequently, I care a lot about the welfare of Lebanon. But what does this mean for me as a follower of Jesus? Should I care more about the welfare of Lebanon at the expense of other neighboring countries? Should I care about the holders of Lebanese citizenship more than I care about the displaced in Lebanon such as Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, and the stateless?
I am also a naturalized Canadian citizen. I immigrated to Canada at the age of thirty, towards the end of the civil war in Lebanon. I love Canada. Canada opened up all kinds of opportunities for me, whether educational, professional, social, or in ministry. Canada became home for me and my wife for more than fifteen years until we moved back to Lebanon, and we still consider Canada as our second home. So, I love Canada, and I care a lot about its welfare. But what does that mean for me as a follower of Jesus? Should I care about the economic welfare of Canadians more than that of Americans and Mexicans when it comes to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) negotiations, for instance? Does this mean that I should care about the welfare of Canadian citizens more than that of others?
After years of globalization, growing political and economic alliances and unions, and increasing convergence of worldviews and cultures, the West is now experiencing an opposite trend. Protectionism and nationalism are taking over. Patriotism, defined as the love of one’s country, can be a good thing. Nationalism, on the other hand, takes this love to an extreme when it is understood as the love of one’s country at the expense of other nations. Protectionism is even harsher when it is defined as shielding one’s country from others, whether politically, economically, socially, or otherwise.
It is a different story in the Middle East, almost the opposite. I classify it as anti-nationalism, in a negative sense. People in the Middle East tend to be suspicious of authority and lack trust in governments. With a high level of corruption, and with questionable loyalties and allegiances among leaders and government officials, all trust in government agencies and political leadership has disappeared. Years of this sentiment produced a loss of any sense of common good. People have become very individualistic and opportunistic, seeking their own self-interest. This attitude has fueled corruption even more. It has become a vicious cycle.
As a result, the default stance for many is to seek to immigrate to Western countries. This especially applies to young educated professionals who are looking for a prosperous economic future and security and safety for their families. The constant political tension and instability in the region encourage this even further. In addition, the longstanding religious tension gives one more reason for Christian families to emigrate to escape the uncertain future within a Muslim-majority context.
So, as a Lebanese-Canadian, and as a follower of Jesus, how should I think about citizenship? Where should my loyalties lie and what should my obligations be to the country of my birth and the country that has welcomed me? What does the Bible have to say about this?
Interestingly, the word translated “citizenship” appears only once in the Bible, in Philippians 3:20-21:
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (NIV)
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, which was a Roman colony. The citizens of Philippi had all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of Roman citizens, and they were expected to live and promote the culture, customs and laws of the Roman Empire. Moreover, Jews and Jewish Christians in Philippi enjoyed some sort of self-rule within the Roman Empire. They were allowed to bring their own culture, customs, and laws from Jewish Palestine. Against this backdrop, Paul was affirming that they, the people of God, were marked by a different kind of citizenship. They are a colony from heaven, expected to live and promote the culture, customs, and laws of heaven. Paul painted a stark juxtaposition for them between earthly and heavenly citizenship.
In the Old Testament, Abraham and others viewed themselves as strangers, sojourners, even in the Promised Land. In the New Testament, this view is affirmed by Peter (1 Peter 1) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:8-16). In all, the Bible is directing our eyes heavenward. At the center of that are the teachings of Jesus on the Kingdom, which reveal a strong heavenly orientation.
In reality, nations and governments do exist, and they govern according to a variety of value systems. The Bible teaches about submitting to governmental authority. This is an important topic, even though there is not enough space here to discuss the parameters of this submission. Suffice it to say here that I believe that God instituted government for the good of all people. The question is, despite whether the governments of today are being good stewards of their derived authority or not, how do we act as followers of Jesus? Is there a role for the Church in shaping our understanding and practice of good citizenship?
I believe that one of the important roles of the Church is to influence the value system that people and governments live by. We have the task of bringing this heavenward worldview to the consciousness of our societies. The Church should have a distinct voice, a biblical voice, with a Kingdom orientation. We have the role of living and promoting the culture, customs, and laws of our heavenly citizenship. A lot more teaching and preaching should focus on that.
I believe that, instead of viewing people through the lens of citizenship and nationhood, we should view them through the lens of Abrahams’ mission:
“And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 NIV).
After all, if we belong to Christ then we are Abraham’s seed (Galatians 3:29).
I believe that, instead of evaluating people by their value to “our” society, we should learn from Jesus to nurture communities that can contribute towards the well-being of the most vulnerable and marginalized, regardless of which passport they hold.
I believe that the Church should seriously take on the role of civic education, equipping the people of God to become actively involved in shaping their governance rather than passively accepting what is delivered to them by untrustworthy value systems.
I believe that the Church should initiate these conversations, not be dragged into them. The Church loses when it defines itself by what it is against rather than by what it is for.