The Paradox of Patriotism
2 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine, or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’ 3 And this is what the Lord says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’”
4 Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.” Jeremiah 38:2-4 NIV
Dear Church Family,
We’ve finished our study of Jeremiah on Wednesday nights. Towards the end of the book, there is an account of Jeremiah being thrown into a muddy cistern where he would have died had it not been for Ebed-Melek, a non-Jewish Cushite (black African), who intervened to save him.
So, what was Jeremiah’s crime? Well, in general, he was faithful to preach God’s word even when his message was not popular, but we can be more specific than that. I mean, lots of people have proclaimed unpopular messages and not been thrown into a cistern to die. No, Jeremiah’s message was particularly heinous. In a time of war, he encouraged the people of Jerusalem to surrender to the Babylonians. You might even say he was encouraging desertion.
Jeremiah is a rich source for all kinds of reflection, but I find it especially provocative to read Jeremiah as I reflect upon what it means to love one’s country. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting Americans need to start deserting to some foreign government, nor do I think they should have done so in any particular prior wars. Still, there are some challenging insights that arise from three realities in Jeremiah. First, Jeremiah loved his people. Second, the people were utterly sinful. Third, Jeremiah called on them to stop resisting the Babylonians.
The first of these truths, Jeremiah’s love for his people, is probably expressed most poignantly at 8:21-9:2. There, the prophet wished his head were a fountain of tears so he could weep endlessly for his people, who have rebelled against God. This is one of a couple of passages that have earned Jeremiah the title, “the weeping prophet.” His love for his people, juxtaposed with their utter sinfulness, resulted in Jeremiah’s deep emotional crisis (see Jeremiah 20:7-13).
Jeremiah’s love, along with the people’s sinfulness, explains why he called on them to surrender to the Babylonians. This is the “paradox of patriotism”: genuine love for one’s people, whether it is a nation, a church group, or one’s own family, must not be blind love. Because Jeremiah loved a sinful people, he wanted them to accept the judgment of God against them, even if it meant surrendering to the even more-sinful Babylonians. He knew that resisting God’s judgment would only result in greater suffering. As we reflect on the meaning of patriotism in the days ahead, I hope you love our country as I do, but I hope you remember that genuine love is honest love; it does not ignore imperfections. It seeks to address them precisely because it is love.