Posted by: Titus Presler | July 7, 2011

Patriotism and Pakistan, gospel and mission: July 4th reflections

In this octave of the USA’s Independence Day, July 4th, my thoughts turn both broadly to the implications of patriotism and nationalism for mission work and specifically to the implications of my own national citizenship for my mission identity and work in Pakistan.

“The Lord shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off,” declares the prophet Micah in one of the Daily Lectionary readings for Independence Day, “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (in Micah 4.1-5).  I had generally considered this last prediction as putting together two agricultural images into essentially the same peace-making sentiment, but my wife Jane pointed out their distinctives.  Yes, beating swords into plowshares transforms instruments of aggression into instruments of feeding people.  Beating spears into pruning hooks similarly assists the productivity of grapevines and fruit trees, but it also implies pruning one’s own national life instead of that of other nations.

This sentiment puts me in mind of Barack Obama’s declaration, in his recent address on the war in Afghanistan, that the United States needs to turn its attention to nation-building at home.  He appeared not to exclude nation-building abroad but rather to suggest that such  international engagement, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, has eclipsed domestic upbuilding and that the pendulum should now swing homeward. 

The Independence Day lections are distinctly non-nationalistic.  Ecclesiasticus 10 focuses on the qualities of the wise magistrate and king and cautions that “the government of the earth is in the hands of the Lord.”  James 5 counsels patience for the sure coming of the Lord, a prospect that relativizes all temporal entities and authorities.  Such eschatological expectation is especially vivid in Revelation 21’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

For Christians, then, there is no warrant for nationalistic chauvinism.  We recognize temporal government as a necessity of human organization, but investing any particular nation or its government with divine sanction is idolatry.  Every government, form of government and political party is equally subject to the judgment of God.  The criteria of mercy and justice that scripture suggests become our aspiration, such that we yearn that the temporal city will be a foretaste of the holy city of God’s consummated glory.  Yet it is tragic arrogance to equate with the city of God any temporal arrangement’s fulfillment of  some selection of those criteria.

All these perspectives and cautions are especially important for missionaries and mission organizations to bear in mind.  The blatant and erroneous identification some missionaries and organizations have made between their national origins – whether European or North American – and their mission work is too well known to require elaboration.  Yet there are more subtle variations on the theme that call for both vigilance and subtle discernment.  A missionary may be right today in decrying what appears to be a violation of human rights, for instance, but may go about the declamation in ways that suggest the missionary has not listened to the complexities of the local culture and has, instead, assumed that the norms of his/her home culture should be universalized wholesale.

In the currently tense state of Pakistani-USAmerican relations, July 4th is not an observance to which USAmericans in Pakistan want to draw attention, though at the same time it is appropriate for USAmericans to hold their own celebrations.  Both Pakistanis and USAmericans have been startled that as a USAmerican I would take on the ministry of being Principal at Edwardes College at this time in history.

My own perspective is quite otherwise: This is an especially good time to take on such a ministry – not primarily on account of the Pak-US relationship but because of other aspects of the general situation that are related to that link and to the situation nearby in Afghanistan.  As Bishop Humphrey Peters said at the time of my appointment, this is the most difficult period yet in Pakistan’s history since independence in 1947.  It is also the most difficult period yet in the life of Christians in that country as application of the blasphemy laws has aggravated the already legalized discrimination against religious minorities.

In that light, strengthening an institution founded by and sponsored by the church is an important work, regardless of the nationality of the Principal.  A purely ancillary benefit related to my citizenship is that in this inter-religious ministry of higher education I am able to offer a set of commitments different from what people in Pakistan are used to seeing and expecting from USAmericans.  That is the particular resonance of this July 4th for me in relation to ministry in Pakistan.

In my personal history, foregrounding the local independence day and backgrounding the missionaries’ own independence day was characteristic of the USAmerican missionary community in India in the 1950s and 60s.  At Woodstock School in the Himalayas, India’s Independence Day on August 15 was always a school holiday that featured the school  assembled for a flag-raising, the singing of the Indian national anthem, and a short festival of sorts with lakri dances and the like.  July 4th, by contrast, was celebrated privately by missionaries in their denominational groupings with cookouts and fireworks, but with no school-wide observance.  This was partly in consideration of Woodstock’s multinational constituency, which included Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Indians as well as the majority USAmericans, but it was also the corollary of a deliberate initiative to highlight the national day of what was for most of us our adopted homeland.  That was an exemplary missionary practice.

In Zimbabwe, we were startled that the April 18 Heroes Day elicited little celebration among village people in Manicaland, even though independence in 1980 had been achieved just a few years before.  I recall encouraging local folk to organize a celebration, but to little effect.  Perhaps even then they had premonitions of the evil days of political repression and economic collapse that have ensued in Zimbabwe, especially since 2000.  If so, they foresaw more than I did.



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