In my mere six decades or so upon the earth I have seen many strange “icons”. I have found icons of Thomas Merton, of J.R.R. Tolkien, and of Dorothy Day. I have found icons of the Theotokos in which the Mother of God and her Son were dressed as Apaches. I have found a “Trinity” icon, presenting the Three as three women, encircled by a serpent. And as you can see, I have found the Theotokos and her Son wrapped in symbols of the Canadian flag, with her customary stars consisting of clusters of four Canadian maple leaves, with the hems of her garment draped in maple leaves, and with Christ wearing a robe adorned with maples leaves. As a proud Canadian, you might think I would rejoice to see Christ and His Mother essentially wrapped in my country’s flag. In fact I do not.
No doubt the iconographer producing this image had good intentions, and presumably intended to portray the Theotokos and her Son as the salvation of Canada. But that is just the problem. Christ and His Mother are not just the salvation of Canada, but the salvation of every nation. The Mother of God is not the Joy of Canada, but the Joy of All who Sorrow, whether the sorrowful live in Canada, America, Russia or the Middle East, and claiming her as Canada’s own can pay very poor political dividends when Canada has a quarrel with other nations. Nonetheless the tradition of claiming God as the special possession or patron of one’s own nation has a very long history. One thinks of the English going to war against the French invoking the aid of God and St. George. One thinks of Germany going to war against England, inscribing “Gott mit uns” on their soldiers’ helmets. This temptation to monopolize the Most High is rooted in the confusion between patriotism and nationalism.
Patriotism is good, and may be defined as love of one’s home. A healthy patriotism is positive, not comparative; it loves one’s familiar home simply because it is one’s home, and does not instinctively pick a quarrel against anyone else and their home. For example, I love Canada simply because it is my home, and I love hockey because it is our national sport which I played when I was young. I expect that Americans to the south of me would love America just as much because it is their home, and baseball because it is their national sport. I do not compare the two and assert that Canada is better than America, or that hockey is better than baseball. Each person loves their own country better than they love other countries because that is the place they call home, a place of comfort and familiarity, and they prefer their own national sports, foods, clothing, and entertainments for the same reason. Patriotism is good.
Sometimes, however, patriotism can morph into nationalism. Nationalism may be defined as the conviction that one’s own country is not only good, but actually better than all other countries. Nationalism is comparative in its essence—that is, it is imperialistic. A nationalist will not only say that he loves his country because it is his home, but because it is in fact superior to all other countries, and if those living in other countries had his sense, they would prefer his country to their own too. In this frame of mind, God sides with his country because God has the sense to discern its superiority. For the English nationalist, for example, God and St. George side with England because England is much better than every other place; for the German nationalist, Gott is “mit uns” because He shares the German nationalist’s insistence on German superiority. And as said above, when nations quarrel, these convictions pay very poor dividends.
The main problem though is not simply with the poor political dividends, but the theological ones. According to our Orthodox theology, the central focus of the Christian must be eschatological. That is, the Christian is one who confesses that he is a stranger and an exile on the earth (1 Pt. 1:17, 2:11), who declares that “Here we have no continuing city” (Heb. 13:14). Once we belonged to this earth with her multitude of tribes and tongues, but in baptism Christ chose us out of the world, so that we are now in the world, but not of it (Jn. 15:19). Patriotism is compatible with this eschatological orientation; we can deeply love our country even while confessing that our fundamental citizenship is in the Kingdom (Phil. 3:20). One can be both a true patriot and a true Christian. But the nationalism I have been describing is not as compatible with it, for it defines our citizenship and primary loyalty to be in our earthly country, not our heavenly one. The nationalist will think that if the Theotokos is wrapped in the flag of his country, she must therefore side with it when it quarrels with another country. If, for example, we wrap her in the American flag, she must support American foreign policy; if we wrap her in the Canadian flag, she clearly supports Canada. That is why we must refuse to wrap her in the flag of any country, for she loves and prays for all countries with the love of her Son, shining upon the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45). God may perhaps indeed side with one country over another when nations quarrel, but humility will confess that we are inadequate judges of such things. The temptations to pride and blindness are too great and terrible; it is better to do our humble best down here and not presume to speak on God’s behalf.
Patriotism is good. But its days are numbered, for patriotism is rooted in our earthly existence, and earth’s days are numbered. Eventually Christ will return and “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire and the earth and the work that are upon will be burned up” (2 Pt. 3:10). That will be the end of patriotism. But not the end of joy—the good things we have known and loved in our countries, these good things will abide, transfigured and made eternal in the new heavens and the new earth. That joy and those good things—earthly things such as love, friendship, kindness, loyalty—these things will not pass away. Meanwhile as we wait for that day, let us thank God for the good things He gives us now and look to Him for help in our sorrows. The Mother of God is the joy of all the earth. She loves everyone here in this life, and leads us to our true home in heaven.