America First? Reject America? Early Christians Offer a Third Way

This week citizens of the United States are pondering once again what it means to be American. Personally, I am deeply grateful that God permitted me to grow up in this incredibly blessed nation. Some people I know, though, act like they are first Americans and only second Christians. That’s a problem. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I know others who are currently questioning whether they even want to be called Americans.

Early Christians offered a third way.

Let me introduce you to a little gem written by an unnamed (2nd-century A.D.) Christian to an unbeliever named Diognetus that is well worth the three minutes it will take you to read it.  This early Christian evangelist models an alternative to uncritical nationalism, on the one hand, and rejectionism, on the other. In his first chapter, this author refers to Christians as “a new race or way of life.” Christians belong to nations—but they don’t, he says. Christians are similar in some ways, and different in other ways from their neighbors. What does it look like to be part of this new citizenship? I’ll let the evangelist explain it in his own words.

To Diognetus, Chapter 5

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of humanity by country or language or custom. 

They do not live in cities of their own; they do not speak a strange dialect; they do not practice an odd way of life. 

This teaching of theirs has not been discovered through the thinking and reflection of inquisitive people, nor do they promote any human doctrine like some people do.  

Although they live in Greek and non-Greek cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow local customs in dress and diet and the rest of daily life, they also exhibit the remarkable and admittedly peculiar nature of their own citizenship. 

They live in their own countries, but still as foreigners. 

They participate as citizens in everything, but endure everything as strangers. 

Every foreign land is their home country, and every home country is a foreign land. 

They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not do not throw away their offspring. 

They share their food table, but not their marriage bed. 

They happen to be in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. 

They spend time on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

They obey the laws that have been laid down, yet in their personal lives they surmount the law.

They love everyone, but are persecuted by everyone.

They are unknown, but get condemned.

They are killed, yet they live.

They are poor, but make many rich.

They are needy in everything, yet in everything they have a surplus.

They are dishonored, yet in their dishonor they receive honor.

They are slandered, but they are justified.

They are cursed, but they bless.

They are insulted, but they show respect.

Though they do good, they get punished as evildoers.

Though they are punished, they rejoice as though being brought to life.

They are attacked as foreigners by Jews, and they are persecuted by Greeks, yet those who hate them have no cause for their antagonism.[1]

Though Christians belong to various ethnicities and nationalities, this early Christian author insists that we are not distinguished by our customs. Though each of us participates as citizens in our respective nations, we Christians should view ourselves as foreigners in a foreign land.

This is the third way of early Christianity. Christians should not raise their various nationalities above their new lives in Christ, nor should they reject whatever nation into which God has placed them. Followers of Jesus should recognize first and foremost—above every other commitment—that they are to be distinguished as Christians.

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[1] The translation from Greek is mine. For more about this wonderful little letter, see chapter 10 in my recent book, The Apostolic Fathers: A Narrative Introduction.

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