By Jon Carlson
The ancient Romans never wrote an imperial anthem. Historians generally agree that they didn’t have a national flag, either.
In contrast, our nation’s recent controversies surrounding patriotism, national pride, and racial justice have centered on song and symbol. The star-spangled banner looms large in our national imagination, its stars and stripes and songs seen as sacred. When the supremacy of the flag is challenged, people respond with a fervor that borders on religious.
Although the Romans never embroidered their patriotism onto a cloth or encoded it into music, the empire was nonetheless fiercely, dogmatically patriotic. Patriotic rituals and routines were embedded into the very fabric of society.
Beginning around the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus decreed that every meal, both public and private, must include a drink poured out in his honor. This libation to the “father of the country” ensured that the lordship of Caesar featured prominently in every Roman’s imagination.
Rather than singing in front of a flag, Romans gathered around a table to eat and drink together in honor of the emperor.
Far from being a solely family affair, Roman dinners functioned as an integral part of the patronage system, a way to organize the political, economic, and social relationships of the community. Every dinner shaped a citizen’s sense of self, and every dinner reinforced allegiance to Caesar. Rather than singing in front of a flag, Romans gathered around a table to eat and drink together in honor of the emperor.
Within this context, a new table fellowship sprang up from a peculiar offshoot of Judaism. These “Galileans,” sometimes called “Little Christs,” also organized their life around shared meals—what they called their “Lord’s Supper.”
Just like others living in the Roman empire, early Christians gathered around a table to eat and drink and shape a life together, but with key distinctions: rather than pouring out a drink in the emperor’s honor, Christians shared a common cup in honor of a man executed as a common criminal. Rather than acknowledging the sovereignty of Caesar, they proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus. Rather than boasting of their willingness to kill for the empire, they humbly cultivated the willingness to die for their friends.
The early Christians transformed—and undermined—a central patriotic ritual by interjecting a reenactment of Jesus’ meal shared with his disciples at Passover. In the process, they cultivated a new set of loyalties arising from a mutual love that transcended nationality, race, ethnicity, language, and gender.
The early Christians transformed—and undermined—a central patriotic ritual by interjecting a reenactment of Jesus’ meal shared with his disciples at Passover.
As a result, many early Christians were charged with subversion or even sedition by the empire. They willingly pled guilty, abandoning patriotism in favor of worship—even if it meant their death.
Over time, Christian subversion around dinner tables became an existential threat to the Roman empire. The Lord’s Supper developed into the practice of agape, the “love feast.” As Christians rejected idolatry of the emperor, they embraced hospitality and generosity toward strangers.
Such practice led one emperor, Julian, to complain that “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them and causes a contempt for our gods.”
Early Christian virtues of generosity, hospitality, and justice grew out of their repudiation of patriotic practices.
In the intervening 2,000 years, the symbol and style of patriotic observance has shifted, but the purpose has remained static: to reinforce a sense of loyalty, obligation, and gratitude toward the state. Instead of centering around dinner tables, patriotic rituals now happen at schools, sporting events—even sanctuaries.
Where the early Christians once subverted loyalty to Caesar by worshiping Christ, modern American patriotism threatens to subvert Christian worship by infusing it with national pride. The revolutionary claim that “Jesus is Lord” has been domesticated into a benign spiritual slogan, forced to sit subserviently beneath claims of national greatness.
Where the early Christians once subverted loyalty to Caesar by worshiping Christ, modern American patriotism threatens to subvert Christian worship by infusing it with national pride.
When modern Christians encounter patriotic rituals, our response should be careful reflection, not reflexive submission. Our ethics and behavior are shaped in profound ways by sign and symbol, and the virtues we cultivate in worship may be undermined by the values esteemed by the nation.
Lurking beneath American mantras of “unity,” “courage,” and “sacrifice” are darker values of empire: conquest, hegemony, inequality, and state-sanctioned violence. These values had no place around the dinner tables of the early Christians, and they have no place in the lives of contemporary followers of Jesus. The clash between fidelity to the state and faithfulness to Jesus reminds us that “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).
Subversive responses to patriotic expression have a long and important history within Christian faith. Whether it happens at a dinner party or a stadium, whether the question involves pouring out a drink or taking a knee, followers of Jesus from every nation and in every era are called to continually affirm that Jesus, not any ruler or state, is truly sovereign—even if that means questioning our patriotism.
Jon Carlson serves as Lead Pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church outside of Lancaster, PA. Jon and his wife, Lyn, are raising three kids who seem to have endless supplies of energy. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.