Are Christianity and Patriotism Incompatible? An Interview with Reverend James Wesley Dennis III
“Love transcends who you call God. Love transcends where you worship. And I think if we really get that down to our core, then America would be a hell of a place to live.”
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Reverend James Wesley Dennis III grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi “with a pastor as a grandmother, and a grandmother as a pastor.” The way she helped people transform their lives in her capacity as a pastor inspired Dennis to live a similar legacy of generosity and public service. But he didn’t go directly to the pulpit; thinking he wanted to be a lawyer, he attended Morehouse College, where he studied political science. But though political theory was fun and interested him, the snippets of conversation he caught passing religion classes, discourse that critically examined religious and sacred texts, stole his heart instead. Instead of law school, Dennis spent three years at Vanderbilt Divinity School studying the way liberation was an inextricable part of the political identity of Black churches. Now, Dennis serves as Director of Ministries for the 7th Episcopal District of the AME Church in South Carolina.
The liberation of Black Americans is in the best interest of all of America, and with policies at every level of government designed to systemically oppress non-white people, it is not yet won, largely in part due to the role of white Christians in oppressive activity. How can you reconcile Christianity, that promises love and peace, with the hatred and violence that characterizes so much of American politics? This is why we invited him to answer: are Christianity and patriotism incompatible?
Are Christianity and patriotism incompatible?
JWD: Yeah, they’re definitely not compatible. They should not be compatible—well, the Gospel of Jesus and patriotism should not be compatible. Christianity, and I think the formation of religion, is tricky. The formation of religion has everything to do with power, control, and government; everything to do with “them versus us,” especially the type of Christianity we practice in America. But in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Jesus, God is very adamant against political structures that oppress people. I find it really hard trying to reconcile an authentic practice of patriotism… if governments aren’t feeding the hungry, are not housing homeless, but are busing people to prisons, then governments are in violation of the principles of the gospel, which are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and work on their liberation—I know that they are in odds with each other.
“I think to answer your question, in short: we are an oppressive country that continues to oppress the marginalized.”
This nation has gotten it wrong many times and is still getting it wrong. The Bible shows God destroying countries that aren’t being hospitable. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because they were not being hospitable to their guests. God was going to destroy an entire country in (the Book of) Jonah because they were not nice people, because they oppressed so many people. In America, we do have a problem with taking advantage of the poor and taking advantage of marginalized groups, and forcing oppressive laws. That’s why in the gospel, so many people were turned on to the Jesus message. Rome had come in and started to oppress them. Rome taxed them 90% of their income—imagine. 90% of your income. You can’t buy food, you can’t eat, you can’t survive. Jesus fed them, they followed Him. Jesus provided necessities for them, and they latched on to Jesus, even at one point trying to make Him their king. I think to answer your question, in short: we are an oppressive country that continues to oppress the marginalized.
Can Christians be patriots?
JWD: Being a patriot doesn’t mean you blindly accept the evils that your government participates in. Being a patriot means that you love this country so much that you are willing to call it out and to say, “You’re wrong.” That my love for this country and also my love for my self and also my love for other people in this country will not allow me to sit back and watch these things to go by without speaking out against it. In the church, we call it being prophetic. It is this call from God to speak to structures of power, to systems of power, and to say, “You’re doing it wrong. This is not right. This is not what God would have for you.” If you’re going to be a Christian nation, then your mores must be consistent with Christian ethics. If they’re not, you’re not a Christian nation.
How does this view fold in people who aren’t Christians?
JWD: First of all, it takes us as Christians to understand that we don’t have a monopoly on God. That so many people call God by so many different names, that they are getting to God on their own specific path. I think it’s really important to know that as Christians we have to learn that Christianity works for us, whereas it might not work for someone else, and respect that, with love. And number two, understand that God thrives on diversity, that God’s community incorporates more than just Christians. We have to stop being so judgmental. We’re so judgmental that we exclude people because they don’t seem like us or they don’t listen to the same sermons that we do or don’t listen to the same sermons that we do. The love of God is non-judgmental. It incorporates everybody. It was Dr. King when asked who is the greatest Christian he had met, he said Mahatma Gandhi, who was not a Christian, who was very much a Hindu, but who embodied those radical principles of Jesus. Love transcends religion. On every front. Love transcends who you call God. Love transcends where you worship. And I think if we really get that down to our core, then America would be a hell of a place to live.