An American Repatriate – Josh Irby

After 11 years living as an expatriate in the Balkans, I recently returned to the United States with my family. As a repatriate, I’m reconsidering what it means to be an American and a Christian.

This is an important process for all of us in these politically divided times.

Square Head in a Circle Culture

In our cross-cultural missions training in 2009, a geometrical illustration explained what happens when you live outside your home culture.

The presenter showed a man with a square head who moves into a community of circle heads. Over time, Mr. Square Head is changed by his exposure to the circle culture. His corners are worn down. While he will never become a full circle head, he might end up looking like a stop sign—no longer a square head, but not quite a circle head.

During my time as an expatriate, I felt my corners being worn off.

In Sarajevo, we were deeply involved in a small evangelical church that included people from three ethnic groups—Bosniak, Serb, and Croat. When we ran into trouble registering a car in Bosnia, our worship leader offered to help us, even though it meant a two-hour road trip to his hometown. I was amazed by his generous offer and glad for the opportunity to get to know him better.

During our drive, he opened up about his background. He had served in the Serbian army as American planes were bombing Serbia to stop their military action in Kosovo. He had been fighting against the U.S. military—and now he was my worship leader. This revelation was especially meaningful since I knew there were people in our church who had fought against the Serbians in either the Croatian or the Bosnian military during the mid-1990s war.

What could cause former enemies to rise above their national identities and worship as a unified body? I knew the answer, but it hit home again—an identity in Christ that is bigger than any other identity.

Identity

I was raised as a proud American. I was taught to love my country, to place my hand on my heart for the pledge, to respect the flag. I remember tearing up at the end of the film Air Force One. These are not bad things.

What could cause former enemies to rise above their national identities and to worship as a unified body? . . . An identity in Christ that is bigger than any other identity.

In Bosnia, though, I met a people and a culture radically different from America—and different in a good way. I saw a vision of community that confronted the radical individualism of my childhood. I discovered a vision of friendship that contradicted the social-media posturing and business-first networking I’d left behind. I found a vision of life that stressed relationships over productivity and success.

And strangely, as I saw these characteristics in my Bosnian friends, I recognized them as more aligned with the Bible than my American assumptions had been. The grip of my American identity loosened, allowing space for a more robust, transcendent, and biblical Christian identity.

Expatriates

The truth is, every Christian is an expatriate. We are, as Peter writes, “a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, [and] sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Pet. 2:9­–11).

Christians can and should engage in the political life of their country––but only as citizens who recognize they belong to another country. Neglecting this citizenship can lead to excluding other Christians (remember the Ephesians and Galatians) or perverting biblical truth in the name of patriotism.

But it doesn’t end there. Jeremiah’s call to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7) doesn’t allow us to disengage, either. We must go through repatriation.

Christians can, and should, engage in the political life of their country––but only as citizens who recognize they belong to another country.

When I moved back to America amid an election, during a global pandemic, and under the shadow of widespread protests of racial injustice, my eyes were opened. I see that America’s issues are deeper and more challenging than they seemed from afar.

I have also seen with fresh eyes the beautiful characteristics of the American experiment. What a blessing to live in a land where you can develop an idea, start a business, gain an education, and improve your station in life. What a blessing to live in a country where religion is mostly unattached to ethnic identity, where people are mostly free to believe what they want without fear of retribution. Truly, there are few moments in history when people have been as free as Americans are today.

As a repatriate, I still love my country. But it’s not the only country I love. And it’s not even the main country I love. I am, first of all, a citizen of God’s kingdom—which frees me to both enjoy the blessings of America and critique its failures.

As a repatriate, I still love my country. But it’s not the only country I love. And it’s not even the main country I love. I am, first of all, a citizen of God’s kingdom.

There is a lot we can learn as Christians from Mr. Stop Sign Head. The calling of Christians is to expatriate from their home culture, to allow God’s Word to wear off the corners. But this is not a call to withdraw and retreat. We must also repatriate, engaging our home culture as those whose higher citizenship gives us a fresh perspective.

Let’s love our country, but not blindly. As the people of God, we owe our first allegiance not to a flag or the nation it represents, but to the Lamb who went to the cross to bring people from all nations together.

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