Tuesday, November 13, 2012

For God and Country?

I had a very short-lived discussion with an acquaintance on Facebook the other evening over this article by World Vision president Richard Stearns. The discussion was short-lived because it quickly became apparent that pursuing it would be pointless, as the other party had clearly either not read the article or had failed to grasp the message. This person wrote: “We need a Christian America to show to the world who Christ is...” to which I responded with the question “What exactly does the phrase 'Christian America' mean?” I fear that many have merged their patriotism so strongly into their faith that they cannot see any distinction between the two. I have encountered this type of thinking far too often of late for me to ignore it.

Those who exalt America as a Christian nation generally have in mind that by our moral superiority and our acts of goodness across the world we proclaim the message of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it. They see the relative economic and political decline of this country as a serious threat to the kingdom of God, because after all how will the world know Jesus if we don't have the political and economic might to make him known? Because of our world dominance, they argue, the Gospel has spread across the earth. In fact one person tried quite strongly to persuade me that the current economic downturn represented a serious hindrance to the advance of the Gospel because it kept American Christians from being able to fund Christian activity.

That may be true in so far as we may not be able to provide as much material support to Christian ministries, but does that mean the kingdom of God cannot still advance? Does God require us Americans in order to accomplish God's global agenda? It seems to me we grossly overestimate our own significance if we think that God's purposes are hindered because we can't (or won't) give as much to Christian ministries. To put it quite bluntly, God doesn't need our dollars, although God gladly accepts and uses them when we surrender them and we do well to freely surrender them.

My discussion partner the other evening argued that America has blessed the nations because America, after all, was founded on Christian principles and has always been a “Christian nation.” Unfortunately such a mindset ignores the fact that those Christian principles viewed black people as not fully human, ascribing to them in the Constitution the worth of only 3/5 of a person—and that only so that the southern states could have more representation in the Congress, not that those black people would have any representation no matter how much they were worth. Those Christian principles affirmed slavery for nearly a century after the founding of this country and even after its abolition many Christian Americans continued for another hundred years to view and treat blacks as inferior. Unfortunately some still do to this day. Those Christian principles didn't view women as equal to men until after World War I, when we finally recognized that they should have a say in their government as well. Now, nearly a hundred years later, women still continue to fight for full equality in our society. What exactly are the Christian principles represented here? Certainly they are not the ones Jesus demonstrated when he interacted freely with women, when he crossed cultural and religious barriers and mingled with unclean foreigners. They are not the ones that Paul affirms when he tells us that in Christ we are all one. It seems hard for me to claim the moral high ground for America when we have so often been very far from it. It takes a very selective view of history to ignore the many ways in which we have not been a beacon for the Gospel, but rather have hindered it by our very actions.

Unfortunately this continues to be true today. While many Americans see our nation as leading the fight for freedom in the world, often those affected see us only as a big bully throwing its weight around in order to get its way. We act with pride and arrogance and even our most generous actions (and there are indeed such actions) are often done out of self interest, seeking to protect our own way of life from all perceived threats. Along the way we care far too little for those who are crushed or marginalized by our pursuit of the American dream and our protection of freedom. In the end we tacitly act from the belief that American lives are more valuable than the lives of others.

I do believe that the United States can be an agent of good in this world, but I don't think that we should claim to be a Christian nation. When we merge our understanding of the Gospel with our sense of patriotism, the result rarely turns out well. Another acquaintance commented in my Facebook discussion that given the size and influence of the United States, the “unhealthy combination of power and religion has greater impact on how Christianity is perceived in the world.” The Gospel has power of its own. It doesn't need American political or economic might to succeed. It doesn't even need the Ten Commandments posted in courtrooms and schools. As the same person said, “Christ showed us a different way. The Gospel works through humility and by the Word and Spirit.”

As believers who live in America we must break the unholy alliance of American patriotism and Christian faith and recognize that our faith should trump our patriotism. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the sins of our nation—both past and present—and adopt an attitude of humility and servanthood. Let's stop worrying about protecting our way of life and think about how we can use the abundant resources God has given us to improve the lives of others. Let's repent of the sins of our past and where possible take steps toward restitution and reconciliation. Yes, it may be costly, but that would be far better than trying to ignore or cover those sins and allowing the wounds to fester. America is not a Christian nation. It is nation with many Christian people who would do well to remember that being a Christian requires more of them than being good Americans who defend their way of life.

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