American and Christian
Back around the year 1200 or so the nation-state was not an assumed idea. There were kingdoms and city-states in Europe, but for the most part there were not nations as we think of them now self-organized and self-governing institutions defined primarily by land. The church, pre-reformation, was universal and existed across Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. The only real division was between the Orthodox churches primarily in the East and the Western Latin church that we now call Roman Catholic.
The emperor governed the vast majority of Europe most of the time, and minor kingdoms warred pretty constantly for control of territories. When the notion of the nation state began to arise over the next couple of centuries, the church was universally against it. The church feared that Christians would begin to see themselves as primarily English or Egyptian and kill other Christians in wars without remorse.
The church was right. I grew up in the United States with the assumption that wars were between nations. The Cold War carried a nationalism mingled with faith in counterpoint to the “atheistic Communists,” but that faith mixture did not include any thought about not killing the Reds or whether the story of their atheism might not be a little more complex.
It is easy to mix faith and politics, but in my experience it is always the faith that loses its flavor. We begin to think as our group thinks rather than to “take on the mind of Christ.”
Every year I come to the 4th of July with the same mix of emotions. I love the United States and what it can be. I lament the United States and what it often is. Before you turn off, hear me. I love the United States and give thanks daily that I was born here. There are wonderful places in the world, but there are places where birth there means suffering and violence in ways we only see glimpses of on the news.
The values that I love about America are not necessarily Christian values. There is no virtue called freedom. There is no virtue called pride. Am I glad to be an American? Yes. Am I happy to be free? Of course. But the virtues of our faith are beyond pride and freedom. I am set free to be a child of God in his kingdom, whose virtue is love, along with hope, faith, peace and justice.
Pride is seen as a danger in the Bible, and it doesn’t take long in life to see why. In our culture it has been lifted up from the List of Seven Deadly Sins to be considered a virtue in order to combat shame, this generation’s boogie man. But pride turns our attention to our own goodness, our own righteousness, our own value, and pulls us away from others. It assumes our own weakness because we must lift ourselves up and does not assume our blessedness which needs no lifting up because it comes to us as a gift.
And we are blessed. Look around sometime without your political glasses on. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world at one of the wealthiest times in history. We have indoor plumbing and electricity and safe streets and functional government (and if you disagree protest, and you will be protected while you do so on streets we all built with our taxes with words learned in schools, and you can look up how to protest in a library if you need to.)
I do want a better country and wiser leadership. I want the values of God’s kingdom to be the values of our nation, but we are talking about two different realities. We should be clear about where we stand.
We belong to both realities as Christians, but my first allegiance is not to this one. My first allegiance is to the cross, to the values and virtues of the God it reveals and his rule and his children, all of them. I love God’s children, even when I don’t understand many of them.
I am happy that I live in a country that guarantees their rights and privileges and tries to balance them with everyone else’s. I will continue to vote and lobby and be opinionated about how we do that. And I will lament when we fall short of the hopes I have for this nation. But I will do so without fear or anger because our hope was never really here. Our hope is that one day there will be no more here or there, but that we will all see the coming of God’s kingdom here. Until then, I do worry.
As I said last Sunday, I worry about our nation being in danger of losing something essential because of our wealth and privilege. I want a virtuous nation that does what is right in the world from a deep sense of calling and joy and love for the world. We will be reminded soon enough that we disagree, but in this week of July 4th let us join together in prayer for our nation, its calling, and give thanks for being apart of this great experiment in the world. It may not be our hope, but it is our home.
And let us never forget that we work here at home faithfully for our brothers and sisters around the world who are bound to us by the body and blood of Christ. We work for them in our prayers and worship, in our outreach and giving, and in our political citizenship. We use our freedom humbly to work for theirs. As we reaffirm in our baptismal service,
There is one Body and one Spirit;
There is one hope in God’s call to us;
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
One God and Father of all.
So let us be faithful Christians in America, working for God’s kingdom as we thank God for our nation. May we be a light set up to light the whole world.