What’s a Christian to Do with America?

Four Rules for Living as a Christian in This Great Country

Walking into church yesterday morning, my family was greeted by small American flags placed throughout the church property.  These tiny manifestos to our wonderful nation dotted the sidewalk up to the sanctuary entrance.  My dear wife knows me well enough to suspect some theologically informed sarcastic comment was coming.   I did not disappoint, muttering something along the lines of, “No Canadians allowed in church today.” Fortunately, our pastor had wiser words.

I love America, but I also bristle when I see flags in church.  Flags on the church grounds (or in the sanctuary) betray a mixed allegiance and a broad Christian confusion.  The conflation of patriotism and faith is such an important issue that we should not miss any opportunity to speak clearly on the issue.  So here are some thoughts for this Fourth of July: four rules for living as a Christian in our great country (or your great country if you’re not American).

1. Christian first, American second (or third)

Your identity (how you see yourself) is totally a function of the story you believe yourself to be in, and the story you see yourself in comes from the community that forms you.  So identity comes from story and story comes from community. 

Christians are those peculiar people who see ourselves in the story told in scripture and being told as the body of the resurrected Christ.  As a Christian, my identity is first and foremost “Christian.”  If my identity were first and foremost “husband,” I would not be a worshipper of God.  If my identity were first and foremost “Carolina basketball fan,” I would not be a worshipper of God.  If my identity were first and foremost “American,” I would not be a worshipper of God. 

Sometimes our identities clash and we have to choose whether to be a good husband or a faithful Christian, whether to be a good Carolina basketball fan or a faithful Christian, whether to be a good American or a faithful Christian.  Christians are those who strive to always identify first and foremost as a faithful member of God’s family, even when it means disloyalty to other, less important and less real, loyalties.

2. Dying for America is a problem, but killing is a bigger problem.

One of the biggest problems for Christians in America is not just that our country asks men and women to risk their lives for its sake, it’s that our country asks us to kill on its behalf.  Maybe there are things worth dying for, but things get really serious when we are asked to kill.  Killing and dying are quasi-religious sacrifices that draw us together as a nation.  War (and the ongoing death, dying, and killing that war demands) has become the glue that bonds our nation and provides national identity -- an identity that's in direct competition to religious identity.

Dying for your country is a problem, mostly for those left behind.  When a father, brother, sister, mother, wife, or friend dies for country, the living seek to make sense of the death, to honor the death as a worthy and noble event.  What choice do we have?  We can either place our loved one’s death within a narrative of courage, nobility, and sacrifice for a great cause, or we can question the whole thing and possibly conclude that our loved one died for no good reason.  Most will choose to honor our loved one by honoring his death as meaningful and the cause as worthy, but in doing so we elevate nation to an almost divine status: that entity worthy of human sacrifice. 

Meanwhile, we also have the larger problem of killing.  In a world of drone strikes, the risk of being killed in order to kill is diminished.  But this only heightens the Christian’s problem with killing because taking another person's life is serious business.  Normal people are reluctant to kill; faithful Christians are downright unwilling to kill.  Only in the most extreme circumstances should a Christian sacrifice our unwillingness to kill.  Yet, our country calls us to kill and to support killing even if we don’t sign up for military service.  Those drones, the flight control rooms, and the thousands of missiles and bombs they use do not have corporate sponsors: our government demands we support killing and to do our part by paying taxes. 

As Christians, we should see right through all this dying and killing and war making.  We don’t need bloody sacrifices to bind us to an earthly nation.  As members of the church, we are held together as Christ’s body by the once-and-for-all death and resurrection of Jesus; we should resist being overly yoked to a nation that requires we die and kill in order to be a part of it. 

3. American is great, but not exceptional

American exceptionalism is the notion that America is special among the nations.  This idea has deep theological roots, going back to John Withrop’s famous “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon in 1630.  In that sermon, Winthrop cast a vision for his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists to embrace their role in establishing a “city upon a hill” – an image taken directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14).  As a patriotic device, exceptionalism can be inspire citizens to strive to create a nation that others would want to imitate and that we would want them to imitate.  But it can also serve much less noble intents, such as stoking a sense of superiority, justifying our national interests to the detriment of others, shielding us of blame in regards to societal ills such as racism, slavery and greed, or shielding us of blame in regards to violent and coercive efforts aimed at other people.  At its worst, exceptionalism becomes a kind of civil religion that crosses the border into idolatry. 

America is a great nation to live in and to be a part of.  We’re not perfect, but we are stable, we have more freedoms than most, and we do a reasonably good job of giving everybody a fair shot at living well.  There’s a lot to celebrate about America, but celebrating the good doesn’t require us to think of America as “exceptional” or “chosen” – both of which run in direct opposition to the Bible.  BTW, for a great read on this topic, check out John Wilsey’s recent book.

As Christians living in America, how about we stop assuming America’s goodness (even greatness) requires some sort of belief that “God is on our side” or that God has chosen us in some special way.  God works through the body of Christ (the church), no matter what nation we happen to be in.

4. The Church Is Our Real Community

I suspect any unhealthy zeal we may have for America and any resistance to finding our truest identity as “American” is due in large part to a failure of the church.  To be clear, I am not blaming some nameless, faceless blob called “the church” or "church leadership," I am blaming you and me for being poor church members.  Too often we turn the church into a voluntary membership organization along the lines of the PTA, country club, or Lion’s Club.  We go to a church so long as it meets our needs and desires, but we resist letting the church form us.  We opt in, we opt out.  It’s hard to be truly formed by something so trivial.

The antidote to nationalism is faithful Christianity, which is not individual in nature, but communal.  To be truly a part of a Christian community requires we submit to teachings we don’t like, obey when we’d rather do things our way, and stick with our local community of faith even when the pastor changes or somebody sticks little American flags along the sidewalk (or doesn’t). 

I'm not encouraging any of us to love America less, but to love God more -- more than we love Him now, more than we love America, and more than we love anything else.  Only when Jesus is our first love can we see the world rightly and live well no matter where we live.

What about you?  What wisdom do you have for living as a Christian in America?  How do you see these issues?  Leave your comments below.