I wrote this when the events related herein were fresh, but I decided not to publish it at that time because frankly when anxiety is up, we don’t hear well. Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can re-engage in a more civil discourse.
Perhaps you have seen the recent pontifications of the Rev. Dennis Terry:
“I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”
See it for yourself at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/19/dennis-terry-rick-santorum_n_1364414.html.
When I hear stuff like this from those who openly confess to follow Jesus, I think of the quote attributed to Thomas Linacre (c. 1460 – October 20, 1524) who, upon reading the Gospels in Greek instead of the Latin Vulgate, said:
Either this is not the Gospels… or we are not Christians.
When I hear Christians saying the kind of vitriol Rev. Terry spouted, I think
“If this is the Gospel … I’m not sure I want to be a Christian.”
One would think that as a preacher Rev. Terry’s first commitment should be to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ—first and foremost; all lesser loyalties are idolatrous compared to loyalty to Jesus. What Rev. Terry proclaim was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . not even close.
The rhetoric of a Christian America has become so pervasive—and normalized—that indeed the Gospel now sounds odd even to those who think they are Christians. Furthermore, for all the concern that Christians are not allow to speak in America, I find that this kind of pseudo-gospel talk get a lot of public air time.
Given the continued strength of America’s Civic Religion (often cloaked a patriotism), it comes as a surprise to most American Christians that God already has a nation! That nation is the church universal. Every time I hear “God bless America”—and I do want God to bless the country of my birth—something deeper inside me screams, “God bless the Church!” While I don’t disagree that the America is morally bankrupt, a concern closer to the heart of the Gospel is the that church is also wasting away.
Some years ago Gordon Scoville wrote a small critique of the American church in a slender volume called Into the Vacuum: Being the Church in an Age of Barbarism. His thesis was simple: American culture is going down the tube. The American (namely, Protestant) church is deeply intertwined with American culture. Unless the church somehow finds a way to separate itself from American culture and rediscover its true mission, it too will go down the tubes. And so it has happened. Scoville published his little book in 1989. Things have not gotten better.
American evangelicals seem not to see that saving America is simply the wrong mission. The church’s mission has never been to save any country or government. That mission is far too small for the Church. Furthermore for a God who seeks to save people from ” every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6), a church that favors one nation, one race, one language, or one people group, has not caught God’s mission. A hymn that can only be sung in one country is not universal enough to be consistent with the Gospel or God’s mission to save the “world.”
As I said, God already has a nation, the church. This “national” language grows out of the church’s early identity with the people of Israel of whom God said:
Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5–6 NRSV)
The Hebrew Bible offers the vision of Israel being the priestly nation to bear witness of God’s goodness to the world. As such a nation, one of the overriding principles of that nation was to welcome the stranger and the alien and to bear witness to the nations far and wide of God’s goodness. However, the storyline, as it gets played out in the Bible, is that Israel was unfaithful to God’s mission and so at the end of the story, the once proud nation finds itself grasping to hang on to its national identity—while exiled hundreds of miles away from their homeland. Despite this exile, and no doubt, with the help of God, the Jewish people were able maintain a national identity even apart from the physical land.
In the New Testament—which most Christian groups claim as the only guide for the church’s faith and practice—the language of nationhood was applied to those who found themselves exiled in a world often hostile to their faith.
In one place, the New Testament says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10 NRSV)
These words described not some physical nation with land, leaders, and legislators, but to the church, that is, those who have committed their lives to the way of Jesus. The language of this church is inclusive: people who were once outsiders are now insiders. (Strange, isn’t it, that is only takes a few generations for immigrants to forget they were immigrants?)
When Christians can no longer unmask the rhetoric of power, they will no longer be able to tell when the Christian mission has been compromised. Manifest Destiny was an American doctrine not a biblical one.
Oh, Jesus certainly had imperialistic goals, to be sure, but they took a cross-shaped form where losing is winning. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world and he stated that before the powerful of his day. Jesus told Pilate,
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth? (John 18:36–38 NRSV)
Like Pilate, American Christians have a hard time hearing the truth of God’s way. The way of conquest is not the way of Jesus. Yet, despite what Jesus himself says about the nature of his kingdom, political pundits still tell us we need to take back America for God. (I’m never quite sure who this “we” is: we Americans or we Christians?).
I find it oddly convenient that Rev. Terry’s rhetoric hides certain realities. For example, America was not just a “Christian” nation from the beginning; it was a denominational nation but not a Catholic nation. So, more precisely, America was a Protestant country. Neither Catholics nor Jews necessarily found the New World congenial to their faith.
The early colonial revivalists continually complained about how debased the American populace was. More honest to history, America has always been a mixed nation. Rev. Terry represents Protestants are upset, and perhaps a bit dumbfounded, that they have been marginalized from the mainstream culture. Speaking louder, as Rev. Terry did, will not somehow save the day or the nation.