This weekend, all across the country, hundreds of churches will adorn their santuaries with red, white, and blue apparrel and choirs will trade in All Creatures of my God and King and How Great Thou Art for My Country Tis of Thee and God Bless America.
For many, this is all well and good. But such a tradition, causes me to pause and wonder.
It may be shocking to you that I have been accused of being insufficiently patriotic by quite a few Christians – but this rankles me because I actually consider myself on the high end of appreciation for history and tradition. Every 4th of July, I take time to read the Declaration of Independence. I’m thankful for the freedoms granted and the high ideals (however poorly executed at times) that are bound up within the American project. I have many friends and a few family members who have served in the armed forces and for their service I am grateful. It is no small thing to have the freedom as Christians to gather, to worship, and to bear witness to things seen and heard in Jesus’ name. I hope that I would never take these things for granted.
But I think as Christians living in America we need to take some time to pause and wonder.
When we place the American flag, on stage, next to the Cross of Christ, what message does that send? Are we likely to get confused over which one is our banner of courage, our emblem of freedom, and the symbol that unites us? (hint: it’s the latter.) When we insert patriotic medleys into our Sunday service of worship do we run the risk of blurring lines that ought not be blurred? Is there any evidence that the god sung about in our patriotic hymns is the same God who raised Israel out of Egypt and Jesus from the dead? Are we tempted to forget that the God of Christ is not the god of some generalized freedom qua freedom and defender of inalienable rights, but the God who offers freedom through and only through obedience to the cross?
It is a blessing to live in America. Some might even say it is a blessing from God.
But America is not God.
My sole hope and strength.
Lord of all creation.
Savior to all humankind.
America is not.
It is a finite, created thing that participates in the fallenness common to both human and non-human reality this side of the eschaton. Those who can’t see the sin, shame, and darkness in America’s history and structure probably need to take off their red, white, and blue sunglasses (I know it’s bright outside today).
America is not only not God but it is also not “God’s new Israel,” nor is it in any sense analogous to the Church. Without delving too deeply in on the subject, I’ll just say that the only options for orthodox Christians looking to be faithful to God’s word is to see Israel as Israel, or, as I hold, the transnational, universal Church as the Jew + Gentile reality of the new Israel brought together in the body of the Messiah, the True Israel.
Contrary to Left Behind and a plethora John Hagee books, The U.S. figures nowhere in biblical eschatology and we, as Christians, are called to live as citizens of another kingdom — a kingdom that has come and is still coming, a kingdom in which the military-industrial complex will be abolished and forgiveness and reconciliation will reign in it’s place as we finally beat our swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4), a kingdom that will be known for it’s radical love of enemy rather than it’s drone strikes. If it is unthinkable that being a Christian might in any way render problematic your full participation in American life — especially on American Holy Days where we celebrate our creation myths, laud our national saints, and participate in American liturgical ceremonies, I recommend you get to repenting, right quickish.
What, then, is the end of the matter?
Go ahead and have fun this weekend! Be grateful. Light off fireworks. Eat good food. But in the middle of the BBQs, parades, fanfare, and particularly on Sunday morning, remember that God is God and Christ — the one who lived in Palestine among the poorest of the poor, and suggested we love our enemies, and touch the untouchables and exhibit immense mercy — is Lord.
Then remember that America is a finite temporal gift to be grateful for but never worshipped or set apart in the heart as a final end in itself.
In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:23)
(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)