Loving America, Loving God (From 2011)

(Message given on September 11, 2011, at Newberg Friends Church)

Last year we added another driver to our family.

So, I went looking for another vehicle. Our budget was small-I was looking in the $1000-$1500 range. Have you ever looked for a car in that price range? It’s awful! I spent hours pouring over Craigslist, test driving well over a dozen cars. And then I found it. The best car purchase I’ve ever made. If you were to come up with the perfect used car story, this would be it. An older couple who had immigrated from Germany 30 years ago had purchased it new, a 1993 Toyota Camry. You know those scheduled maintenance checklists you find in the owner’s manual that everyone ignores? They did every single one at exactly the right time and handed the records over to me.

Here’s how cool this couple was: the Camry was the first car they’d ever bought that wasn’t a Mercedes Benz!

As we stood in a Safeway parking lot, talking and waiting for their daughter to pick them up, they couldn’t stop talking about how much they loved America. 30 years ago in Germany, the wall had not come down. Germany was not unified. They kept talking about living in East Germany, knowing that any letter they received could be intercepted and read, realizing that at any time police could search their home for whatever they wanted, not having the freedom to go anywhere they wanted to go. This couple loved America, and hearing their perspective made me appreciate our country deeply. I love our country, too! I am very grateful for so much of what we experience in our country.

With the anniversary of 9/11, I’ve read and seen lots of things, as you probably have too. I’ve been moved again by the stories of how people helped strangers, how they gave their lives in the effort to rescue others.

It seems good and important for us to spend some time in prayer for the families of those who lost loved ones. It can be a moment of silence, or if you’d like to lead out in prayer, feel free. [WAIT and pray]

Is there a difference between loving America, patriotism, and nationalism?

I asked that question on Facebook earlier this week, and loved the thoughtful responses that were given. Several gave beautiful examples of what they loved about America-it was clear we agreed that loving America is not a bad thing.

Carol Sherwood wrote, “I am very grateful to be born in the United States and to have the freedoms, blessings and privileges that being here affords me… I still get a tight throat when I sing the national anthem…”

Kelsey Hampton wrote, “loving america to me means loving the opportunities and freedoms that this country provides (i.e. a passport that allows travel almost anywhere, free public education, freedom of speech, etc).”

I would add that I love the beautiful way America has worked-not perfectly, but has striven to increase equality between ethnic groups, between men and women.

 

Brian Groves wrote, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are some of the wisest words ever to be written… What makes this country great is the way it has attempted to provide an environment in which so many things are possible for the individual to achieve while maintaining a relatively balanced sense of fairness, order and opportunity.”

Nationalism, as the comments agreed, is at the other end of the spectrum, with patriotism somewhere in the middle.

A friend from high school wrote, “Patriotism is pride in one’s country, it “SHOULD” be pure and not exclusive. Conversely nationalism to me implies isolationism..that there is only my country and I can’t be open or respect other ideals and peoples.”

Kelsey Hampton seemed to sum up the issue well: “i see these as a sort of sliding scale, with appreciation for one’s country on one end, and extreme, ethnocentric nationalism on the other. pride in a country is fine, as long as we are honest with ourselves about the disparity, mistakes, and problems within our borders, but it is with extreme pride that extreme falls come, like genocide and wars.”

Nationalism sees one’s nation as the best and the only. As a Christian, as one who reads the bible which clearly teaches all through its pages that God loves and blesses and desires to save ALL the world, nationalism is simply not acceptable.

It was moving for me to see the wisdom of many in our community just in their responses to this simple question.

I would guess that if we had time to have a discussion with everyone here today, we would come out very similarly. We would have widespread (though not universal) agreement that loving America can be a good thing, and is completely in line as a follower of Christ. At the other end of the spectrum, we would almost all agree that nationalism is not ok, and that patriotism is somewhere in the middle-sometimes ok for a follower of Christ, sometimes questionable.

I think we would have wide agreement on those categories. Where we would have much more disagreement is in deciding which category a particular action falls into. Is an American flag on the platform of a church loving America, patriotism, or nationalism? Is being thankful for the sacrifices of those in our military loving America, patriotism, or nationalism?

These are the questions where the rubber meets the road. It’s challenging. Wrestling with them can produce conflict and tension even between two people who both claim to follow Jesus. But if we all agree that somewhere there is a line where loving America crosses into an inappropriate nationalism, nationalism that is not compatible with the God we love and serve, then we have to face into the tension.

Here’s one of the questions we wrestled with as we planned worship: what is appropriate to sing in church on the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

 

As we sing these next two songs, I want to invite you to think about this tension between loving America, patriotism, and nationalism. For you, where do each of these songs fit? “America the Beautiful” is a prayer…does it fall in the appropriate place on the spectrum in your mind?

The “Song of Peace” maybe raises a different question. On a day when most of America is focused on remembering American suffering, is it dishonoring or NOT loving of America to sing a song that forces us to look at God’s love for all nations? As we sing, invite God to speak to you. [Sing]

 

I think what prompted me to tackle this topic today was a letter I received earlier this summer.

Someone from our church wrote me with a great deal of emotion, asking why our church does not celebrate and honor those who have sacrificed for us on Memorial Day and on July 4th. He felt our silence in worship on those holidays was not loving America. It troubled him to the point that he likely will not be able to worship with us any longer.

Why don’t we celebrate/honor those holidays? It’s complicated, but the most simple answer is that we don’t want to cross the line into nationalism. We don’t want to do something which would further the idea that our country is more right, more loved by God, than any other. Some, like this man, would say that we go too far by our silence.

Last weekend we were in Seattle for my nephew’s 3rd birthday. My brother lives about a block from a huge church, and as we drove in, I couldn’t help but notice signs all along the edge of the church property. Each had an American flag as background, and the words were something like: “9/11. We will never forget. Join us for worship on 9/11/11.”

For me, that dances right along the line of great discomfort, on a number of levels. It seems to be preying on the emotions of people at this time simply to get them to go to church. But more importantly, worship is by definition God directed. Worship is worship of God. I don’t know what that church is doing today. If worship of God becomes tangled up with honoring America, I get uncomfortable.

The church has wrestled with this for a long time.

Most people can look at the world and see fairly easily that God’s kingdom and values are not identical with earthly kingdoms and values. So what is a Christian to do in the face of that?

Way back in the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote “City of God,” a treatise comparing the city of God to the city of human institution. At the time, Christians were scared out of their minds, watching the Roman Empire collapse, wondering where God was in all of it. Augustine was fairly scathing in his response. He saw Rome as a “City of Man”, not the city of God, and its fall meant absolutely nothing about God’s power or work in the world. They were not identical.

And you can trace this wrestling all through the history of the church. A thousand years later, Martin Luther wrote his doctrine of the two kingdoms, refusing to see God’s work and a nation’s work as identical. It’s the very principle that our nation was founded upon, with political theory elaborated by John Locke drawing from these earlier theological works.

Is there a chosen nation anymore? Is God identified with any particular government?

 

There is a related, but a different question here. People will continue to argue over whether or not America is a Christian nation but I think one thing has to be made abundantly clear. Whether or not we are a Christian nation…we are not God’s chosen nation. We are not the new Israel. God has not taken the American side against the rest of the world. That thought is nationalism, and it is unbiblical.

Turn with me to Revelation 5:9-10

This is the revelation God gave to John of what will happen at the end of time, when God makes a new heaven and a new earth. We find lots of language in Revelation about the New Jerusalem and the New Israel. But it isn’t anything like God’s choosing of Israel in the Old Testament. Look at chapter 5 verses 9 and 10, as the beings in heaven speak out why Jesus is worthy to lead into eternity.

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

The new Israel, the new Jerusalem, the new church is universal. It is not bound by political borders or decided upon by martial governments. It is defined by the crucified Christ whose blood purchased members of every tribe and language and people and nation. We are citizens of this new community, a community of the redeemed that supersedes our American community and takes priority.

Turn with me to 1 Peter 1:1.

Peter, an apostle of jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…

Peter is writing to the hinterlands, to former city states and provinces and kingdoms, ones far from the heart of the Roman Empire. He’s writing to multiple ethnicities and cultures…and it’s to that group that he says in chapter 2 verses 9 and 10:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

We can love America.

We should be grateful for the country we live in. And we can never forget that God has been, is, and will always be making a far greater community, country and nation from all tribes and languages and people! Philippians 3:20 says it clearly: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior for there, the Lord Jesus Christ…”

 

All of this begs an important question: how ought we, as followers of Jesus, respond the the difference between our own nation and the kingdom of God? How are we to engage our own political system, our own culture?

In 1951, a theologian named Richard Niebuhr wrote a hugely influential book to deal with this question, called “Christ and Culture.”

He outlined five categories for how Christians have chosen to engage the culture or the state. On one extreme is what he calls “Christ Against Culture.” The oversimplified idea is, culture and government are completely corrupt. God’s work now is to create a separate, pure church to stand against the corruption, and one day to bring in the kingdom. In this category, the Christian response is not to join, but to stand against our nation and culture as a pure and holy example. Niebuhr puts us Quakers in this category. (I disagree with him, but he’s dead, so he really doesn’t care…)

The other extreme he calls “Christ OF Culture”. The oversimplified idea is, culture and Christianity can be largely one. At its best, culture and government embody the best of what God has created, and the Christian can fully engage in the work of government, because we work to bring about both God’s best and the best culture offers. This is the thought behind very liberal views that humanity is moving toward utopia. But it is also the foundation for recent movements in America like the Moral Majority; Christians can use government power to enforce Christ’s morality.

The problem that comes with this extreme is that it is quite easy to blur the line and think that my culture is farther along the rode to the Kingdom of God than any other, and therefore we must enforce our thinking on other nations. It’s nationalism.

Niebuhr of course has three other categories that try to live between those two extremes, and it’s likely that most of us live somewhere between the extremes as well. But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve had to ask myself the question: which extreme do we seem more likely to move toward? And I have come to the conclusion that to be faithful to what God would have me say to you, I must warn us against the extreme of nationalism.

I’ve read some powerful stuff this week.

One of my former professors, Miroslav Volf, wrote this:

For many Christians, America has become a fierce goddess, who claims more of their loyalty than the God in whose name they have been baptized and whose absolute Lordship they solemnly avow.

William Willimon, a Methodist Bishop, wrote powerfully in Christianity Today this month:

“American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat … when our people felt vulnerable, they reached for the flag instead of the cross.”

 

Stanley Hauerwas teaches at Duke Divinity school. As he reflected on 9/11, he recounts some of his own spiritual journey:

But then John Howard Yoder and his extraordinary book The Politics of Jesus came along. Yoder convinced me that if there is anything to this Christian “stuff,” it must surely involve the conviction that the Son would rather die on the cross than for the world to be redeemed by violence.

These are radical thoughts, but I have staked my understanding of Jesus Christ’s gospel and Jesus Christ’s cross around them.

I realized how provocative this is when I read Mark Tooley’s piece in the American Spectator:

John Howard Yoder…sought to re-interpret the Crucifixion as primarily a rejection of all violence.

Re-interpret? If he doesn’t see the cross that way, how does he see it? Tooley spells it out clearly:

Yoder’s stance [is] that the Crucifixion more centrally rejects all violence [rather] than offers atonement for universal sin.

Tooley is crystal clear. The cross accomplished forgiveness and nothing more. Anything else the cross does, for Tooley, is a re-interpretation. I simply cannot agree.

I will stand for a cross that is not limited to just forgiveness for our sins.

I will stand for a cross that purchased members from every tribe, language and nation, including our own, for God. I will stand for a cross that Jesus asked us to take up every day, not just as a badge of forgiveness, but as a way of life. I will stand for a cross that is a far more moving and emotional and powerful and life changing symbol than the stars and stripes.

I will love my country, I will be grateful for the blessings of the life I live. And I will stand for a cross that asks me to be willing to sacrifice all those blessings for the sake of another. I will stand for a cross that redeems my life, gives it meaning, gives it a power that is not my own.

I will love my country, and I will love our God…and I will stand for the cross in all its fullness.

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