Jesus and the 4th of July

The churches in our nation will be in a catch-22 this Sunday:

Celebrate the Resurrection and Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Celebrate the birth and independence of the United States of America.

Most disturbing, though, is that for many people those two things are one in the same - in their minds, to do one is to do the other!

I begin by saying that there is a difference. Jesus hanging on a cross pleading for the forgiveness of his enemies looks a lot different that many Americanized portraits of Jesus exercising his second amendment right (the right to keep and bear arms) or endorsing the idea of Manifest Destiny.

Put simply: America does not own the copyright on Christianity.

But that's just a starting point, and it would be quite shallow to stop there. Beyond that statement, we encounter many competing voices, all clinging and clattering in every conceivable direction, on this issue that it can be hard to find somewhere firm on which to stand.

When it comes to politics and religion, four options are usually available:

First, there are those who endlessly repeat the mantra of church and state separation. Of course what they really mean to say is, "Go back to your private sphere of spirituality while we get on with the real work of solving the nation's problems." My experience, however, is that the people most fond of this slogan have no idea of its real intent. But that's beyond the scope of this post.

Second, there are those who continue to insist that Jesus had no political aims whatsoever. They see Jesus as the equivalent to a 1960s vagabond who walked around saying, "peace," and offering hugs. This view misses the fact that Jesus' central message was about the arrival of the Kingdom of God - which was a politically-charged message to say the least. The flip-side of his Kingdom of God message was also political: If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. That sounds political to me.

Third, there are those who attempt to weave Christian Zionist views so tightly into the fabric of our nation that America comes out thinking it's the "City on a hill," which Jesus said, "cannot be hidden." This view is prone to overlook the brutal way the early colonists took over the land (note: the Israelites' hostile takeover of Canaan is not a template to be followed!) and that the majority of this country's founders were deists, not Christians.

Fourth, there are those who recognize the God-appointed role of governments and officials to govern, legislate, and adjudicate with wisdom, mercy, and justice. In his article "Kingdom Come: The Public Meaning of the Gospels," N.T. Wright says, "[T]he early church, aware of prevailing tyrannies both Jewish and pagan, and insisting on exalting Jesus as Lord over all, did not reject the God-given rule even of pagans....[I]t is quite simply part of a creational view of the world that God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic, and that human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is accomplished - otherwise those with muscle and money will always win, and the poor and the widows will be trampled on afresh."

The role that Christian should or shouldn't have in the political process differs according to each view, but to go in that would, once again, take us too far afield in this post. I will just say that, alongside the fourth view mentioned above, the belief that God is working through (and sometimes despite) earthly rulers gives rise to the church's task of reminding those same rulers that they are accountable to the one true God to rule with wisdom, mercy, and justice. Christians should help meet the needs in their communities with creative acts of goodness, not by yelling through a megaphone or escaping into a holy huddle removed from the real world.

After a great deal of reading and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it's not right to denounce the possibility of being a Christian American just because select groups of people through the centuries have gotten the order reversed and thought of themselves as American Christians.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the American Bill of Rights, the American Constitution, or even the American Dream. These are just words on paper and images in our heads. The real issue is what we do with them. If someone's "pursuit of happiness" leads them to commit crimes against others, then it's the person and not the document that is to be blamed.

So, if kept in proper order, I believe Christians can successfully and helpfully navigate the Catch-22 mentioned above. We are Christians first and Americans second. We say the creeds, but that does not negate our identity as citizens of the nation that was founded on July 4, 1776.


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