As we approach Independence Day, I’m torn by many competing narratives about America.
I’m thankful for the security and freedoms we enjoy. I’m sobered by the suffering that many in our country have endured.
I’m torn by the way that one’s picture of America differs greatly based on one’s skin color. You can see this in our country’s musical history. For me, America sure feels like ‘the land of the free’ (National Anthem). For the African American, it could feel more like the land of being ‘Oppress’d so hard’ (as is lamented in the old slave spiritual, Go Down, Moses). My Anglo-Saxon ancestors hailed ‘sweet land of liberty’ in their homes. In the fields others wailed, ‘Let my People go,’ at the same time. The corpus of essays, speeches, sermons, songs, and poems that rely on Biblical imagery for depicting national life reveal this sharp demarcation in references: For the white Protestant, America was the ‘New Israel.’ For the African American, it was Egypt.
I’m thankful to have a country where there is possibility of reforming society and its structures. A place where slavery and segregation could be outlawed. That blessing in our political system cannot be taken for granted. But I’m sad that change has been so hard and so slow (despite many tangible victories), and that so many have suffered. I’m thankful that people of different races can marry, when before they could not. I’m sad that to this day there are shootings and arsons upon Black churches.
There are many similar tensions that bug me.
Today, religious social conservatives (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise) are finding that they no longer represent the only values proclaimed in the public sphere. For such people, living in America feels a little bit more like being an alien than it has before. What does it mean for such folk to be good citizens?
America gives immense amounts of global aid. At the same time, our foreign policy has left many people in political chaos and poverty (e.g., the power vacuum we left in Iraq that has led to a significant increase in Christian persecution). We helped rescue Europe from a genocidal despot, but have conducted our fair share of questionable war-time actions. How do I pledge allegiance to that mixed bag?
Can I be true to my Christian convictions, which for me push me toward the pacifist direction, while also honoring the sacrifice and pain of many men and women in the military?
And what am I to do with feeling torn between America and the Christian community across the globe? Many of my fellow Christians in the Middle East feel rather ambivalent about America, sometimes downright hostile when it comes to America’s relationship with Israel and the connected suffering of Palestinian Christians. Does my patriotism hurt my solidarity alongside and relationships with other Christians? Can I love my country without dismissing the experiences and perspectives of my Christian siblings?
A related example. From the standpoint of what is purely pragmatic and logical, I very much understand the arguments in favor of securing America’s borders and cracking down on illegal immigration. At the same time, my commitment to Christ necessarily turns my attention to the many men and women (a very large majority of which are Evangelical or Pentecostal, or practicing Catholic) desperately trying to escape drug wars and unbelievable poverty and who have decided they will risk anything to have the possibility of a better life for their children. I feel torn between the flag and my Christian family. I feel torn between the flag and the face of Jesus; the Jesus who identifies so closely to the poor and the stranger that Scripture says our actions toward the latter are counted as actions toward the former. That requires some sobriety, at the least. I’m struck by the fact that the moral, much less the legal, standing of the poor and the needy is never once given as a condition in Scripture for how we are to treat them. Why should it be? We are a people given infinite grace while we were yet in sin. That is the point.
Some might paint America as exceptionally evil for some of the things it has done and the realities it has represented. I think that the truth is much more grey. As Christians of the more isolationist-type traditions have often pointed out, any government (especially a large, practically imperial, government) necessarily gets its hands in a lot of blood. It is part of the fallen reality of our world. It is not something that should surprise or shock us, and for that reason pointing a finger squarely at America seems a little disingenuous. Some conclude to be complete pacifists, like the Anabaptists. And I struggle to blame them. Participating in public life is always a double-edged sword. It is always a participation in and identification with quite a bit of evil. Indeed, for those of us not willing to point the finger at all and see America through rose-colored glasses, this is an important thing to grasp.
This was, in many ways, the struggle of Bonhoeffer. I am no expert in Bonhoeffer so I stand to be corrected, but I read him this way: His jadedness with the despotism of Nazi Germany, and the Church’s weakness when too closely associated with political power, pushed him further and further into pacifism. But he also found himself unable to fully retreat, concluding that the Christian must live fully ‘in the world’ and must throw a wrench into the spokes of oppression. He resigned himself to living in something of a moral ambiguity, relying on the grace of Jesus and not his ability to determine exactly the right course of action in the convoluted political life around him.
We are told to be a people who render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. What a strange saying of Christ. Doesn’t all belong to God and, ultimately, nothing to Caesar? Yet as sojourners in this earth we do seem to ‘owe’ something to the world around us and to her present authorities. Edmund Burke writes very eloquently on the commitment one has to their community and country and traditions, as a task of love of their neighbor; even imperfect communities, countries, and traditions (as all are).
But of course, it is easy for me to wax eloquent. I have not been grieved by my community and country as others have been.
And so I am reminded that my first allegiance is to an eternal community, a heavenly country, a capital-T Tradition. This people transcends time and nationality and empire. I am united to the Catholic woman in rural Africa, to the Nestorian Christian traveling through 5th century Central Asia, much more intimately than any bond America could provide. But this is a community constantly at war with Babylon–and Babylon is mixed up in all the structures of our world. Many have suffered greatly under Babylon. Some more than others, or at least in different ways by which their political loyalty to Caesar is much more wrought. It’s not quite my place to spout off Edmund Burke to someone whose country has left them for dead. Loving one’s community is a more complicated business for such a person and my responsibility to my Christian family requires me to be quick to listen and slow to speak when it comes to those whose loyalty to Caesar is more difficult. My Israel may be my brother’s Egypt. To be a good brother, I need to be sensitive to that reality.
Indeed, we must recognize that all political life is found in the ambiguity that lies between Jerusalem and Babylon.
The New Testament tells us to pray for our leaders and submit to governing authorities, even when they persecute the Church! We are told to live for the good of the pagan cities we find ourselves in. But the New Testament is also full of incendiary political imagery condemning the prowling dragon that lurks in the halls of power and devours the weak. The careful reader would have seen that the book of Revelation depicts Rome – the same Rome that Paul says to pray for and submit to – as the Whore of Babylon. We are met with exhortations to love our political communities – to be patriots of a sort – and yet to also condemn in the harshest tones the evil that our political communities also can represent.
So where does that leave me? Where does it leave the rest of us? It leaves us in the strange tension in which the Christian has always been called to live: A good citizen, while also a prophetic critic. Submissive even to evil, yet also a peaceful rebel against oppression. Living in Babylon, pointing to Jerusalem. A sojourner in one city, citizen in Another.
Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go! When Israel was in Egypt land Let my people go! Oppressed so hard they could not stand Let my people go! So the god seyeth: 'go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go!' So Moses went to Egypt land Let my people go! He made all pharaohs understand Let my people go! Yes the lord said 'go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go!' Thus spoke the lord, bold Moses said: Let my people go! 'if not I'll smite, your firstborn's dead' Let my people go! God-the lord said 'go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go!' Tell all pharaohs To Let my people go
(photo credit: takomabibelot on flickr).