Every year, as we, “we” being “we Americans,” get ready to celebrate our independence, I am faced with this task. How do I express the Christian faith in and from the American context? I am very much an American citizen and a resident of the United States, and I believe I always will be. Furthermore, I hope I will be, at least up until the resurrection. I love the United States of America and I love being an American.
I love being a Christian more. And these two allegiances are not one in the same, nor are they in any way aligned. America is not God’s chosen nation. That’s Israel. Up to the time of Christ, God’s self-revelation to the world came through Israel. Israel and only Israel has been God’s chosen people. When Christ came, God’s self-revelation narrowed to one Israelite – Jesus of Nazareth. After his death and resurrection, non-Jews, Gentiles, were welcomed into the “people of God.” Paul stresses this throughout his letters, it is the conclusion of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), and is the focus of Romans 9-11.
Today, God’s people are all who come to faith in Jesus Christ. Koreans, Chinese, Ethiopians, Mexicans, Canadians, Dominicans, Haitians, Americans, and all other tribes, languages, and nations; all who put their trust in Jesus are adopted as sons and daughters of God. No passages makes this clearer than Revelation 7:9-10.
A few American evangelicals have tried to make the case that America is God’s chosen nation. They have urged congregations in the United States to conform to the U.S. government’s dictates, pointing to passages like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 as Biblical injunctions to nationalistic conformity. However, the pastors and leaders who offer such teachings, wedding faithfulness to American patriotism, ignore the fact that these words originally instructed a church that was a minority faith in the pagan Roman Empire. These passages served as strategies for the nascent church’s survival in the face of persecution, and success in evangelistic endeavors. If we claim these passages as endorsements of American governmental authority then we have to accept that these scriptures endorsed the Roman emperor’s position and claims. They most certainly did not.
Christians died on crosses because they refused to comply with the emperor’s edicts. They refused to say “Caesar is Lord.” They insisted, “Jesus is Lord.” Many first century Christians endured torture and died violent deaths because of this testimony. No, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 do not promote the Roman Empire nor do they conflate faith with American patriotism. In the first century, the scriptures make it clear that to be faithful to Christ was to be at odds with the government because only one can be ultimate. Christians say Jesus, not the government, is the ultimate – the ultimate authority, the only Savior, and the one definer of identity.
I know when I write or preach this way, many in the church do not like it. They want to love America and love Jesus, and they want those things to go together. My intent in this writing is not to make my readers/listeners uncomfortable. That’s not my goal. I’m not sitting here at my keyboard thinking, “This will make them squirm.” My goal is to look into the Bible and then reveal its absolute truth. That’s it.
The absolute truth of the Word is God demands our full loyalty. “Be perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We are Americans by birth or by naturalization. We are Americans by experience, by worldview, and by location. However, once we are “in Christ,” we are born again. That changes everything. From the time the Holy Spirit baptizes us, God defines every bit of our lives. What worries me is how little Christians in American churches consider the claim of God on their lives.
Too many American Christians want their Christianity to conform to the lives they’ve already carved out. They don’t want much to change when they turn to Jesus. Becoming a Christian is insurance for the afterlife, it is a social-identifier, and it is something new they’re trying as a part of their life. The New Testament has no place for such an anemic Christianity. The first century Christians who died in lions’ jaws insisting “Jesus is Lord” would not recognize what passes for faith in some American churches today. “Because you are lukewarm … I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). Jesus has no taste for someone who plays at being a Christian while putting other loyalties ahead of God.
On July 4th, I feel compelled to express love for America, and I do. But, as a Christian, I also know that we have no choice. On Independence Day, we must bear witness to our servitude. First and foremost, we are not voters in a democracy. That is a secondary identity for us. Our primary identity is as subjects in the Kingdom of God. Eternally indentured to Christ, we have greater freedom than the bald eagle and stars and stripes could ever give.
We love America. We pray for it. We vote. We serve in the military. We serve by trying to make out country better, by helping the poor, by using ethics and honesty in business, by cleaning up our communities and caring for the environment, by paying our taxes, and by being friendly, hospitable neighbors. Christians who put the Kingdom of God ahead of the United States are actually the very best American citizens because we work for the public good. We contribute to everyone’s thriving. We seek cooperation instead of zero-sum game competition. Our zeal for the Kingdom makes for a more open, diverse, America, a greatly strengthened America.
I don’t think this sounds patriotic. Oh well. I hope my love of my country comes through in these words. Even more, I hope upon reading this, you will go to the pages of New Testament to see if my assertions have any merit. I hope you will consider where your own loyalty lies.