Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
This past weekend, in anticipation of Independence Day, Hobby Lobby, the privately-owned arts and crafts store, took out full page advertisements in city newspapers across the United States to proclaim, “Blessed is the Nation Whose God is Lord”(Psalm 31:22). Under a red, white, and blue header ran three columns of quotations from US Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and Founding Fathers as well as various court rulings, congressional statements, and Ivy League religious codes suggesting that the country was founded as, and presumably should remain, an explicitly Christian nation. A blue footer listed websites to visit if the reader wished to “…know Jesus as Lord and Savior,” or download a free Bible to a smartphone.
David Green, who took out a six hundred dollar loan in 1970 to launch the business that would become Hobby Lobby and is now worth more than $6 billion, began purchasing newspaper ads for Christmas in 1996, and has since added Easter and Independence Day in an annual holiday cycle. The Green family has used its considerable wealth to fund evangelical ministries and the recently-opened American Museum of the Bible, and to sue the US for a religious exclusion from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to cover medications they consider to be abortifacient. Whatever one’s politics, there’s no doubting the Green family’s influence.
The Greens participate in a long American tradition that sees the United States as a unique, Godly nation, rightful heir to John Winthrop’s claim regarding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “…that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses…”(recorded while aboard the Arbella, 1630).
US Presidents from Adams and Lincoln to Reagan and Clinton have generally preferred to cite the first part of the quotation, which plays better to a crowd than the bit about false-dealing, shame, and curses. Nevertheless, that rather unattractive conclusion removes all doubt as to what Massachusetts or the United States is claiming as its historical precedent: Israel, God’s chosen people, as represented in the “Deuteronomist” accounts (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, plus or minus Jeremiah).
Transforming metaphor into identity, the US becomes God’s chosen nation, its European settlers rightful claimants to the Promised Land, native peoples no more than Canaanites to be forcibly evicted, while all the other nations have only to look to us and see how a Godly nation behaves. America becomes God’s adopted hometown.
Which may explain why God seems unable to do a deed of power here in these darkening times. What once were political disagreements open to compromise are now occasions for mutual demonization. Truth is a matter of opinion, as inscrutable as it was to Pontius Pilate. In public conversations about immigration, mercy and truth part company, while justice and peace file for divorce. When children are massacred in schoolrooms, condolences fade into recrimination as a shattered people wait for the usual nothing to happen in response. For all its talk of God, God finds no honor here.
If the perpetually undefined (and quite likely indefinable) “American nation” truly is the New Israel, it has forgotten the warnings of Deuteronomy 8, especially verse 12-14: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
I think the truth, however, is that the US never was – and certainly isn’t now – God’s chosen nation. Those who loudly cry “Lord, Lord,” have rarely loved their neighbor, much less their enemy. Those who use Romans 13 as a cattle prod have long since rejected the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger, a thread that runs from Deuteronomy to the Gospels. Those who should most know what the Bible says about money and riches have made them idols.
And no, I’m not talking only about the current US administration. These are recurring themes in American history that may seem more obvious now only because they are so flagrant and indefensible. This has long — perhaps always — been a nation of rebels. Christian America, which has made America the noun to which “Christian” serves as a handy, if morally impotent, adjective, lost its way years before the current public nastiness. As Wendell Berry wrote a quarter century ago:
Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life? What, for Christians, would be the economy, the practices and the restraints, of “right livelihood”? I do not believe that organized Christianity now has any idea. I think its idea of a Christian economy is no more or less than the industrial economy–which is an economy firmly founded upon the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments.
(from “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, p. 100.)
The work of Benedict Anderson and Charles Taylor has helped clarify that all nations are “imagined communities,” “social imaginaries” dependent on the shared myths, assumptions, values, and practices of their constituents. If Christians wish to see God perform a deed of power in this divided and angry land, we can no longer imagine America as God’s special country, God’s chosen people, God’s hometown. We must imagine, think, and act in ways that transform the tarnished word “Christian” from a soothing adjective to contrarian noun.
Seventeen centuries before Hauerwas and Willimon wrote the still incisive Resident Aliens, an anonymous Christian author felt it necessary to explain his community’s peculiar manners:
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives… In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body and Christians throughout the cities of the world.
(from “The Epistle to Diognetus,” in The Apostolic Fathers, Holmes M, ed., p.541.)
The community described here is no so-called “Benedict Option.” It’s members practice detachment, not withdrawal. Nor is this a Gnostic rejection of the goodness particular to a place and its creatures. These Christians actively work for the common good, but know their allegiance is to a nation without armies or defined borders.
What if baptism into the Body of Christ were more determinative than citizenship? What if Christians learned to live lightly like Jesus’ disciples, ready to move if needed, but committed – as the historical Benedict and his followers were – to practical forms of stability? What if Christians understood that God has no favorite country and that they, like scattered seed on variable soil, are to flourish where they are, but not believe themselves duty-bound to make their part of the field “the greatest,” or “the best?”
Polls say “organized religion” (as opposed to, say, “organized nation-states”) is rapidly losing its appeal in the US, especially among the young. Given the behavior and policies of some of “organized religion’s” most vocal proponents, there’s little mystery why. If serious Christians want some answers to the questions in the previous paragraph, they may not need to wait very long. Post-Christendom is coming to America. Indeed, it’s already here, has been for some time, waiting only for us to notice. Then, perhaps, God may once again perform deeds of power among an alien people who, rather than seeking power and influence, instead welcome strangers, drive out demons, and anoint the sick.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia: “The American Prohibition Flag”, used in an unofficial capacity by the US Prohibition Party in its campaign to pass and ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, was presented as “A Stainless Flag over a Saloonless Nation.” The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, is oldest existing “third party” in the US and was the first to admit women as party members and convention delegates. The party’s 2016 Presidential nominee, James Hedges, appeared on the ballot in Arkansas, Colorado, and Mississippi, and received 5,514 votes.)