America: New Jerusalem or Nova Roma?

624px-Flag-of-USA

Which one is America? The shining city on the hill, or the iron-fisted empire?

From a secular perspective, it’s clear that America is an exceptional nation. In technology, medicine, and research of all kinds, we’re world-class. In military might, we are the clear world leader.

We’re wealthy, strong, dominant. Our culture and language penetrates far beyond our borders, and people want to live here so strongly they’re willing to sneak in and live as fugitives.

But what does that mean to those of us who are both Americans and Christians?

What does it mean for the genuine desire among so many American Christians to get back to when America was a Christian nation, a godly nation? What does it mean for the equally genuine belief that America was never a godly nation?

What does it mean for us as citizens of a democracy? What path do we choose? Where do our allegiances lie?

If you see America as a city on a hill, even one that is somewhat fallen, then you see it as a special nation. A nation favored by God and destined to bring the world closer to Christ. In this mindset, it is vital to fight to preserve traditional American values (because they are closer to that original city on the hill) and to fight to enshrine Christian values in the laws of America.

On the other hand, if you see America as more like Rome, a powerful empire that is both good and bad, prosperous and brutal, you feel a separation. It’s not that America isn’t a great nation. It’s that great nations serve the powerful, and sometimes leave destruction in their wake. Jesus didn’t call us to dominate, but to serve.

America was built on African slavery and the destruction and conquest of the Native Americans. But without America, Hitler may have conquered the world. Without America, democracy may never have spread to Europe and beyond.

Evil is wrapped around good, like wheat and chaff. It’s like this in every nation, but the powerful ones especially.

Those of us who are skeptical of the culture wars, the attempts to force America’s laws to conform to our ideas of Christianity, aren’t just lukewarm or wishy-washy. We aren’t all sellouts to popular culture.

We have serious problems hitching our wagons to an Empire as bloody as Rome ever was. We have serious problems fighting to restore America’s morality, because American morality isn’t Christian morality.

We know that people get hurt, our witness gets clouded, and our hearts grow harder when we speak in language of disgust, of enmity, of power.

And we know that power brokers and politicians lap it up. Dollar-sign men who never feared God will speak with the tongues of angels, praying down brimstone, to get our votes.

Worse, perhaps, are the politicians who believe it – uncritically, unquestioningly – that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are justified.  And that those who doubt, or defer, or question are weak and contemptible. And anyone who stands against us deserves whatever they get.

So, America, who are you?

The great empire?

The beast?

The city on the hill?

 

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American Gods (Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part One)

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

[This is my second post on William Stringfellow’s 1965 book, Imposters of God. For my first post, click here.]

When most people think of idolatry, they think of ancient Rome or today’s hunter-gatherers. But this is a mistake, according to William Stringfellow. “After all, is there any essential difference between middle-class people idolizing their children, as they do in America, an heathen venerating their ancestors?”

Today, as in 1965, idolatry is alive and well in America. We have made our new gods, but even the old gods find adherents. “Recalling Hiroshima, or beholding the war in Vietnam, can any of us really believe that Mars has abdicated his throne, or that the cult in which war is the deity, is any less militant here and now than in former times?”

In 48 years, what has changed? Recalling Baghdad  or beholding the war in Afghanistan and the constant drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, is Ares not still worshiped? Do we not pour out blood offerings to him every day?

America has always been polytheistic. We’ve always worshiped liberty, war, money, independence, family, rugged individualism, tradition, and religion.

In the Evangelical Churches especially, we’ve made an idol of marriage and family. What are singles Sunday School classes? Meat markets. What message do students get at Christian colleges? Get a ring by spring.

What do we teach about the call to celibacy, which the apostle Paul holds up as being more useful for the kingdom than marriage? Nothing, or perhaps, that it’s a Catholic thing that turns their priests into perverts.

What are the names of our great political organizations? American Family, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family … think about it, and think about what Jesus said about family (Luke 14:26).

Back to Stringfellow. What is an idol? It is anything, no matter how inherently noble, that a person uses to justify his or her own existence. An idol is “…that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile.”

The Christian is justified by God’s faithfulness, especially as show by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. If we lose sight of that and base our worth on anything else:

  • Family
  • Accomplishments
  • Children
  • Physical fitness
  • Political party
  • Reputation
  • Our own moral strength
  • Wealth
  • Patriotism,
  • Our Church and place in it

…. then we have fallen into idolatry.

When we use these idols to justify our existence, we become invested in them, even evangelize them. Stringfellow summed up the generational conflict of the 1960’s in one sentence:

“Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship.”

Next time, I’ll talk about how letting something become an idol damages not only the inadvertent idolater, but also the idol.

But for now, let me offer up this prayer. Father in Heaven, give me eyes to see the idols that I have hidden in my life. Show me all those things I worship that are not you. Give me the wisdom to understand them. Give me the strength to cast them down, like Gideon.

Amen.

Our Feet on the Necks of “The Least of These”

We Christians should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the freaks, geeks, and outcasts of society. Not out of some source of nobless oblige or charity, as if we’re above them, but because really following our Savior should make us outcasts, too.

Why? Because the way of the world is seeking power, seeking status, and seeking to secure that power and status against all threats. Thomas Hobbes explored this in depth in Leviathan.

Bruce Springsteen summed it up neatly in Badlands: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.”

America has democratized status-seeking. There is no subset of scheming aristocracy as opposed to hardy commoners that ‘know their place.’ You can call this good or bad, but it’s hard to deny it. We all now have the freedom and resources to seek our own power and security.

Even the common American has a luxury only noblemen had for centuries: the ability to claw his or her way up the social ladder, climbing over the broken hearts and souls of the weak, the slow, the “sinners,” and the outcasts.

We as Christians should be above this primal urge to claw and climb our way up. But too often, we are the chief participants. We keep up appearances and never admit weakness, not to our church “family.” We pretend our lives are fine, and our souls are spotless (aside from a vague spattering of socially acceptable sins).

We oppose anti-bullying measures because they partially focus on protecting gay kids. And we spend a lot of money making sure gay people don’t have the same legal rights we do.

We sometimes actively discriminate against people of other religions (try getting a teaching job in Mississippi is you’re openly atheist or Wiccan. The good Christian administrators will hire someone else, anyone else, faster than you can say “Christopher Hitchens”).

We rage against “welfare queens,” while asserting a rugged independence we manifestly do not possess. We lift our “self-made” wealth up like a bronze serpent on a pole, and look to it for our earthly salvation.

Jesus walked among the poor, the socially unacceptable (those the Pharisees called sinners, as if that brood of vipers weren’t worse sinners themselves), the sick, the outcast. He loved and healed them, including lepers (unclean), tax collectors (traitorous collaborators), a Roman Centurion (an occupying soldier, and worse, an unclean gentile), a Samaritan woman, the possessed, the insane.

But we too often stand with the vipers, the social climbers, with our feet on the necks of the least of these.

And that is unquestionably wrong.

No matter how many Bible verses we produce to prove a particular point, we can never justify turning the Gospel into a weapon, or a mere tool of social or political power.

Amputations, Spiritual and Marital (an Analogy)

Prosthetic Arm

I think I may not have written clearly enough in my last post, and some of my point may have been lost. So let me try again.

Too often in the church today we focus on condemning “sin,” which in large part means condemning people after things go off the rails. But we need to be more open, sensitive, and helpful to each other so we can keep each other from getting into desperate situations.

I’ll address divorce again, using C.S. Lewis’s metaphor of amputation. Though I’ve never gone through a divorce, the thought of separating from Katherine is  horrible –  I’d rather lose an arm.

The thought of things getting so bad between us that severing our lives seems like an improvement? That’s horrifying.

Malachi 2:16 flat-out says that God hates divorce. That makes sense. He’s the Great Physician, and what doctor likes to perform amputations? Amputations are only indicated when injury or infection is so terrible that it threatens the life of the body.

Shouldn’t we, as a church, be washing each others’ wounds? Shouldn’t we be installing guard rails on the dangerous machinery? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to prevent these amputations, instead of preaching condemnation at one-armed men and women?

I think so. But during my married life, I’ve never been a member of, or even a regular attender of, a church that provided active support for married couples.

One church, First Baptist Byram, did at least offer Financial Peace University. Though it wasn’t specifically aimed at “marriage support,” it does help people (or couples) come to terms with their finances, which are one of the top (if not the #1) causes of conflict and divorce.

But as much emphasis as the church puts on families and marriage, I just haven’t seen much on actually working to strengthen existing marriages.

But if we hate divorce as God does, shouldn’t we be working to prevent it?

Shouldn’t those of us who’ve been happily married for many years offer ourselves (without being pushy) as willing listeners to those who are newly married, or who are having troubles?

Shouldn’t we offer classes that focus on issues that come up? Or if the church is too small for that, shouldn’t we at least suggest books (like The Total Money Makeover and The Five Love Languages) and resources on the community or association/diocese level?

Shouldn’t we try to be proactive?

Of course, that would require us to be more honest with each other, and to create an environment in which people feel comfortable talking about their hard times and shortfalls, without fearing condemnation.

But that’s a problem for another post.

 

Sold! (Wrestling the Angel of Consumerism)

X-Box 260

This is my X-Box. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My longtime friend Paul, a preacher, responded to my last post, and I think what he had to say was important.  He pointed out that it’s not just the ministers that are responsible for consumerism and massive spending in American churches.  In my experience, he’s right.  Sure, there are the occasional music ministers who spend $10,000 in lighting for a Christmas musical for a church with 250 members.  But most of the time, it’s actually the congregation that controls the purse strings.

It’s the congregation that votes “yes” on gaudy church palaces.  It’s the congregation that says “yeah, let’s spend $5 million to move from the city center to the ritzy suburb.”  They’re not saying “we have no responsibility to this city or to the poor,” well, not out loud, but their actions sure look like it.

[I hadn’t actually meant to imply that it was the preachers’ fault, but I can certainly see how it looks that way.  Using the term “ecclesiastical bling” was probably my main mistake.  It serves me right for putting an attempt at wit above accuracy:  that path leads to Ann Coulter territory.]

The truth is, we’ve all been soaking in consumerism our entire lives.  Even the 116 year old woman can’t remember a time when producers sought to fill needs, rather than manufacture wants.  Newspaper ads as far back as the 1890’s sold health and beauty aids of various types, using loaded language to make people feel insufficient without the products.

Of course, the media of transmission and frequency of contact have increased.  With smart phones advertisements can reach us even when we’re not in front of a television.  And their message is, uniformly, you are not good enough without our products.

The truth is, we’re all so deeply permeated by consumerism we don’t even realize it.  I’m thirty-seven years old, and I only recently realized how much I let piddling earthly wants pull me around.  And I think most people don’t even bother to consider it.  We may tithe, but we don’t push the church to use the tithe wisely.

Thunder may strike with me quoting John Piper, but he’s right: for most middle-class American Christians, giving only the tithe is robbing God.  I’d add that giving the tithe and encouraging the church use it selfishly is also robbing God.

But we’re so sucked-under by consumerism that we don’t even see our own selfishness.  My wants are so often so piddly – a new video game, a new movie, a new (or more accurately, an old and interesting) gun for my collection, a nice meal out.  And all of those are fine, until I count up how much I spend per year on stuff I won’t even care about in a few years’ time, and how little of my income goes to things that are, in some way, eternal.  I get mad at myself. And then I think that our churches are doing basically the same things, and I get mad at everyone.

It’s stunning to think of people in countries who live on $2000 a year, who don’t have clean water, whose children have no opportunity to go to school and improve their material situation.  Many times we turn away, because the images are too graphic, the damage too gruesome, and that’s understandable.  I have to praise World Vision for accentuating the good that can be done, rather than manipulating people’s sympathy with pictures of dying infants.  They tend to take the long view anyway, and guilt isn’t a long-term motivator.

I can’t ask anyone else to go where I won’t, so I’m going to take a first step.  Like many people in my generation, I have multiple video game systems, some quite old, some relatively new.  I’m going to put one of them (my Xbox 360) on Craigslist, and donate whatever money it brings to World Vision.  It’s a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the act of sacrificing one of my luxuries may be healing.

Growing up in this consumerist haze, we get addicted to so many things before we’re even old enough to know it.  We’re all like bulls with rings in our noses, led around by small men, by peddlers who sap our strength and freedom.  But like bulls, we are strong enough to break free, if we can bear the pain.