Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christian or American?

Life is busy and we have a lot to think about. We don't always think too deeply about how we talk about ourselves. This means we probably don't give much attention to the way in which we are defining ourselves as people. Whenever we talk about ourselves we are putting in an effort to define ourselves both in our own minds and the minds of others. This means that the way we talk about ourselves is incredibly important.

I was recently reading a discussion between some Christian friend's about the situation regarding the U.S. military and ISIS. One of the people mentioned what Obama was doing with "our military" and it got me thinking about identity. That thinking turned into the following thread of tweets:

The contexts God has given to us are wonderful gifts. It's good to remember that the Apostle Paul  used his Roman citizenship and Jewish ethnicity when it helped his cause of doing the work of God's kingdom. We know that it is acceptable to embrace many labels in this life.

I'm an American but far beyond, before, and above that I am a Christian and nothing defines me more than my relationship to God through Christ as a citizen of his heavenly kingdom. I'm his ambassador on this earth (2 Corinthians 5:20). Wherever I live, wherever I go I am representing my home country of heaven and the will of God which is my primary culture. 

If I am to be primarily defined by an allegiance or political tie then it must not be to a man-made organization but to King Jesus and His kingdom. Most accurately stated, I'm a Christian living in the United States of America. I'm a citizen of this country and I love a lot about it but it has no hold on me.

My main point is that we must allow ourselves to be primarily defined by our relationship to God and His kingdom and not any man or his nation. In doing this we become capable of better loving and serving whatever nation we are most connected to on earth and are able to transcend man-made social borders that draw people into an Us vs. Them mentality which endangers our commitment to Jesus.

One small way we can begin to become more intentional about allowing ourselves to be defined more by our relationship to God through Christ and less by the country we live in is to pay attention to what we are saying whenever we say "we" or "our", especially when engaging in political discussion. In other words, when we talk about ourselves who are we talking about?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Why 'God Bless America' Is Problematic

If you're a citizen of the United States then you are familiar with the national songs that permeate our culture. We sing national anthems and songs like God Bless America before sporting events and major public spectacles. These songs are a big part of the nation's identity. We rarely think of this sort of action as religious but I am persuaded that songs like God Bless America are actually highly religious and a part of a national(istic) liturgy that promotes the civil religion (which is not true Christianity).

At the risk of being labelled "anti-American", I also believe we are often as idolatrous with the United States as the Romans were with Caesar. I also believe Jesus calls us away from this idolatry. Proving this thesis would take far more than a blog and some good men have already done this* so I will keep a limited focus here.

As the Church has creeds, hymns, symbols and sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist so nations have defining practices and proclamations such as constitutions, anthems, flags, and pledges. I'd like to focus on the possible problems with Christians participatin in the song God Bless America

Did you know that the classic song is actually a prayer and that the first half of the song is rarely present when we sing it at events? Below is the full set of lyrics as written and edited by Irving Berlin in 1918/1938. 
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God bless America,
Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home
God bless America, My home sweet home.
It begins by inviting us into a "solemn prayer." Prayer is good. Christians pray. That's not problematic. The problem arises when we are to pray as we pair it with an allegiance to the United States (or any single group of people). The author has done precisely this. This song is a prayer for those who have sworn an allegiance to a group known as the United States. 

Of course, this only seems problematic when we understand that swearing an allegiance to a single group of people is problematic for the Christian. This type of oath or allegiance promotes an unbiblical Us v. Them mentality. If the United States has my allegiance then Russia, China, Mexico, Canada, Iraq (and the people belonging to those nations) do not. That means that I've chosen one group of people over another (both of which have Christians in them). This also means that I've decided that I belong mores to a people defined by borders, wars, flags, and politics than to people defined by Jesus and his kingdom. In most wars you can find Christians killing Christians (who are commanded by Jesus to love one another) simply because one political authority has disagreements with another, for whatever reason. Any time we give ourselves to a man-made kingdom (which the U.S. absolutely is) then we forsake the Kingdom of God. 2 Samuel 8 provides a picture of God's heart for his people to be under his rule and not under man's rule.

Jesus shows up on earth and calls himself Lord. This is a title belonging to Caesar. Jesus' gospel (or "good news") is a political statement that declares himself as the true ruler, the true Son of God that demands our allegiance. The Peace of Rome doesn't hold a flame to the Prince of Peace. Jesus ran a political campaign against Caesar that didn't look like any other political campaign because his heavenly kingdom doesn't look like any earthly kingdom. He wants our allegiance to his kingdom and his politic which says "love your neighbor" and "love your enemy." Jesus' politic is inclusive, not exclusive. Jesus' kingdom wars against the powers and principalities (which include the political authorities of this world) and calls us out of them. This is why we are to be considered foreigners wherever we live on earth. The United States is not our homeland because God's kingdom is our homeland and it is that homeland that determines our identity and conduct. After all, we operate under the rule of our King, Jesus.

So, God Bless America demands that we, as those who have pledged our allegiance to the United States, offer a deeply sincere prayer. We now see that this prayer is rooted in nationalism and favoritism for our own kingdom/nation (over and above others). What is that prayer specifically?

God, bless America, the kingdom that I love.

This asks God to join us in our favoritism.** This is us asking God to bless the kingdom that we are most fond of, the nation that we have pledged ourselves to (over his kingdom). Any time we ask God to join us in our kingdom instead of joining him in his kingdom we take a serious misstep. But this is an easy move to make. How often do we desire for God to accept our agenda? All the time! In all avenues of life we neglect God's already present agenda for our own. Nations/kingdoms are no different. Here, in this prayer, we ask God to join our agenda. 

We are attempting to enlist God into our own earthly kingdom's cause. Doesn't that seem backwards? He has already called us to enlist into his heavenly kingdom through Jesus! He came calling us to repent because Christ Jesus is Lord! Yet here we stand, saying "No, you come over here!" Be assured, he won't (because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand and thus Jesus stay in his God's kingdom and doesn't exchange it for submission to other powers/kingdoms/authorities).

Granted, the prayer doesn't only ask God to stand beside America (supporting her causes) but to guide her. Now, that's worth getting behind! Right? God should guide us. However, with the foundation that has been laid it's clear that we are asking God to guide us on our own terms. We want him to guide us as an enlisted member of our kingdom so that our causes (not his) would prosper under his infinite wisdom. He's our muscle not our master.

We want God to guide us through our troubles, "the night." However, while God promises to give those who love him the strength to endure all sufferings, we're essentially asking for God to protect us as we pursue our own agenda and not his. In doing this we follow in the idolatrous steps of Emperor Constantine.*** That's not submitting to God, it's using God. This is not a plea for true guidance because true guidance demands allegiance to God's kingdom and submission to his will. As it is, we're not seeking to serve God as a people but rather asking God to serve us and our own national will. That's backwards and it is wrong.

The prayer ends with the petition for God to bless our kingdom which we declare to be our "home, sweet home." The earliest version of the prayer featured the wording "Our own sweet home", once again showcasing the favoritism of the prayer. As stated earlier, for the Christian, no earthly land is ever to be considered a true home, let alone a home worthy of our sworn allegiance because our home is God's kingdom.  This is why Jesus has prepared a place for us at his Father's house (John 14:1-3). We are sojourners, aliens, strangers, foreigners, refugees. The early church proclaims this truth and we should have ears to hear it. Most problematic is that the United States, even if claimed to be our home, is not God's home and it is precisely his home to which we are to belong. God does not belong to the U.S. Rather, the earth and all that is in it belongs to God (Psalm 24:1)!

To be clear, I find it very good to love where you live, to desire truly good things for the people you live around, and for the nation surrounding you to honor God and live out his justice (this is why we pray for our national authorities). I write this in attempt to continue searching for what an appropriate patriotism looks like for Christians. Understanding what it looks like for us to appropriately relate to earthly kingdoms can be difficult and it's a hard discuss an that is worth having. 

Stanley Hauerwas states, " America, Christians just cannot distinguish themselves - what is means to be Christian, they assume it goes hand in hand with what it means to be an American. And that's just a deep mistake." In other words, the problem many American Christians face is that they are American before they are Christian. This is the nationalistic idolatry that we must guard ourselves against. He also wisely states that, "[the truth and declaration that] 'Jesus is Lord' is going to make my life quite dysfunctional in relationship to a good deal of American practice." Jesus disrupts our lives if we sincerely seek and obey him. Our national identities and practices are no exception to this. 

What does this mean for us? It means we must wrestle out our salvation with fear and trembling, begging God to find any wicked way within us and to purge us of it and forgive us as we repent and begin to learn how to live in a land without giving it more than it is due so that we might fully give ourselves to Christ and his kingdom. 

*A few books that I have found to address this issue in a reasonable and biblical manner are Myth of A Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd, Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne, A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, and The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh (I've listed these in the order that they began to influence me and in the order that I think is easiest to accept the material within them)
**In 1834 Robert Montgomery Bird wrote a song with the same title (God Bless America!) that is equally, if not more, obvious in it's nationalistic favoritism claiming that "the only prayer we know" is God bless America... Forever! 
***Emperor Constantine was the first ruling authority to become a Christian (312 A.D.). After his Baptism, the church went from being the oppressed few to the powerful many. He believed God was guiding his warfare and favored Christianity to the point of persecuting people of other religions in Christ's name. Constantine didn't come into the service of God but rather brought God's name into his own service. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

I Don't Want To Love You

I've been listening to a rap artist named Andy Mineo a lot lately. He has a song entitled Bitter that describes his struggle with his attitude of bitterness towards his father. In it he mentions the struggle with knowing the right (loving) thing to do and not having the desire to do that thing.

This is a struggle common to all people. We want to do the good and loving thing. We want to refrain from doing what is unloving or that stalls our love towards others. The problem is that other people annoy us, get in the way, and do mean things to us. They make us not want to love them. So it seems.

The truth is, other people don't make us not want to love them, we make ourselves not want to love them. 

Others may wrong us or do things that initiate negative emotions and thoughts but we can only control our own behavior and we all must control our own behavior. If we stay stuck in an emotion it is most likely because we have chosen to dwell in that emotion and given it rule within us. We don't have to do that. Now, standing against our negative emotions can be difficult but it certainly is by no means impossible.

In fact, with God, all things are possible. Even the evil people of this world (like me) can be saved. And through Christ we can endure all things, even hardships, wrongdoings of others, annoyance, and destructive emotions and attitudes. Knowing these truths is key to being obedient to God.

We know we're supposed to love neighbors and enemies. This is not new to us. For the sake of discussion, let's move forward saying that the people we find ourselves at odds with (emotionally, in attitude, and in action) are all "enemies." What does this mean to love these people? 

Loving enemies is explained by Jesus in Luke 6 when he states, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. ...Do to others as you would have them do to you." Basically, do only good things to them, along with extending to them prayers and blessings. This demands a positive, generous, kind, and patient, attitude. 

Easier said than done right? Right. But why? I have a theory.

Too often we think our emotions and attitudes need to lead the way into this love for enemies. We still believe love is primarily a feeling and not an action. We believe a feeling of affection must seize us organically and spontaneously (or after some measure of time) before we can truly act in love towards our enemies. We believe that to act before feeling would be a deception to them and ourselves, most of all to God. In other words, we'd be inauthentic (and nothing bothers us as much as not being authentic). 

Here's the rub: That is a giant lie. 

Jesus never calls for us to feel good about enemies or have affection for them before loving them with our deeds. He never says "Once you have defeated your initial anger towards being wronged, then go and do good." He simply tells us to love them. We must be about the work of love and we must be about it now, not later. We can not afford waiting until we simply feel differently on the matter or person. If we do, we shall wait forever.

Perhaps this is why we are given only the command to do good, to do loving things towards those we are at odds with. Jesus, as Creator and Redeemer, knows that loving actions leads the way to transforming our feelings and attitudes. 

When we depend on our emotions to lead us into the way of love we depend on ourselves, and the least dependable part of ourselves. We must learn to let Jesus lead us into the way of love. When we move our motivational focus from our emotions to Jesus Christ then we find a new mode of operation.

Jesus Christ, sinless, dwelt with us, revealed God to us, was wronged by us,  and was killed by us. As we did wrong to him he healed us. As he was being murdered he pleaded for our forgiveness. While we were at odds with him, Christ died for us. We love others we are at odds with because Jesus first loved us and love is the law of his kingdom.

This is why we treat others how we want to be treated when we don't feel like it. We believe that love is seen in offering our lives to others, especially those we are at odds with, and we have been commanded to live this way by the man who showed us true love when we deserved the exact opposite.

So when someone says something foolish, cuts you off in traffic, insults you, robs you, or brings any aggression your way, do good and bless them for you, like Christ, are here to love as a light in the darkness. Don't fade into the dark by letting your emotions win over you but rather ask God to deliver you from temptation and evil, focus on Christ, and be light.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fred Phelps Has Died. Now What?

Fred Phelps, leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, has passed away into the grave. There aren't a lot of details surrounding the 84 year old lawyer's death at the moment but what we do know is that his time with us has come to an end.

For many, this may feel like a time for celebration. After all, Phelps has led a small community of devoted people in the protesting of funerals, bashing of the LGBTQ community, abusing of their own children, speaking against the God of love, and more. Many offenses have been at the hands of Phelps and his family that followed him.

As a Christian who has seen the damage brought to the gospel message in the United states (and further) as a result of Phelps' actions it is easy to be upset by his life. I can understand people's desire to celebrate this death but let us remember that even though a person causes pain and does wicked deeds, they are still a creation of the God who loved us sinners and called us to his kingdom when we didn't deserve it. That person is still someone God wants to save. This God desires for no wicked person to perish and beckons us to love all people, especially the ones with whom we are at odds. Jesus has shown us these truths clearly.

Let us pray that God has mercy on Fred Phelps and his family and that they find blessings in that grace. May we have the Spirit of God so that we may react kindly to them and treat them as we want to be treated. We teach love by loving so let us love and forgive in breathtaking abundance. Whatever awaits Fred Phelps in judgment will be right and just. We can trust that and because we can trust that we can also extend uncompromised love to his people.

The Westboro Baptist family has lost a loved one and they deserve for us to share in their mourning as compassionate people. Let love win out in your heart, your mind, and your feet as you approach this news. May the peace of Christ be with you and with the Westboro Baptist community and may god have mercy on us all, sinners.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. This marks the first day of Lent (a 46 day season in the Christian calendar). This is the season that leads us to Easter. As Advent is to Christmas so Lent is to Easter.

Dismissing Sundays (as the fast is not recognized on the day we celebrate the resurrection), Lent is 40 days and it is meant to reflect Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.  During this time Jesus fasted and faced temptation from Satan before beginning his” formal ministry.” For the Christian, this is also a time of fasting, temptation, preparation, as we draw near to the Father who has called us to him. As we commit ourselves to fasts we also dedicate ourselves to prayer.

In worship services centered on this important day we don ashes upon the forehead as a reminder of our mortality. This is also symbolic of mourning, confession, and repentance before God. In scripture and through church history, people would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes during times of mourning and repentance. The ashes traditionally are made from burning the previous year’s palms used on Palm Sunday (this is rarer in protestant and western traditions).

Lent is meant to help us journey to Jesus’ cross, burial, and resurrection. It is a time to follow him as he ministers to us, making us aware of who we are, who’s we are, and who we should look to for salvation. During Lent we closely follow Jesus and listen to his teachings. We walk with him to his death and find our own death. In walking with Jesus while fasting and praying we discover our frailty as created beings and discover our own sinfulness. When Lent ends on Easter we see the full victory of Jesus over sin and death as we wipes away all impurity and beckons us to join him past the path of dirt leading to the cross and death and into to resurrection and eternity.

If your congregation doesn't hold an Ash Wednesday service, I encourage you to find a local congregation that does so that you might partake in this beautiful tradition.