In Sunday School, today, I did an introduction to the book of Nehemiah. We had to move in chairs, people were filed out the door, the youth had brought their friends – everyone wanted to know what Nehemiah had to say about their lives.
Actually, none of that happened except the first sentence.
As we looked at Nehemiah’s (out of chronological order) prayer in chapter 1, he confesses the corporate sin of Israel. People in class picked up on this, but their trajectory took them to, “How come we don’t do this for America?”
Well, the primary reason is that America is not the continuation of the story of the people of God in the world. It’s a nation in that popular club “The Nations” that are brought under the rule of Jesus Christ. It is not the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel. It may possibly be the fulfillment of Old Testament Babylon, not because America is especially bad, but because America is just another nation that God’s people happen to live in.
I hate to get into this, because I come off as being anti-American, and this is not true. I prefer living here, I enjoy the freedoms and benefits, I served a term in the military that did not go well, I pay my taxes, and although I am intrigued by the idea of living in other countries and have visited several, I have no immediate plans to move to any of them. Australia, for instance, has these terrible spiders, and you have to think about these things.
However, there needs to be a clear distinction between America and the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God exists in America as well as in virtually every other country on the globe. But the kingdom of God is a counter-nation to whatever nation she finds herself in, and loyalty to that kingdom trumps all other affiliations and identities.
The Christian church in America struggles with these boundaries, and I’m not sure I have all the answers, but our cultural heritage has made those boundaries more porous than in, say, China. In China, it’s quite obvious that being a Christian puts you in a community separate from your national government. In America, those boundaries are hazy.
And our churches have to work through the haziness, and that process sometimes ends up in a kind of mishmash. American flags end up in sanctuaries sitting across from the “Christian flag,” the fourth of July gets celebrated by churches in some ways, a lot of hay is made out of the American military, and at least a portion of what it means to be an evangelical Christian in America is also that you are, for the most part, a political conservative and likely to vote Republican.
There aren’t easy answers to this, and the fact is that the kingdom of God needs to be heavily at work in America for the blessing of America without becoming America, and this has never been easy for the people of God in any nation in any age. An American soldier who rejects the values of the kingdom and lives out his life just trying to survive is not my brother, but a Palestinian Christian who takes care of the wounded in the name of Jesus after an Israeli air raid is my brother. This can be a hard thing to apprehend, despite the fact that the calling out of the Lord Jesus into his kingdom clearly eclipses any other loyalties.
Veterans in America often need a lot of help and love. They can be alone. They can be unwanted. They can carry a host of psychological, emotional, and spiritual problems based on what they’ve seen or what they had to do. They are often unaware or for some reason do not qualify for the services America tries to render to them, often ineffectively. Several end up homeless.
So, on the one hand, there is a great need for the church to embrace veterans and give them love, community, and acceptance. To help them work through their pain and help them take care of their bills. To bring them into a kingdom where they can lay down the sword and become a part of healing and reconciliation to God, to themselves, and one another.
On the other hand, there is a danger that we become a de facto endorsement for America’s violence, as if it’s inherently good for Christians to sign up to go where America tells them to kill who America tells them to kill.
I say this carefully, because I am not trying to condemn Christians who are now or have been serving in the military. I did as well. We all have to find our own way through these issues, we’re not going to land in the same place, and far be it from me to take my own conclusions and declare them to be true or consistent Christianity for everyone else.
But I am illustrating how easy it is for God’s kingdom in America to identify itself with America instead of a counter-community who works for the blessing of Americans and the rest of the world.
I have no way to access this data, but I do wonder how many sermons so far in America have addressed the issue of the restrooms that transgendered people use versus how many sermons have addressed the issue of how the church treats transgendered people. The first is an issue of American polity; the second is an issue of who we are, who we should be, and what we should be doing.
And this is why, if we’re going to find some sympathy with Nehemiah, we might pray over the sins of the church in America. Have we become Babylon, such that we are indistinguishable from the nation we live in? Have we fought using the enemy’s weapons? Have we been motivated by greed? Have we excluded people? Have we told people who need clothes and food to get a job instead of clothing and feeding them? Have we drawn a line in the sand about certain sins that we will deal with much more sanctimoniously than other sins? Have we created obstacles to hurting Christians being transparent? Have we taken judgment into our own hands?
One of the challenges the church in America has is how to define herself as not-America.