A few years ago, I decided to do some research on my genealogy. I decided I would trace back as far as I could as many branches of my family as possible. My parents were both raised in the mountains of East Tennessee where my forebears lived for generations. And that stuff you’ve heard about inbreeding in the Appalachian Mountains…well, for my family it is true. The good thing is that it meant I had fewer branches of the family to research.
Unsurprisingly, I could trace back several branches only about five generations before I reached a dead end. But all the ones that I managed to trace back further than that had arrived in America prior to the Revolutionary War. I already knew I had great-great-grandfathers who fought both on the side of the North and the South during the Civil War. My mom’s side of the family fought for the North, and my dad’s family fought for the South. But I discovered much more.
I found I had a great-great-grandfather who fought in the War of 1812, several great-great grandfathers who fought during the Revolutionary War and one who had fought alongside George Washington in the French-Indian Wars. I had never even heard of the New Sweden Colony until I discovered I had several direct-line ancestors who were part of it. I have both early Puritan and Quaker ancestors. I’m a direct descendent of George Soule, one of the signatories of the Mayflower Compact. And on my father’s side I’m related to Chickamauga Cherokee Chief John Watts, also called Young Tassel.
Bottom line: no one can claim to be more American than I am.
So when the apostle Paul declares, “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:4-6) and so forth, that resonates with me. Paul had all the reason in the world to sing of his pride in being a member of the nation of Israel. He was a Hebrew in both flesh and spirit. He believed his people were the chosen of God, that his nation was like no other.
A lot of Americans have the same sort of pride in their country and its heritage.
Being a Jew was not — and is not — just a matter of being a member of a particular religion. In most cases, it is also being a part of an ethnic group that has a stake in a particular place, the land of Israel. Being an observant Jew is to be part of a people who display their identity through certain practices and rituals, such as circumcision, a number of dietary restrictions, refraining from work on the Sabbath, observing special days of remembrance, among other things. All of these things deeply defined Paul.
We who are Americans are not all of a single ethnic group like Jews. But Americans are attached to a specific land, whether they live within the border of it or not. And many of us feel that America is in some fashion “chosen.” Americans have some beliefs that are generally shared, and Americans have rituals. Early in their lives virtually all Americans learn the Pledge of Allegiance and are taught to stand during the National Anthem with hand over heart. Further, Americans recognize special days, such as Independence Day and Memorial Day.
For well over two centuries, many preachers and politicians have drawn parallels between biblical Israel and America. So it should be no great surprise when the former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani — much in the public eye after the 9/11 terror attacks — declared during his last mayoral speech, given in St. Paul’s Chapel, “All that matters is that you embrace America and what it’s about…. Because we’re like a religion really.”
“Like a religion?” What do we mean by the words religion and religious? It is not entirely clear. We might say that religion requires a belief in God. But God is not essential in Buddhism, yet Buddhism is commonly regarded as a religion. Maybe it is better not to define religion by what people say they believe and instead look at how what they believe functions in their lives. Theologian William T. Cavanaugh suggests that it is not always helpful to abstractly define religion in order to distinguish it from the secular.
Cavanaugh proposes that we think of religion as anything that shapes our priorities, provides us with values, and gives us an overarching meaning. Our religion is seen in whatever we give loyalty to and from which we derive our identity. And worship is not necessarily only those things we do in a building dedicated to activities related to God. Any practice or ritual that honors and deepens our loyalty to the object of our devotion is worship.
If we understand religion in this way, we can see that passionate allegiance to America is religious devotion — a devotion not completely unlike what the apostle Paul had.
But something happened to Paul that changed everything. Jesus is what happened. He encountered Jesus as he was on his way to defend his faith and heritage.
The heart and life of Paul — who had been called Saul up to this point — was transformed. No longer a whole-hearted defender of the faith and interests of Israel, Paul became an advocate of the Way of Jesus. Soon he was known as the apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish peoples of the world. He went far and wide proclaiming Jesus as Lord and savior to all people without distinction, welcoming them to be part of a community in which “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Paul never disowned his Jewish identity nor was he indifferent to the well-being of the land of Israel and its people. But he did not allow himself to be ultimately defined by these things. He would not allow his attachment to place, people, and heritage to set him against others. Rather, his relationship to Jesus Christ changed his relationship to everything else, broadening his vision and expanding his love. Instead of focusing on the interests of his people and land above all others, he proclaimed that through the cross of Christ the “wall of hostility” that separated peoples was torn down, “making peace” (Ephesians 2:14).
Paul insisted that the distinctive practices he had previously valued not be imposed by Jewish Christians on peoples of other races and nations. After rehearsing his impeccable credentials as a member of “the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews,” he makes an astonishing statement. “These very credentials…I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash — along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important … is insignificant – dog dung” (Phil. 3:7-8, The Message).
Get that: dung! The Greek word for this is skubala, which is not an often used word. It is found in the Bible only here in this passage. Actually, dung, rubbish, refuse, and a loss are various inaccurate translations of the Greek word. Probably one of the best English equivalent words is “crap.” Skubala means “excrement,” either animal or human. It stinks. You don’t want to stay close to it.
Paul in essence says, “My Israelite heritage that I was so proud of is just a pile of crap in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
How many Christians born and raised in the United States are willing to say that about their American heritage? There is no shortage of American Christians who gladly sing, “I’m proud to be an American/where at least I know I’m free!” But where are the followers of Jesus in America who declare, “I count all this American pride as dung, as a pile of crap because knowing and living in Jesus Christ is incomparably better!” There doesn’t seem to be many.
I suspect the reason is that many Christians in America don’t clearly distinguish their affection for America from their devotion to God. And the God to which they are devoted to tends to be very American. This makes it impossible for them to say, in a manner like Paul, “I count my American heritage as crap, because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” How can you say something of that sort if you have blended American nationalism and faith?
Without distancing ourselves from the faith of Americanism, it is unlikely that we will be able to single-heartedly devote ourselves to following Jesus. We will have a hard time not identifying God’s will with American interests. We will find it difficult not to give preference to other Americans at the expense of others throughout the world. And it is likely we will be predisposed to support violence in defense of America against perceived threats, just as Paul was for his people and faith.
The best way Christians can positively influence America is by NOT being American Christians, but by being faithfully devoted disciples of Jesus who live in America but whose primary commitment is not to America but to the gracious God of all who calls us to love and serve all.
Peter Storey, a former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island, wrote, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth.”
For the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, we must learn to regard our American heritage as so much crap.