Story is the currency of human contact. We tell stories about ourselves that reveal a great deal about what we as a people believe and value. If you want to understand a culture’s values, listen to her stories. The prevailing American narrative consists of Godly Puritans at Plymouth Rock, Captain John Smith at Jamestown, George Washington on the Delaware and brave white settlers heading west into the sunset to claim the land God set aside for them. But, if we pause long enough to really listen to these stories, we realize that most are told from one point of view, that of the powerful. The idiom used to communicate America’s history invokes terms like ‘progress’, ‘virgin land’, ‘manifest destiny’, ‘errand into the wilderness’, ‘frontier’, ‘savage ’, ‘new world’ and ‘civilized’. As a fledgling Ph.D. student I realized that for the first 350 years of American history, our past was told from the eyes and mouths of white males, who employed the words of empire and the spiritual sanction of the Almighty to give blessing to our national narrative. It should be noted that the Apostle Paul urges Christians to be on guard against such timeless powers, dominions and principalities who lord over the nations, instead of colluding with them.
This is why, among a myriad of other reasons, I find it so heretical that American Christians continue to absorb Christianity into the American national identity by adapting, joining and corrupting the story of God’s Kindgom with the narrative of empire. Phrases like ‘God Bless America’, ‘Christian nation’ or ‘God and Country’ communicate an ignorant, intentional amalgamation of God’s ultimate human purposes with the goals and aims of the United States of America. In fact, a recent poll by the Public Religious Research Institute shows that 84% of evangelical Americans believe “God has granted the U.S. a special role in history” based on her goodness and virtue. Not only is this historically fallacious and myopic, but theologically untenable. I often wonder what Christians from other nations think about this fatal syncretism; this scandalous federation of gospel and government co-joining a particular and fallible earthly nation with the cause of Christ, personified every Sunday as the Christian flag and Old Glory stand side by side signifying the almost universally accepted spiritual and patriotic loyalties of the congregation. As noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains, “It’s an understandable position given our country’s history, but that doesn’t make it any less perverted”. In this belief system, God is relegated to the protector and patron of the State, alongside Zeus and Mars while the church is reduced to a politically impotent lobby.
And while much can be said about founding documents and founding fathers aiding and abetting this spiritual and national union, the temptation for Americans with a somewhat proud religious heritage is to tell their story as if it is also God’s story, validating our national hubris; though in the telling we always drive by the dirty sections of our city on a hill, forgetting to speak of empire, subjugation and conquest. Therefore, in clinging to a distorted version of our national chronicle, we are culpable in our own deception. We bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to, and spreading those lies to promote an American version of the Gospel. “The deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate and provide ready excuses” (Newbigin, Lesslie, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society) for our actions and beliefs. This lie of American innocence has been historically nurtured and protected by the stories coming from a conveniently selective collective memory. It is a myth as grand and as universally accepted as Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf. One that Ben Carson in his New York Times best-selling book America the Beautiful asks patriots to fight to protect and restore. And yet, even a cursory glance into American history uncovers a past and present both glorious and disgraceful. America has never been a Christian nation, whatever that means in the first place. Quite simply, she is an empire, doing what empires do, telling the stories that empires tell. It just so happens that her story needs a bit of divine sanction to clean it up a bit.
America’s narrative and the story of God’s coming kingdom are not synonymous. One can no longer live under the false assumption that liberal theology exists for and by liberal democracy. No geo-political entity claims divine preference over any other. God does not bless America at the expense of other nations. Can evangelicals really be so ignorant to blatantly ignore the glaring inconsistencies between the American story and the clear instructions of King Jesus? Does America still believe she is following Jesus by killing her enemies, by crushing the marginalized beneath the hoof prints of westward expansion, by enslaving and brutalizing blacks for economic gain, by exporting weapons of mass destruction, by hording and consuming vast quantities of the world’s wealth and resources, by being ardent missionaries of autonomy and capitalism while continuing to promote the lie of American exceptionalism? We must stop telling lies and resist the seductive voice of empire that needs our portion of the story as a moralizing and cleansing agent to absolve American of her national sins.
If we are to resist the fatal syncretism of this civic and nationalized gospel, we must begin by being attentive to the use and abuse of history and theology to promote America’s civic, national religion. To do so, American Christians can first of all divorce themselves from stories of progress and conquest, and identify with the marginalized within our own national heritage. For example, if Christians allow the American story to be told from a different perspective, we uncover the dark side of liberal democracy. Instead of the vernacular of empire, phrases like ‘widowed land’, ‘invasion’, ‘conquered’ and ‘enslaved’ enter our national dialect. And frankly, if we are going to be honest with our heritage, the historical Jesus as a poor Colonial oppressed by imperial Rome is much more similar to Powhatan, Pocahontas or King Phillip than any of our vanquishing European ancestors. The Judeo-Christian story is one that has historically been at odds with empire, whose own plotlines are about a God who overcomes the powers of this world, who delivers his people out of Egypt on dry ground, who brings them home from Babylon singing, who defies emperors and Roman legions, who scatters and protects his holy nation in the global diaspora. These are our stories; stories of deliverance, not domination.
The church is the place where these stories are told, where we are invited back into the grand narrative of God, his people and his coming kingdom. And, when told again and again, they create a new culture in the middle of our current one; a culture of sojourners whose sole allegiance is to a king and a kingdom. A kingdom that is a priori to the kingdoms of this world. And as our own imperial aspirations and attitudes gradually fade, and as the incoherence of our post-modern, secular, consumerist and increasingly nihilistic culture becomes more obvious, may we live out another story of hope, joy and fulfillment while inviting others to join us.
Perhaps it is time as American Christians to embody in the life of the church a witness to the Kingship of Christ without falling victim to the age-old trap of Christendom. May we finally see that the simplistic Neo-Constantinianism educating American attitudes toward Christianity and our nation has allowed Americans to view Rome and the ancillary ecclesiastical-political establishment existing in the Empire at the time of the crucifixion as an aberrant version of the State rather than as is the archetypical symbol of all political institutions and authorities in any time and place. The church does not exist as a prop for government. She stands with skeptical suspicion within the culture in which she participates in order to distinguish the story of God from a heretical distortion of His grand narrative. She is in, but not of the empire.
There is indeed a blessed nation whose God is the Lord, but it is not defined by federal borders, she is the spectacle of the universal human family. “The church is the one political entity in our culture that is global, transnational, transcultural.” (Hauerwas, Stanley, Resident Aliens) She is the aggregate of believers world-wide who have been called out of every nation as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, as God’s special possession. May we as Americans, as resident aliens in a strange land, humbly take our place alongside our global brothers and sisters in Christ as co-heirs in His coming kingdom. May we re-affirm our allegiance and citizenship to Christ and His kingdom while renouncing this distorted civic religion existing solely to give absolution to empire.