(Part 2 of a series of developing a Christian theology of involvement. See Part 1 here.)
“Becoming a Christian means ceasing to be Japanese.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard countless times around the world. Swap that final word, and I’ve heard it from all kinds of Asians. From American Indians, from the Indian subcontinent. From Arabs, and especially from Jews. They all see that their national heritage, their national identity, is so unmistakably different from Christianity that they feel that converting to Christ is a call to turn their back on who they are. It’s a devastatingly difficult decision, with longstanding societal and familial repercussions.
And yet, it’s sentiment from which American evangelicals could learn a great deal. Despite our cultural window-dressing of a Judeo-Christian ethic, our culture is not Christian. If we are ever going to develop a healthy theology of Christian involvement, then we must begin here.
Becoming a Christian means ceasing to be an American.
I suspect those words are jarring. They’re jarring to me even as I write them.
But they are true.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there.” —Paul.
Paul may have never technically lost his Roman citizenship, but he certainly ceased being a Roman. In the legal sense, sure, he was always a Roman citizen, but never again did he turn his heart, his passions, his very identity towards Rome (although he did long to bring the gospel there). Of course, he continued to work within his system of government for the cause of Christ, he continued to voice his support of his government, continued to serve as a productive citizen, continued to pray for his leaders.
But Paul ceased to be a Roman. Paul was a Christian. Period.
We would do well to learn from his example. We would do well to remember that no man can serve two masters. We would do well to note that even the US government acknowledges the tensions that stem from divided loyalty, as it warns against dual citizenship, “due to the problems that may arise from it,” (US Immigration). We would do well to understand that our passport may say ‘American,’ but our body and soul say ‘Christian.’
At our core, at the center of our identity, at the burning point of our passion and longing, we have ceased to be American.
We are Christian. We belong to the Triune God, our citizenship is in heaven, and our priority is to “bear witness to, and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God,” (James Davison Hunter). This means a US flag isn’t required in our church sanctuaries. This means the strategy of the gospel must always run deeper and broader than politics. This means we never rely on the premise that as goes the culture, so goes the Church. This means that no politician is our savior, and also that no politician is our antichrist. This means our mood doesn’t swing with each electoral cycle.
Our patriotism should never overshadow our faith,
or our hope,
or our love.
We see our country and our world not from an American perspective or with American priorities, but from a Kingdom perspective and with Kingdom priorities. This means that America may very well be exceptional, but is not now, and never was, God’s chosen nation. This means that while our nation was founded on Christian ethics, it was never a Christian nation. This means that our soldiers may indeed be courageous and valiant, but our wars are not automatically just. This means we still feel the pain of 9/11, but the memory compels us to mourn with those for whom terrorist attacks are an everyday occurrence, rather than mourning in isolation. This means we our economic success can never come at the expense of another nations, like Haiti. This means that our pastors and theologians must not always teach and lead, but must also listen and follow.
This means we pursue the interests of the Kingdom before the interests of our country.
We thank God for our freedoms, and those who sacrifice to protect them. We savor the 4th of July, baseball and Grandma’s apple pie. We are aware of our worldwide power and influence, and even enjoy our dominance at the Olympics. We don’t unnecessarily apologize for our culture, recognizing it as what makes us distinctive. We play a role in our processes of government, as we play a role in all spheres of society. We celebrate the innumerable ways that God has blessed us, and pray for more.
But even as our hearts swell at the chorus “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” we tremble as we remember that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. If this is true for individuals, how much more for entire cultures?
If our involvement in America is every going to have a Kingdom impact, then our involvement in our world around us must be as Christians, not Americans.
Because, becoming a Christian means ceasing to be American.