A number of years ago, I was chatting with a friend about the military. Even then, I was a pacifist, but I still admitted that if I were forced to enlist via a hypothetical draft, I’d comply. I’ve become even more of a pacifist since then, but I’ve been mulling over what it means to be an American Christian.
There’s a wide chasm, I think, between American Christians and Christian Americans. Recently someone I follow on Twitter compared the “America First” brand of American Nationalism to an alternative kind of worship, an alternative to the worship of Yahweh, the God who we know best through the Son, Jesus.
There are Americans who baptize their unwavering nationalism with Christianity, seeing at as a means to support American ideals. Conversely, there are Christians like me who try to somehow make sense of their nation-state in regards to their faith. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of the matter, but it’s a starting place nonetheless.
With the premise that every nation-state is merely a construct, an invention, and that the red/white/blue flag represents a narrative that means very different things to different people groups-allow me to attempt to navigate the intricate link between Christian faith and identity and one’s sense of place within the world as it is currently divided into continents, countries, and districts.
I remember one Thanksgiving when we went around the table, naming one thing for which we’re thankful. Various siblings, aunts, and uncles, named things like freedom, enough food, a solid job, education.
When it got around to my grandmother, her answer came without pause: “I’m thankful to be an American.”
I was not yet twenty at the time. Now I’m 30. And yet, as I relive the moment, her words strike me in a very similar way. How many people sacrificed for her to be able to be thankful to be an American?
Native Americans immediately think about a long history of displacement.
African Americans may think about slavery and the civil rights era, and maybe about police violence toward young black men, or about the centuries of marginalization that underlines their American experience.
Japanese Americans might think about the not-so-distant American internment camps where Japanese families were sent during WWII.
Mexican Americans may think about the 8 US states that were formerly territories of Mexico, then again about the irony of “crossing the border” to get “into” the United States. I’m typing this article in formerly Mexican land.
European Americans‘ thoughts might drift naturally and ethnocentrically toward Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Lincoln, or other celebrated American leaders who happen to be white.
Any one of these people groups could recall family members who served in the military at any stage of American history. This applies to my own family, and I’m thankful for the sacrifices both my grandfathers made to serve during WWII-an important war even from the vantage point of my pacifist sensibilities. But that is only one dimension of the multitudinous sacrifices made by numerous ethnic groups.
If we’re really honest, we might all be just a teensy bit ethnocentric-and that can be just fine or it can really fog our vision. But my point in bringing up the various ways various ethnic subgroups might understand American history is simply to note how much has happened in this swath of land over the millennia.
So many people have lost their rights, their dignity, their lives in the long journey toward America becoming the nation it is today. So many have gained unfathomable riches from the systems that exist in our nation-state. And yes, of course, the United States has participated in some very good things too-of this there is no doubt at all.
In full disclosure, I benefit greatly at a personal level from the personal and systemic losses of many other people groups. I benefit from the gains too. But at this point, I’m trying to figure out how to be thankful for what I have inherited while rejecting oversimplification and glamorization of the American story.
It’s in only seeing one side of the American story that we become complacent, self-righteous, and unhelpfully angry.
Now, I want to attempt to make a connection. How does allegiance not to country but to Jesus calls us out of this slough of ethnocentrism and national identity? How do we quell the tandem voices of racism and xenophobia? How can live and participate in the world’s unfolding narrative as Americans even as we’re confronted with the bloodshed that laces our history?
I believe transformation comes when we hear our deepest identity: we are sons and daughters of God [Galatians 3:26], made in God’s image [Genesis 1:26-28], sisters and brothers with Jesus himself [Hebrews 2:11]. More than Americans, more than members of a particular demographic, more than members of a particular orientation, we are united in Jesus.
Whether or not we believe this matters, I think. It’s too easy to get swept up into the push and pull of nationalist political rhetoric if we lack a deeper spiritual foundation. We Christians believe God has extended us a massive amount of grace and that Jesus has paid an extremely high cost-his life-to conquer death, create reconciliation between God and humanity, and atone for sin.
If we genuinely believe God is at work in the world, and that God invites us to partner with him in renewing the earth, matters of American identity quickly fade in terms of importance.
This isn’t to say our national stories are unimportant or trivial. There are very meaningful narratives that can give Americans a sense of togetherness and build bridges of solidarity.
Just a couple weeks ago I was at the DeYoung museum here in San Francisco. On the second floor, there is a room filled with American art. One piece is especially moving to me. It features John Brown, a radical abolitionist who was on his way to execution for leading a slave rebellion, kissing a child, presumably his own.
That day a couple, presumably from another country [they were not speaking English], were observing the piece. I certainly could be wrong in my language-based assessment. Ostensibly, they misunderstood the gravity of the painting, for they proceeded to take smiling pictures in front of it. As they continued taking smiling pictures, the woman backed right into the painting, her hair and shoulders brushing up against it, moving its frame against the museum wall.
Soon, the museum security was on the scene, firmly admonishing her to maintain at least 24 inches between herself and the art.
Of course they gently complied.
The feeling within me as I observed was a mixture of incredulity and frustration. It seems that a middle-aged couple would know typical rules for an art museum. Much more, taking these kinds of pictures in front of a painting that features an execution is simply disrespectful. And the content of the painting made the picture-taking even more unnecessary.
All of that aside, the narrative of John Brown reminds us Americans of the suffering endured by generations of African American slaves. Yes, John Brown was violent, and we can sit comfortably and have a conversation about how he could have responded, but history is history and this is the desperation Brown felt. Some vilify him as an unthinking terrorist; some consider him a hero and martyr. But regardless, he is an important character in the drama of our nation-state.
In that moment, I felt very American. But I didn’t sense that American sentiment because I’m adoring the image of a country that stands as a shining beacon of hope for the rest of the world to see. I felt American because I have a unique personal connection to the people, places, and experiences of this country; I have lived here, loved here, and am raising my family here. And I don’t think I should be faulted for appreciated the country that has shaped me so deeply.
It’s romantic, this grouping of mountains, rivers, plains, fields, and deserts! The contours of my childhood included the vast forests, fields, and rivers of Northwest Michigan. I remember family trips to Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. I dated an African American for a couple years and felt the tangible difficulty of the American story as our relationship eventually faltered. I live in an area now where one can procure food from just about any remote corner of the world including Eritrea [and there are numerous Eritrean restaurants, not just one!]. This reminds all of us that America can indeed support and include people groups that differ from the earliest European settlers that have culturally and governmentally stayed in power.
As the current political season wanes on, as we do our best to shape our country into the kind of place we think it should be, I pray we remember our long and violent history. And there is no need to compare America’s violent history to other nations, this is unhelpful. Looking past our nation’s many sins can quickly lead us to an unchecked and one-dimensional nationalism that turns us into automatons who worship at the feet of the leader with the most braggadocio. Focusing too much on America’s many problems, on the other hand, can overwhelm us and turn us into self-righteous sidewalk prophets with no sense of gratitude for the good that is, by default, mixed with the bad.
It’s better to know the American stories of heartache and loss, of overcoming and transforming, commending them to honest, realistic memory while searching for true and lasting hope from our Lord, Savior, Brother, and Teacher: Jesus.