One year ago, almost to the day, I stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon that I called Christian Patriotism. In it I asked the question, Can one be both a disciple of Jesus and a patriot? And the conclusion I drew was that, yes, one could be both as long as one defined patriotism as the desire to see our country live up to its potential in terms of the values we profess – justice, equality, freedom and opportunity for all. A blind patriotism that celebrates the relatively recent notion of American exceptionalism without regard to our actual performance as a nation is, in my mind, incompatible with Christian patriotism. Christian patriotism demands critical thinking about how our nation is doing in terms of building the kingdom of God here and now.
Over the past several weeks I have thought a lot about this notion of Christian Patriotism. What I am going to say this morning is a product of many hours of mental meandering around this subject. These are my thoughts, not anyone else’s, and I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself. Here is what has been on my mind as I thought of this morning’s homily.
At the end of many political speeches, we hear some variation of these words – “and may God bless the United States of America.” I wonder if the men and women who choose to sign off in this manner ever think what these words mean. Do they mean that God is asked to bless some arbitrary, and recent, human invention called the nation state? Is His blessing to stop at our borders? Does God care about the United States of America more than he cares about France or Mongolia? The answer to all these questions is “surely not” as far as I am concerned. So why do politicians of all stripes continue to say this? I suspect is it because there is a vague notion in this country that God is on our side. We seldom remember to ask ourselves the question that Abraham Lincoln posed … Are we on God’s side?
Let’s think about this using the device of a courtroom trial. Let us say that the US has been hauled into the International Criminal Court and charged with the crime of being a Christian nation. And let’s say you are the defense counsel trying to convince the court that the charge is false, i.e., that the US is not a Christian nation. What would your arguments be? Here are three arguments that I would make.
- I would hold up our current economic system and I would say that it proves we are a nation that worships unfettered free enterprise, not God. What other explanation could there be for the inequality of income we tolerate. As income is more and more skewed to the top 1/10 of 1 percent, we argue for and against a minimum wage increase that would bring the bottom earners up to the staggering gross pay of $600 for a 40-hour week. As a nation, we seem comfortable with valuing one man’s manual labor at $8 an hour and another man’s financial or managerial labor at $500 an hour and up. And other nations, which are no longer viewed as Christian but secular, seem to be less tolerant of the inequalities among workers of all types. So, exhibit 1 for the defense is this. If the US were really a Christian nation we would not tolerate the plight of the working poor.
- My second exhibit would be our gun culture. Would a Christian nation be the most gun obsessed and gun violent nation in the world? Of course not. Would a Christian nation place the right for anyone to own any gun at any time above the right to live in safety for the ordinary citizen. No, the evidence is that we worship the right to be armed more than we hunger for an end to the violence that a heavily armed populace creates. Where in the building of God’s kingdom does the right to be armed to the teeth come in? So Exhibit 2 for the defense is our gun culture. It is inconsistent with being labeled a Christian nation.
- My last exhibit would be the mass incarceration of thousands of African American young men for minor drug offenses long after the horrific consequences of this policy have been exposed. Surely this would offend a Christian nation to the point that it would be stopped. In the state of Louisiana, a for profit prison company has a contract with the state that mandates that 90% of the cells be filled or the state must pay additional money to the company. So free enterprise creates an incentive for Louisiana law enforcement to lock up the usual suspects – young African American males usually for marijuana possession – to keep up the occupancy rates in the state’s for profit prisons. And this example holds true in many states besides Louisiana. The problem, indeed the scandal, is well documented; yet nothing changes. No one cares enough apparently. So Exhibit 3 is our rate of incarceration and who it is that is being incarcerated.
May I say, immodestly, that I think I could earn us an acquittal on the charge of being a Christian nation. And there are many more exhibits I could have used. Foreign policy exhibits could have kept us here long past noon.
So what? What am I trying to say? Well you don’t have to be a Christian patriot to be concerned about the working poor. And you don’t have to be a Christian patriot to be concerned about our gun culture. And you don’t have to be a Christian patriot to be ashamed of our mass incarceration of young African American males. But it would be hard to be a Christian patriot and not be concerned about those three social ills and a bunch of others as well.
Now I realize that you may be thinking that I am unpatriotic and that I don’t love our country enough. And that is true. I don’t love our country when it offends my sense of right and wrong. We are called by Jesus to do his work in the world – to love neighbor, to love peace, and to work for justice. That is what is important to Christians. That call, which trumps any call to nationalistic allegiance, also calls us to a peculiar type of patriotism. It is a patriotism that calls us to be self-critical, to judge ourselves by our actions not our slogans. The Christian patriot pledges no blind allegiance to a manmade political entity. Instead the Christian patriot pledges to work to build the kingdom of God in the place of his or her chosen residence. Maybe a reworked version of the “God Bless the US of America” sign off line could read like this: “May God grant us the grace, the will, and the persistence to build his kingdom in this place.”