The Gospel According to America
Before the emperor Constantine proclaimed toleration of worship of "whatever heavenly divinity exists" in the Edict of Milan (313 CE), the difference between the good news of the empire and the good news of Jesus was reasonably clear for all interested parties. But this reversal of fortunes, accompanying Constantine's conviction that the Christian God was granting him military victories, would complicate the church's thinking on the subject of God's coming government and the governments of this world. Did this mean the prayer of "Your kingdom come … " had been answered? Are the principalities and powers no longer rebellious? Is this Jesus' victory over death hereby accomplished?
Then and now, thinking historically (which is to say, faithfully) involves vigilance and a mindfulness that looks critically at the supposedly commonsensical notions (or the opinion polls) of the age. This work of communal discernment will be especially crucial if it is the case that there are enslaving forces looking to win battles over hearts and minds. In his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul speaks of this state of affairs as if it's obvious to anyone who's paying attention (Gal. 4:811). And it is to our great loss if we assume the apostle was simply imagining fiery red, sharp-eared creatures with claws and winged babies.
Somehow, the crucified Christ has conquered death, and the powers of darkness and delusion are still at work in the world. They lived within the tension of a new Kingdom that had yet to come in its fullness, and the Kingdom was the property of nobody's nation. Neither the legalization of Christianity nor the well-intentioned use of biblical phrases in televised speeches mean that God's preferred country is now on the rise. And while the polity that is the church can be pleased to reside within a culture that allows the freedom to gather and worship, the church mustn't confuse that freedom for "the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21) or the freedom for which the Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1), as if we have any government to thank for either.
Properly understood, the gospel of Jesus is a rogue element within history, a demythologizing virus that will undermine the false gods of any culture that would presume to contain it. In fact, as American history shows, the gospel itself will often instruct nations in the ways of religious tolerance. But our understanding of the gospel is made peculiarly innocuous when its witness of socially disruptive newness (in whatever culture it finds itself) is underplayed or consigned to the realm of "religious issues" within the private sphere. When the Bible is viewed primarily as a collection of devotional thoughts, its status as the most devastating work of social criticism in history is forgotten. Once we've taken it off its pedestal long enough to actually read what it says, how does the principality called America interpret the gospel? In an age when many churchgoing Americans appear to view the purposes of the coming kingdom of God and the perceived self-interests of the United States as indistinguishable, what does faithful witness look like?
The appropriation of biblical imagery within America's cultural consciousness is both a testimony to the tenacious inventiveness with which the gospel takes hold and a stumbling block to the self-criticism the gospel demands when it repeatedly calls a nation to repent. Tony Campolo speaks to this tension when he describes America as possibly the best Babylon on the face of the earth, a country with much to feel good about, but still a Babylon. There is no level of moral grandeur to which a nation can rise beyond which the critique of Jesus and the prophets will have nothing more to say. If it did, it would no longer be Babylon; it would be the kingdom of God.
Jesus' announcement of a better kingdom puts any and every Babylon on notice, and woe unto any nation that would presume itself above the call to repentance, refusing to call into question its sacred symbols and assuming a posture of militant ignorance. Does the biblical witness disturb the mental furniture of the average American? Do we have the ears to hear a prophetic word? When we pray, "Deliver us from evil," are we thinking mostly of other people from other countries or different party affiliations, or are we at least occasionally noting the axis of evil within our own hearts and at work in the lives of whomever we think of as "our kind of people"?
At our best, Americans are intensely awake to the contradictions we live and redemptively troubled by them. Norman Mailer has suggested that to be a mainstream American is to live the life of a walking oxymoron, to be a heart in conflict with itself, with a psyche featuring Evel Knievel on one shoulder and Jesus of Nazareth on the other.1 Or consider Flannery O'Connor's characterization of a Godblessed, Christ-haunted American South. Many Americans seem reasonably certain that God is blessing them, one way or another, most of the time, but we're often honest enough to stop short of dragging Jesus into our rationalizations. We do what we do, for better or worse, giving thanks to God and praying for God's guidance. But I can't imagine an American politician, celebrity, or radio personality getting away with saying directly that Jesus is as America does. "Light to the Nations," "City on a Hill," and even "Freedom Itself," but push the matter too far in claiming Christ-likeness or "Operation: Infinite Justice" and somebody (hopefully not just some Muslim clerics) will complain. A folk wisdom that is inextricably a part of American culture maintains that, in Jesus, something greater than America is here.
Whatever the mythologies we use to explain ourselves to ourselvesâ€”in business decisions, ethical lapses, legal wranglings, or military interventionsâ€”there is still the WWJD-haunting, demythologizing gospel that recognizes the corruption that comes with the illusion of self-sufficiency, total power, and the suggestion (rarely spoken aloud, but often implied) that one culture might own the copyright on righteousness. Whenever the Jewish Christian tradition begins to take root in any meaningful way, interpenetrating the imagination of a people who often speak their country's name as if they were praying to it, the psychological power of patriotism is lessened or at least checked by an ancient wisdom reminding us that a nation might gain a strong economy, everyday low prices, and all the homeland security in the world and still forfeit its soul.
The Salvific Power of Self-Doubt
In this sense, the better part of American valor might be a prudential, well-learned skepticism concerning our well-laid plans. American ambition is at its best when it goes to the trouble of daring to doubt itself. We have to be at least occasionally receptive to the notion that we ourselves might sometimes be the prospering wicked of whom the Hebrew prophets speak. If we're not, we only appropriate biblical phrases (usually taken out of context) to somehow christen our already made-up minds and surround ourselves (and our listeners) with a biblical-sounding aura.
There is a tale, possibly apocryphal, of a bemused Elvis Presley sitting in front of his televisions reading the Bible. On completing 1 Corinthians 13, it is reported that Elvis had a moment of clarity, reached for a gun and began shooting the bright, electrical images making their way into his home. There's something very compelling about this scene. It's as if the man whom many would call King stepped past all that had been and would be made of his personality and all the dark stratagems of Colonel Tom Parker to render a decision. Though it has a sadness and frailty to it, the seemingly powerless gesture nevertheless delivers a bold, authoritative judgement, not without a certain dignity. With Bible in hand, Elvis compares the love that has overcome death to the brain ray that is television and all the mass hypnosis of the entertainment industry it represents (inseparable as it is from the phenomenon called Elvis) and finds it wanting, deserving of, in fact, immediate execution. The King has spoken.
Or consider Abraham Lincoln, perhaps foremost among American presidents as a student of the Bible. Among his letters is a fragment entitled "Meditation on the Divine Will," written in 1862. There's something almost Melvillean (and certainly Pauline) in his identification of "human instrumentalities" that unwittingly carry out God's inscrutable will by "working just as they do." There's no sense of triumphalism or "No regrets!" or might-as-right, no particular confidence in his own decision making at the helm of one of these instrumentalities. No particular pride in being a caesar, a pharaoh, or a president if the nations, in God's hands, are just a drop in the bucket. He is only confident that, somehow, the Lord's judgements will prevail and, whatever may befall, they are true and right altogether.
He would say as much in his second inaugural address. It functions as what might be viewed as a kind of uniquely American anti-rhetoric. It certainly doesn't inspire consumer confidence or a resolute aggression toward the enemy to imply ominously that the War between the States is a woe given to both North and South as the woe due the offense of slavery. Lest any "human instrumentality" insist it's on the side of civilization in the war on chaos, Lincoln declares, "The Almighty has His own purposes."
Malice toward none. Charity for all. Firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right. Continuing the trajectory of Americans like Presley and Lincoln, who viewed America through 1 Corinthians 13â€”colored glasses, I call this the Through-A-Glass-Darkly clause. We proceed and make decisions based on our convictions of what is right as we understand it. But it is not a God's-eye view. In Lincoln, we have an elected official who calls on his public to doubt itself; to stay the course, certainly, but to maintain the modesty that won't presume to take the will of the people (any people) for the will of God. Pursue the right, as we dimly perceive it, with an ongoing, lively awareness of our fallibility (which is to say, our humanness) and with the humility that accompanies such awareness. Follow your sense of right (what else can a human do?), but don't mistake your will for the right and true judgments of the living God. And if you see a vain delusion on the road (or on the television) slay it. Right away.
Thomas Jefferson once suggested that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And it might be claimed that every moral reform within American history has involved a refusal to be bound by the oftentimes not-so-sacred intentions of our forefathers and a vigilance against the tendency to worship our abstractions or to assume that whatever we feel most passionately in our hearts is the forward movement of history. In this sense, keeping one's head safe for democracy (or avoiding the worship of false gods) will require a diligent questioning of any and all tribal storytellers. In an age of information technology, we will have to look especially hard at the forces that shape discourse and the various, high-powered attempts, new every morning, to invent public reality. With the poignant imagery of the apostle Paul and Abraham Lincoln in our minds, we might be better able to know a principality or a human instrumentality when we see one.
The Light Shines in the Darkness
Our attachment to the culture into which we happen to be born is sometimes so powerful that we will resist recognizing our nationstate, tribe, or perceived master race as one human instrumentality among others. But when we find ourselves compelled to do so, we're again confronted by a demystifying, historical continuum that our divisions of church or state, sacred or secular, and religion or politics will conceal to the detriment of any hope of thinking historically. If we consult our timeline again, the account of Moses' engagement of Pharaoh on behalf of the God who heard the cry of the oppressed begins to look a lot like an early refutation of what would eventually be called the divine right of kings. And Jesus' witness before Pontius Pilate to a kingdom not of this world undoes the boasts of any kingdom that would claim superiority or unquestionable merit worthy of global dominance.
It has long been the habit of potentates to claim as much, and no consigning of religion to the private sphere protects a citizenry from the mad euphoria that demands a religious allegiance to the proclaimed interests of the state. But a culture that allows itself to be demystified by the prophetic witness of the Jewish Christian tradition will learn to doubt its own euphoria; be haunted by the Old Testament imagery of arrogant, oppressive nations at whom the Lord in heaven laughs; and note that humans whipped into a frenzy of what they take to be righteous indignation (whether by waves of nationalism, party politics, or talk radio) often have an unfortunate habit of crucifying people.
Alongside the report of Presley's lucid moment and Lincoln's subordinating all human instrumentalities (most notably his own) to the prerogatives of providence, we do well to consider a confession (affirmed by some Christian denominations in North America) that was composed as an appeal to Christian congregations in Germany in May of 1934. Repudiating the claim that any power apart from Christ should be considered a source of divine revelation (whether an elected official, the triumph of any national will, or Fuhrer Principle), the Barmen Declaration called on German churches to "try the spirits whether they are of God" and to reject all "alien principles" or "figures and truths" that would presume to place themselves alongside (or above) the Lordship of Christ. Written primarily by Karl Barth and Hans Asmussen, the document rejects the false doctrine of "other lords" and checks the totalitarian impulse of the state when it presumes absolutely or coercively to define life, liberty, and order for the human community.2
As we've already noted, the American mind is often already so immersed in the language of biblical imagery that distinguishing between the sayings of Benjamin Franklin and the wisdom of the book of Proverbs is sometimes a difficult task. Similarly, we are often prone to confuse Christianity with our sense of patriotism and forget that the two are not synonymous. To carefully examine our language and hold it up to careful scrutinyâ€”with a determined awareness of our own tendency to confuse mattersâ€”is neither an unpatriotic act nor an intellectualization of what ought to be straightforward and simple. Instead, it might be better viewed as a response to the apostle Paul's admonition to "test the spirits" (as echoed in the Barmen Declaration) and a decision to practice the kind of patriotism Thomas Jefferson seems to envision in his call to eternal vigilance.
Whether they assume the forms of marketeering, electioneering, or simply achieving the "right" effect with an eye on opinion polls, the words and images that come our way have power. We in the viewing audience are prone to measure a medium by how it makes us feel, instead of examining exactly what's being said and asking whether or not the words are honest, faithful to history, or demonstrably true. This is where examining content and context mustn't be dismissed as being nitpicky, argumentative, or that popular bipartisan bugbear "playing politics." It's actually the crucial discipline of both the believing church and any group who like to describe themselves as freedom loving. If we exercise no circumspection in regard to the language we use and listen to, we run the risk of being swayed by whatever false doctrines prove most emotionally intoxicating from one day to the next and whatever interpretation of current events wins the most viewers, listeners, or web page hits.
As Karl Barth noted, applying the gospel to our vision of the worlds unfolding before us will involve a yes and a no. Yes to the hope of a new day coming and the watchfulness required to see it. No to the suggestion, sometimes only dimly hinted at even to ourselves, that our own good intentions or pure hearts will hasten its coming or that we are knowers (rather than learners) of the Creator's good purposes.
In the interest of such watchfulness, let us consider the concluding words of President George W. Bush's remarks delivered on Ellis Island on the first anniversary of September 11: "Be confident. Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it."3
Like the language of the Declaration of Independence, the stated vocation of the country ("the cause of human dignity") can be interpreted to include the have-nots within America and without (with one half of the globe surviving on less than two dollars a day, one sixth on less than one, and the African continent ravaged by the AIDS virus in what many have called an everyday holocaust). Thus interpreted, the enormity of the challenge (a challenge, incidentally, which would probably be recognized as foundational to the witness of the global Christian church and that of the United Nations) will be impossible to underestimate. With the stakes this high, it might be important, in the interest of vigilance, spirit testing, and a reasonable self-awareness, to have in mind a confession or acknowledgement of the occasional moral lapse, on the part of the United States, in living up to this vocation.
This isn't to say that any president, commemorating a day of national tragedy, should be expected to use the opportunity to confess the nation's shortcomings. But the discerning viewer will want to keep in mind the need for confession (an ongoing part of the Christian discipline) and historical mindfulness (an obligation of citizenship). Admittedly, focus groups are likely to suggest that public officials can't get elected or remain in office without maintaining an air of insouciance regarding the less righteous moments in America's history, and career politicians have long learned how beautiful on television is the face of the one who brings good news, announcing peace and proclaiming news of happiness. Keeping matters clear in our own minds and noting the possibility that some honest hearers of these words about America's ideals might imagine Pepsi commercials, Super Bowl halftime shows, and all the ways the world might be made safer for Wal Mart, we can affirm these phrases for their worth without getting carried away. Yes to the cause as stated. No to the suggestion that anyone not yet convinced that we're living up to it is somehow against us.
Unless we hold unwaveringly to the yes and the no of the gospel in our listening and watching, we fall prey to a kind of confidence game that is believed to be, for better or worse, a key part of maintaining consumer confidence and holding on to power. This is where the pragmatic purposes of realpolitik, when successfully achieved, inevitably appeal to what are usually described as religious sensibilities. The cause (human dignity) is described as America's "ideal," which, in turn, is "the hope of all mankind." "That hope still lights our way," asserts President Bush. We hope that human dignity is a priority in the lives of most Americans, and yet some, viewing our culture industry, trade policies, and unilateral actions, might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. And then there is the biblical reference: "The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).
Many Americans would be pleased to hear the Bible quoted at all. Just as many were happy to hear, in one of President Bush's State of the Union addresses, an altered recitation of a popular hymn: "There's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." But language that connects American motivations with the divine Logos or Americans' presumed goodness with the blood of the Lamb who was slain should probably give us pause. We have to examine ourselves closely whenever we try to claim (or imply) continuity with the early Christian community. What do we mean? Are we thinking, speaking, and acting faithfully? We have to ask. Not, I hasten to add, in order to go around policing theological correctness, but to attempt to embody a vigilance that is both deeply Christian and, I'd like to think, profoundly American.
No Longer at Ease
Being watchful or slow to applaud a generalization shouldn't imply a failure of patriotism or anything in the way of ingratitude for the role of biblical tradition in the development of American culture. In fact, a steadfast refusal to settle for the status quo, especially in regard to whatever unfreedom we've given our allegiance to, is a fundamental part of our historical identity (think Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Paine, and Harriet Beecher Stowe). As we look closer at various voices within America's literature, popular music, science fiction, and film, we will note an ongoing resistance to being entirely at ease with wherever we are, a perpetual movement forward, and a determination to speak truthfully to power, perhaps especially when that power assumes the form of an intoxicatingly unself-critical and arrogant voice within our own heads. Students of history will be especially appreciative of the morally subversive act of asking questions and the redemptively revolutionary posture required to resist mystifying forces, given our habitual preference for ignorant bliss in troubled times.
Umberto Eco once described the moment, in 1943, when he realized, as a young man, that the Fascists weren't the only political party in Italy. He suddenly began to observe how Mussolini, in power since 1922, had seemed to control the thinking of his surrounding culture at every moment and in all aspects of life, with complete power over his political unconscious. Having felt tremendous pride in his Fascist uniform, winning a writing competition for young Italian Fascists at the age of ten, and only occasionally noting another way of looking at the world via Radio London and an odd relative or two, it was quite the apocalypse to hear on the radio that Mussolini had been imprisoned by the king. As Eco tells it, "Like a butterfly from a chrysalis, step by step I understood everything. … It was inconceivable that this man, who since my birth had been a god, had been kicked out; I was astonished, amazed, amused." And in one mad moment, "I discovered the meaning of plurality, democracy and freedom."4
Astonished, amazed, and amused. If I might be allowed the pleasure of having it both ways, I'd like to suggest that America, mythologically speaking, might be helpfully viewed as both the most self-consciously anti-Babylonian world power in history and, given its current status as the sole world power exclusively positioned beyond the bounds of international accountability, a power most at risk of being completely deaf to the prophetic witness against our inner Babylon. We're liable to search the Scriptures and quote them mostly in whatever manner will best suit our sense of innate goodness (public or private), so certain that the Bible speaks for us (and we for it) that we become contrition proof. And yet we also have a heritage (Christ-haunted, if you like) that is astonished at how absolute power so subtly corrupts absolutely, amazed at the self-justifying logic that accompanies our moral ruin, and amused over how thinly our self-congratulatory rhetoric conceals an impenetrable ignorance. Too noisy an assertion of America's moral grandeur and superiority might occasionally betray a nagging doubt or two. And it is the doubt concerning our own loudest and brightest publicity that might keep the rest of the world looking hopefully on our broadcasts.
As a younger man, I once had an astonishing, amazing, and amusing moment of my own in a Belfast pub after watching Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven (1992). I'd been working with the YMCA in Northern Ireland for a few months, and for the first time in my life I'd experienced my Americanness as a distinguishing feature. It was strange to be referred to as an American (by way of description), occasionally unsettling even, but also extremely entertaining. It disturbed an ease that I hadn't known was there. The folks with whom I'd gone to the cinema were an international gathering, and all agreed that this was Eastwood's finest work yet, a western to end all westerns (The Kid: "He had it coming." Eastwood: "We all have it coming, kid"), and possibly the best film Cormac McCarthy never made.5
I did have a slight qualm, however, concerning one of the final scenes in which Eastwood's protagonist, having wreaked vengeance on all parties involved in the murder of Morgan Freeman's character, cries out, like a mad cowboy Lear, that he will hunt down and slay all evildoers and their wives and their children in his battle against injustice. I thought it a bit much to have an American flag flying in the background during the speech. It's not as if America is the only country guilty of falling prey to the myth of redemptive violence, I pointed out, and while I believed that Eastwood's direction was, otherwise, completely brilliant, this struck me as overkill, a slight misstep in the direction of the preachy.
An Ulsterman, slightly older than I, laughed at my fastidiousness. "But that flag's everybody," he protested. "It's shorthand for human nature. It is redemptive violence and freedom and pride and all that. Clint's all of us. The flag too." Most nations had been made to drink the wine of the wrath of America's fornication for many years now. It's everybody's. Didn't I know it? And with this, I began to suspect, probably for the first time, that I'd lived and breathed and grown up within a metaphor, a citizen of what, for much of the world, is a very big idea that obviously isn't always true to its bolder claims of freedom and justice for all. It's a great big, human experiment in democracy. What's the big deal in acknowledging as much? Nobody's perfect, right? We all want to win. We all get carried away. We're all only human. It began to dawn on me that I'd come from the land where most of the big-budget action films and popular sitcoms took place, and I felt like I'd just been stopped short in the middle of a sales pitch. Not long after that, I could hardly believe my good fortune as I eagerly attempted to explain the concept of Manifest Destiny to an inquisitive Frenchman. He nodded knowingly as I struggled to be a good commercial on behalf of my country, but I eventually realized that, even though Manifest Destiny was an indisputably interesting notion to him, he'd actually only asked me to describe Memphis, Tennessee.
Around this time, it began to occur to me that being properly introspective and self-critical concerning America and less defensive when someone good-naturedly doubts its publicity might be one way of being more Christian, more globally minded, and probably even more patriotic. Trying to explain America outside of America, only to find that, for better or worse, America had been on everybody's minds already for some time, was a deeply disconcerting experience. I hadn't given a lot of thought to international opinion. It was as if I'd emerged from an alternative reality (à la The Truman Show). When a German friend asked, "What do Americans think of Germany?" I forget how I responded exactly, but I remember that the first not-so-proud thought in my mind was that, generally speaking, we don't.
The Tonto Principle
Since then, this astonished, amazed, amused sensibility has come to inhabit my conversations, my prayers, and my reading of the Bible. It has become a moral imperative, in fact, that's been easier to keep in my mind as my communal network of friends inside and outside of America has grown and deepened. I certainly mean more than I used to when I use the word Christianity (as well as America), and I suspect the activity of remaining awake to the wider world is an ongoing work involving the communal discipline of discernment within any culture. Needless to say, the events of September 11 brought new challenges and new conversations.
The e-mails, phone calls, and visits continued. And the much-talked-about outpouring of international solidarity was also made manifest in my friendships. In time, however, it became necessary to clarify (or at least offer a word of reassurance concerning) the durability of these relationships, perhaps especially with those who think of themselves, to any degree, as my sisters and brothers in Christ. Over the last two thousand years, millions have been admonished by the words of Jesus concerning God's new world order: "He that is not with me is against me" (Matt. 12:30; Luke 11:23). My overseas friends who aspire toward Christianity are in general agreement that keeping this proclamation in mind is an ongoing aspect of the confession required of discipleship. What are we to make of it, then, in view of our international communion, when President Bush, invoking the language of Jesus, draws a rhetorical line in the sand that proposes to define international relations: "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." As the principle was repeated and broadcast, eventually becoming a kind of mantra (all the more authoritative sounding for its seeming resonance with Jesus' words), it had to come up in my correspondences eventually. Could one be against terror (according to most Americans) without agreeing with the Bush administration's response to what it terms "terror?" Could the Associated Press? Could Democrats? Could the average Palestinian? Could the rest of the world? Does the Pentagon own all abstract nouns? And who does the royal "us" refer to? What becomes of baptism? Does it include you and your family?
Sort of. And if it isn't clear already, the book you're holding is, in no small way, a child of these conversations and their tangents and an effort to cobble together an "us" (noteworthy agents of the free throughout American history; friends of freedom, if you will) especially worth looking into. But concerning the "us" part of any culture's "with us or against us," many have been helped (myself included) by Stanley Hauerwas' explanation of the Tonto Principle. As the story goes, the Lone Ranger and Tonto once discovered themselves to be in a very tight spot with twenty thousand Sioux surrounding them on every side. Taking note of their predicament, the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, "This looks pretty tough; what do you think we ought to do?"—to which Tonto replies, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?"6
As a Christian ethicist, Hauerwas has remarked that one of the biggest challenges of his career is convincing the church (whose ethos will be very different from that of any nationalism or movement of the present age) of how crucial it will be to imagine more carefully and define its "we" impulse. Just as the Barmen Declaration offered a word of clarifying resistance in the psychological warfare of the Nazi era, an ongoing application of the Tonto Principle will be necessary in any effort to cultivate, within one's culture, an awareness (an identity) as a people of new creation more radically catholic, which is to say, more universal, and more caught up and entrenched within the tribe-transcending, utterly international body of Christ.
But as the church has long understood, this can get a little complicated. In an age of totalitarian consumerism—with news networks vying for higher ratings with whatever viewers can be taught to settle for in the way of incantations and imagery and personalities presenting themselves as independent thinkers to an audience increasingly incapable of associating cause with effect—knowing how to feel, how to think historically, and how to exist within a community becomes an urgent and powerfully demanding task for the church. The call to worship, the people of God will understand, does not limit itself to what we normally think of as religious assemblies. Many and various calls will be transmitted via every kind of electronic media, given their market research, focus groups, and dire need to move units, the calls will be very persuasive. The church must not be guided by whatever ideology or campaign happens to have the upper hand in whatever nation-state we happen to be born in. The biblical admonition to "test the spirits" is well aware of the intense emotional appeal and high-tech hocus pocus that exhausts our minds, but vigilance and resistance have never been possible apart from communal discernment. We have everything to lose by uncritically embracing the best-selling, cartoonish versions of complex realities.
Sir, We Have a Situation Here
In an interesting take on the meaning of patriotism, Karl Barth once suggested (around the time of the Barmen Declaration) that true loyalty to one's land cannot be known apart from the example of Jesus. Apart from exemplifying a higher and more grounded Christology than most have thought to imagine, this suggestion is also an illuminating way of thinking about Jesus' vocation to Israel and other people groups living under Roman occupation. Consuming media in North America, talking about it, praying, reading, listening, and attempting to think historically will require thinking hard (and probably thinking anew) about what we mean when we refer to Christianity or, more specifically, what we have in mind when we use the word gospel. And if Jesus himself followed Jeremiah's call for Jewish diaspora to seek the welfare (the shalom) of his culture (Jer. 29:7), what might it mean to stand within his movement (once termed "the Way") as a citizen of the land called America in these very odd times?
Jesus was born into a tribe that, from long before his birth and long after his death, struggled to maintain faithfulness to Yahweh despite constant persecution. If the fair and balanced scribes of Jesus' time had borrowed the language of twenty-first-century news media, they might have referred to their plight as one of "freedom under attack." He was a second-class citizen. In the jargon of "good vs. evil" he'd have had no trouble recognizing the "evil" ones, namely Rome and its puppet governments, which, in his case, took the house of Herod and their cronies. (N. T. Wright has suggested that Herod the Great has a contemporary parallel in Saddam Hussein, except that Herod never broke away from his creators so boldly as to provoke their wrath.) According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born under a death sentence. He would have heard of numerous insurrections performed on behalf of his people having been violently put down, often leading to numerous crucifixions, and of little men being erased all the time. In an effort to create a familiar context for my students, I've suggested that Jesus lived in a situation similar to that of Mel Gibson's characters in both Braveheart (1995) and The Patriot (2000). And the opportunities of what we think of as life and liberty available to him were, perhaps in an even more severe way, limited.
It was in this context that Jesus announced his "good news." When Americans refer to the gospel, they might be speaking of the idea that, if you believe a certain list of true propositions, you'll go to heaven when you die. Or they might be suggesting that if you accept Jesus as your "personal savior," you'll find it easier to overcome addiction, guilt won't be the problem that it used to be, and you'll now be the bearer of a secret password ("Jesus") that will keep you out of Hell. From the Left Behind point of view, the good news of the gospel can mean that when you give intellectual assent to the claim that Jesus is God, you become one of the people who'll disappear before the trouble starts. While all of these understandings of the gospel gain ground throughout America and the rest of the world (perhaps even assuming the form of a uniquely "Americanized" Christianity), it's important to note that none of them would have made the slightest bit of sense to Jesus' hearers. They were under the foot of an oppressive regime, and Jesus' announcement meant, if it was deserving of the title of "good news," that things were about to turn around, that the kingdom (the rule) of God was at hand. They understood that he was inaugurating a movement that, for starters, was "good news for the poor" (Luke 4:18) and bad news for the powerful on their thrones and those who are proud in the thoughts of their hearts. When we read the prayers of Mary and Zechariah in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, it's hard to miss the call, echoed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, for regime change.
Did this mean that Jesus was preparing to retaliate? It seems apparent that many of his followers thought so. Their way of life had been under attack as long as any of them could remember, and there were at least a few Zealots among them who, by definition, were set on armed revolution. He had to rebuke them for misunderstanding his movement when they expressed their desire to call down fire upon the opposition. And as Peter listened to Jesus' repeated insistence that he would be arrested, tortured, and killed, Peter made it clear that he would gladly kill and be killed to prevent such a fate from befalling such an innocent as Jesus. On hearing this, Jesus didn't turn to Peter and, with a somber bow, declare, "Praise and honor to you, great warrior, for offering to kill on my behalf." On the contrary, we have the devastating "Get behind me Satan," in which Jesus recognizes, in Peter's impulse to defend his lord with lethal means, another manifestation of the Tempter in the wilderness.
The defining ethic of Jesus' movement (his gospel) was at least as difficult for his generation to accept as it is for ours: "Love your enemy"; "Bless those who curse you"; "Do good to those who hate you." The scandalous ineffectiveness of such commands, given the climate of fear and hatred, would have been met with the same hostility they're met with today. He might have been told that evildoers won't respond well to such sensitivity. And doubtless, many would have suggested that Jesus was failing to live up to what was required of any decent, upstanding member of his tribe. They might have called him a self-hating Jew. But more than anything in the way of yet another nationalist movement, he was inaugurating a new understanding of effectiveness, a truly revolutionary revolution, a new definition of the good, a tribe to end all tribes, a new way to be human. And as news of his resurrection would attest, his way was the way everlasting, the path that would endure.
This newness isn't a byproduct of the gospel. According to the New Testament Witness, Jesus' way is the gospel, the good news for all nations, for every tribe, now and forever. And the body of Christ is a new nation, a royal priesthood that seeks to embody the more excellent way. When the church is the blind, uncritical endorser or "spiritual" chaplain of whatever the nation decides to do, it has largely renounced its vocation as the body of Christ. It is neither the salt of the earth nor a light to the nations. And it has traded its worship of a crucified Jew for a devastatingly tribal idolatry.
To return to Jesus' historical context, it's admittedly difficult for many Americans to sympathize. Most of us are not in the position of a Jew in first-century Palestine whose status is essentially that of a slave (Phil. 2:7). For many in the world, struggling to survive under tyrannical regimes with Normal Trade Relations or Most Favored Nation Status with the United States or barely surviving under the less life-sustaining end of a global trade agreement, America is undoubtedly Rome. Questions to keep ever before us are, How do we follow the Jewish revolutionary and his countercultural movement, live along his continuum two thousand years later ("He who is not with me is against me"), and bear faithful witness to the kingdom to which he invites us and for whose coming we are taught to pray? How do we go about participating in this story? If Karl Barth is to be believed, these are not side issues in our efforts to be true, whatever that might mean, to the country (or empire) in which we find ourselves, and as Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood, patriotism can be a very lonely occupation.
The Book of Jeremiah offers an account of a maddening situation. Jeremiah is told that he was set apart in his mother's womb to declare God's words. He is also told that no one will listen to him and that he will be reviled. He is told to announce the destruction of Judah, which is the result of their whoredom, the exchange of their glory for that which doesn't profit. Devastation will come, but he is also called to announce restoration, the forgiveness of sins, and hope for the hopeless. The book is a record of his struggle with a God who tells him to condemn his people, grieve for them, pray for them, plead with them, plead for them, and treasure them. When we note Jesus' similar vocation toward his own people, a vision (a beginning anyway) starts to develop concerning what it might look like to embody or practice the aforementioned movement within the world called America.
Hazarding the Infinite
Shortly after September 11, Donald Rumsfeld announced, "We have two choices, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or change the way they live." After applying the Tonto Principle, I'm able to remind myself, in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, that I shouldn't be too quick to place the Almighty on one side of the paradigm just proposed. It occurs to me that America's way as the nonnegotiable future for everybody else in the world isn't necessarily suggesting a radically new state of affairs. In the months following September 11, with America being referred to repeatedly as "freedom itself" and all decisions placed under the umbrella of the war on terrorism as a matter of never-to-be-questioned good versus irredeemable evil, I wondered how many people around the world viewed America's trade and foreign policy as an ongoing attack on "freedom itself." I recall one of Jesus' interlocutors referring to Jesus as "good" as well as Jesus' response: "'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone'" (Mark 10:18).
Of goodness and freedom, righteousness and liberty, we are not knowers, and the struggle to differentiate between what is now and then foisted on our minds as America's best interests and the prerogatives of the kingdom of God will require keeping this confession in our minds. The church doesn't recognize itself as the copyright owner of God's kingdom or freedom or Jesus' lordship, but it does hope to learn the ways of God's already-underway civilization and, guided by the Holy Spirit, bear witness to God's future in the rebellious present. Using the language of Jesus' great commission to his Jewish disciples to go out and disciple all nations, Woodrow Wilson maintained that the United States of America itself was created by God "to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." He went on to say, "It was of this that we dreamed at our birth."7 While Wilson failed in his efforts to rally the country behind the League of Nations, it isn't necessarily a naive or arrogant gesture to hope that a human instrumentality might occasionally seize a vocation beyond that of collective self-aggrandizement and profit over other people.
This is a good hope. And every once and awhile in the histories of communities and nations, it is powerfully realized. But staging it, conjuring it up in a media blitz, or mistaking a successful marketing campaign for a mission accomplished is a different matter from really calling it out, embodying it, and tying the hope down to the facts on the ground. Within the Jewish Christian tradition (the continuum that Walker Percy summed up as "God Jews Jesus Church"8), the hope is accompanied by ongoing confession and lamentation concerning the daily failure (in general and in particulars) of human beings to live up to the hope of real live humanism. And the rhetoric of self-proclaimed righteousness (from Pharaoh's hardened heart to "Power of Pride" bumper stickers) is undermined and mocked from Genesis to Revelation. One would think that the enormous, mostly agreed-on, historical missteps in American history and church history would have us speaking with a bit more modesty or with some measure of apprehension concerning our karmic account, conceding that history can't be controlled and renouncing, once and for all, our pretensions toward omnipotence. As students of the witness against Babylon, Rome, and any and all antichrists, we should note how easily an emotional fantasy can become a kind of phantasm with a life all its own (test the spirits) and let the biblical witness warn us against impersonating a race chosen by God.
David Dark is the author of Everyday Apocalypse (Brazos). This essay is excerpted from his new book, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea, published by Westminster John Knox Press in February 2005. Copyright 2005 by James David Dark. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
2. Arthur C. Cochrane, "Barmen Declaration," in The Church's Confession Under Hitler (Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 23742.
3. George W. Bush, "The President's Address to the Nation" (speech, New York, September 12, 2002), http://usinf.state.gov.usa/s091102.htm.
4. Maya Jaggi, "Signs of the Times," The Guardian (October 2002), http://books.guardian.co.uk/ review/story/0,12084,809591,00.html
5. All movie quotations are taken from my own transcription.
6. Stanley Hauerwas, "The Tonto Principle," Sojourners, January/ February 2002, p. 30.
7. William Pfaff, "The Question of Hegemony," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2001, www.foreignaffairs.org/20010101faessay2001010115/ william-pfaff/the-question-of-hegemony.html
8. Gregory Wolfe, "Fugitive Energies," Image, No. 29 (Winter 2000), www.imagejournal.org/back/029/editorial.asp
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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