When I see your run-of-the-mill Christian history textbooks with this “God and Country” jargon, something deep inside me goes blech. Kind of like when you discover something growing in an old Tupperware dish in the back of the fridge. It reeks and it’s all furry and making noises, and you’re a little embarrassed to tell your creationist friends. (Sorry, that one sort of got away from me.)
But as I came across another one of these books today (in my own home, gasp!), it finally occurred to me why I recoil. I think the problem is that it assumes the first and primary incarnation of faith in God is one’s country. Now don’t get me wrong. A rightly ordered love of one’s country is part of our duty to love our neighbor as our self. Loving your next-door neighbor means a certain measure of organization in the community (trash, streets, sewer, water, etc.). Loving your neighbor 50 miles away takes a certain kind of organization, and certain groups of neighbors banding together with other groups to accomplish bigger things together is no problem and necessary. So yay for a right understanding of Christian patriotism.
But the problem comes when we elevate that organization of our love to a place it ought not hold. That’s plainly not a rightly ordered love. The word that comes to mind is idolatry. If I love my children more than Jesus, they are idols. If I love my crunchy Adam’s peanut butter more than Jesus, I’m an idolater. But in piles of these vaguely “Christian” history and civics textbooks, the primary incarnation of our love for God seems to be the state, civil government. The problem with that is that Jesus didn’t come to found a new civil government, a new human nation bound by blood and geography. He came to establish the Kingdom of God, a heavenly nation not bound by blood or geography but by His Spirit, transcending space and time. We call that assembly, the Church, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, which by the way, includes your local chapters of Baptists and Presbyterians and Pentecostals, etc. And it has a history in this material world.
However, in the generic conservative evangelical picture, you’ve got belief in God (thoughts in your head) and then society organized by government. Which is like describing what you eat as ice cream and lettuce. The problem, my friend, is that you’ve left out a biggish chunk of important stuff in the middle. What about the steak? What about the stuffed peppers? What about mashed potatoes? What about the gravy? Of course I don’t mind if you want to start your meal off with a little salad, and by all means be my guest. And as you push back from the table with feelings of satisfaction and bonhomie all around feel free to reach for some of that frozen sweet milky goodness. Help yourself. But, if you should make the fatal mistake of neglecting the main course, I’m afraid you’ll soon regret it.
But here we are in 2013 wondering what’s wrong with our world. Why are we a three-ring circus with clowns in charge of the show? In the old days they had Punch’N’Judy, and now we have the PutinObama Show. But I’m fairly sure the culprit is really just vanilla idolatry. Instead of rightly ordering our loves according to the word of God, we’ve substituted our own imagining for His clear directives. But Jesus didn’t bleed and die for a nation state called America. Jesus bled and died for His bride, the Church, which will one day include all of America as well as the rest of the nations of the earth.
In other words, until we insert the main course – the Church – back into the textbooks and (more importantly) our hearts. We will continue to ask the clowns to teach us wisdom, the fools to save us. In the meantime, in so far as “God and Country” is short hand for giving militant, bloodthirsty God-haters the fig, I have no problem holding the banner high. But that’s a little bit like fighting alongside Uriah with the Ark in the camp of Israel. It’s brave. It may be our duty. But damned if the whole thing’s not a set up.
One last anecdotal thought: I live in a college town, and I’ve taken to going on to campus weekly to meet students and preach the gospel. One of the most striking (and appalling things) that I’m running into is how many students tell me that they grew up in a church, maybe even professed faith in Christ, but now don’t attend and don’t think it’s that important. Often my apologetics is not defending the faith per se as much as it is defending the existence of the Church. Which if you think about it for a minute actually makes some sense. Jesus is perfect. Jesus is in heaven. Jesus will never fail us. But the Church is messy. The Church is here. The Church will make mistakes. The Church will sometimes let us down.
And yet: the Church is where we are being knit together into the new man, the new humanity. In some strange and almost appalling way, we need each other. It’s easier to just hand it off to the city council: organize this mess of people with laws and taxes and parking tickets. It’s a lot harder to rely on the work of the Spirit, preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, evangelism, mercy work. But America is not the Bride of Christ. Brazil is not the Bride of Christ. The Church is the Bride of Christ.
So how about a new history textbook? God, the Church, and our Country… or something like that? Seems like central to our children’s history lessons ought to be the story of Jesus’ favorite institution, His Bride, the Church. And sure, we can tell the stories of nations and states and wars too, but that’s not where the most important action is. The American Revolution is a nice side salad, but the Great Awakening and the China Inland Mission, now that’s some beef tenderloin marinating to perfection.