First off, I think I understand the general millennial cringe when it comes to Bible-belt patriotism. I grew up with George Bush Sr. doing his thing, and even though we were always generally in favor of pro-life politicians, the whole enterprise was done with nose pinched and plastic gloves. Washington wasn’t some kind of Mecca. It was more like a nuclear waste facility that somehow made certain levers in the universe pull and push. But as I grew into the responsibilities of adulthood, I learned that there are more important things and I embraced the alternative political scene, in so far as that assumes that the Republicrats and Demoblicans are variations on the same prostitution: lies and greed for sexual favors and power plays.
For that reason, the sort of things that get me excited are politicians who say truthful things that make the media wet their pants and hyperventilate. And given the kind of jungle DC happens to be, it’s going to take some pretty wild characters to get in there and set the place on fire. I’m thinking some kind of combination between Crocodile Dundee and Jael wife of Heber. So when Sarah Palin walks out of the Alaskan frontier in high heels and makes the liberals shriek, I can get behind that. When Ron Paul unflinchingly does simple math problems in front of the suits and screens and calmly insists that 2 + 2 does in fact equal 4 and they react like a bunch of chimpanzees at the zoo, screaming and flinging poo in the air, I sit up and pay attention. But not because I place a great deal of hope in these particular characters or think they are above criticism, but because the truth is like fresh air in this nauseating joint.
So I don’t spend much time listening to the talking heads and wagging suits. Mostly comes out like Charlie Brown’s teachers, and I don’t have time for fools and circus clowns — speaking of which (and which is why) I get more honest news from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report than Fox or CNN. But turns out that when somebody finally works up the gall to say something totally cray-cray like homo sex is dirty and immoral, the gestapo shows up with fines and there are layoffs and emails get mysteriously deleted and so on.
But because of all of this, I think I understand the impulse to not give a rip and when some old timer wants to salute the flag in a church service or sing some old timey patriotic hymn — I can feel the blood rising up in me too. Are we celebrating this monkey show, this lying, stealing, increasingly tyrannical blood bath? Are we celebrating this monstrous machine that funds and protects the butchery of millions of babies? Are we celebrating this sick citadel that sends out pollutions and oppression to the nations? Here, we’ll show you how to murder your children too, how to sexually confuse your daughters and sons, how to mess up their heads and hearts and squeeze orgasms out anything you want. Here, and while we’re at it, we’ll drop a few bombs here and there and give you a head start in the maiming. And in the meantime, we’ll hook you with our money, with our guns and fighter jets, and our porn and shopping malls. This is freedom. This is liberty, suckers.
Yeah, it’s hard to salute that flag.
And meanwhile, the theological objections mount up as well. What about Pentecost? What about the Great Commission? Isn’t patriotism just another species of Judaizing, a way of dividing the body of Christ, fleshly arrogance, boasting in men rather than the cross? It certainly can be.
And yet, I think it’s too easy to stop here, to stop with the objections, with the criticism, with a few proof texts and call it good, call it critical thinking, call it thoughtfulness, call it millennial realism, whatever.
But if it’s true that our objections are fundamentally, foundationally theological — if it’s true that our primary, gut-level objections are grounded in the reality of being Christians — identified by one faith, one baptism, one table, one God and Father of all — then we can’t stop here. We have to finish the sentence, finish the thought. It’s easy to critique. It’s easy to complain.
But it’s hard to actually engage.
The hard part is throwing down. But too often, what I see is a bunch of rhetoric thrown up with a lot of smoke and then nothing — apathy hiding behind a spiritualized kingdom, and now we don’t have to engage, now we don’t have to worry about our nation. This anabaptist impulse however is thoroughly inconsistent because in the next breath they want me to love my neighbor, love my enemy, and give to everyone who asks. Well, which one is it? Are we going to love our enemies or not? Are we going to bless those cursing us or not? If America is a mouth full of cursing and deceit, then Jesus says we need to bless America. If my neighbors swallowed the lies, if they supported the rape and pillaging of the poor through government funded programs, then how will I respond? Do you invite them to dinner, those blue state extremists? Will you do good to those who are doing you and your neighbors evil? Will you engage, really? Or will you only associate with those who agree with you? What about the Tea Party crazies? It’s all sexy to talk about contextualization and identifying with sinners until somebody suggests starting a Tea Party mission. Will you disengage and call it new monasticism? Will you go limp behind liberal-sounding Bible verses and call it bravery? Or will you come out and taunt the giants with your fathers and grandfathers with their sticks and stones? Who are the people actually standing up and telling the truth? Who are the people not getting sucked into the cesspool? Turns out they’re probably the same ones who want to salute the flag and sing the corny hymn.
My grandpa is a crusty, old Marine who enlisted when he was just shy of his fifteenth birthday. It involved forgery and lies and he ended up in the Pacific theater before he was wounded resupplying munitions to troops. I honestly don’t know how to process all the layers of authority and responsibility that come into play in something like going to war. Despite the deep corruptions and fleshly ambitions going way back in this nation, it still seems to me that there was a Christian conscience shared by the vast majority of folks for an awful long time right up into the last century. There’s a reason why divorce and sodomy and prostitution were illegal in most states even if we did sometimes treat the natives horrendously, even if there was a covetous serpent’s fangs sunk deep in our soul from near the get go. It seems that there was also a great deal done to resist these evil impulses. But regardless of how you come down on the narrative, the thing I admire about my grandpa (and about many Christian soldiers) is his direct, bold, give ’em hell attitude with a distinct, good natured kindness just below the surface. While I’m sure my grandma would tell you it’s gotten him into a fair share of trouble over the years (not least with her), it’s what I think the Apostle Paul would call good old fashioned courage, the willingness to believe in something, to stand up for it, get knocked down for it, and stand back up again. Jesus said something about that somewhere too, something about getting struck on your cheek. Turns out He also talked about crosses and losing your life. Despite the fact that I don’t believe that American soldiers who die in the line of duty are automatic Christian martyrs, I do believe that faithful soldiers who risk (and sometimes lose) their lives for something bigger than themselves picture for us this ancient virtue called courage, an endangered species if there ever was one.
And so the point of this lengthy ramble is really just this: I don’t have any use for patriotic worship services. There is no American flag in our sanctuary, and the only way one would show up would be if there were a whole host of other flags celebrating the Lordship of Jesus over all the nations. But I also know that I have to fight the instinct I have to not care, the instinct I have to try to rise above the fray, to ignore the fray, to duck when the punches fly. And I suspect that there’s an awful lot of cowardice ladled on thick in my demographic. It’s easy to hide behind platitudes, behind pseudo-theology, to blush and cringe when the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs and Glen Becks do their thing, and sidestep way out of range, but loving God and your neighbor often means being willing to be misunderstood, being willing to be mistaken for one of the crazies, being willing to get knocked down for cheerfully telling the truth. Loving God and your neighbor is actually that simple, and for that reason it’s also extremely hard. And our neighbors include the people from other nations, people with different color skin, people with no education and nothing but the shirts on their backs, people with deep pockets and second homes at the beach, people who were born here and people who don’t have the right paperwork, people who are shorter and taller, male and female, old and young, people who carry sidearms proudly and the people who scowl at them as they walk past.
But wherever we find ourselves, if we can’t pronounce blessing on the people closest to us, how will we ever learn to bless those furthest from us? And if we are called to bring the blessing of God, the blessing of Abraham’s God, to every family, to every nation, then we need to learn to bless our nations too. This is not jingoistic nationalism. This is no bland, pagan well-wishing or carnal swagger. This is the potent blessing of Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit — the Blessing of the Triune God who ever lives and reigns — the God to whom every nation must bow the knee.
And how will every nation bow to King Jesus if His people do not defiantly proclaim His blessings to them now?
This blessing includes the truth of their sin, the truth of their rebellion and bloodshed and theft and abominations, but it also includes the cleansing blood of Jesus, the blood of Jesus shed to purchase every nation. And it’s on this basis that I am called to love my neighbors, to love my people, to love my enemies.
And so this Independence Day, I ask Jesus to bless this place: come down and break us and remake us with your goodness. And just to prove I mean it, I’ll be at my in-laws a little later with a drink in one hand and a fist full of fire crackers in the other. Every explosion you hear from that end of town is a little prayer to the Triune God of all the earth to have mercy on us and bless us.