― C.S. Lewis,
Let me get a couple of easy things out of the way here at the outset:
I am not a fan of Lord’s Day worship services that serve as political rallies. The Lord’s Day worship service is a political event, but it is a cosmic political event in which every nation gathers before the King of kings and Lord of lords. We do come as Americans and Russians and Ethiopians and Mexicans and there will be some indications of that in our worship, but we come as joint heirs, brothers, subjects of one King. I do not have a problem with a church sponsoring a special service that focuses on the needs and blessings of their nation (at another time), and we are to regularly give thanks for the particular gifts we enjoy, apply the word of God to our particular contexts, and to pray for our rulers.
So I’m not a proponent of draping American flags all over the sanctuary and singing all the patriotic songs for the service. Some of the spectacles I’ve seen online really are difficult to distinguish from some kind of idolatry. We do not worship George Washington, the United States, Donald Trump, or the American flag. We worship the Triune God who is not served through flags or icons or statues made with the hands of men, and that should be obvious and clear to anyone who happens to walk into the room.
At the same time, Christians really have to keep their eye on the ball of obedience. And what I mean is that what C.S. Lewis wrote in Screwtape Letters remains clearly true. Christians are constantly being tempted to run for fire extinguishers when there is a flood, to crowd to the side of the boat that is already gunwale under, all in the name of “balance.” While I know there are Christian worship services that look like nationalistic idolfests, Christians need to recognize that those misguided and disobedient Christians are not the manifest problem in these United States. I’m not saying they have no problems, but I’m saying they aren’t the biggest problem. I would even venture to argue that most of the worst forms of nationolatry in our midst are more failures of taste and liturgy than boldfaced acts of idolatry. In other words, if I were a betting man, I’d bet that most of those patriotic services that give me the willies make clear during the services to some extent that God is the object of their praise, not America, the flag, Lincoln, etc.
But we are being conditioned, catechized, and discipled by alien priests and pastors, such that the mere mention of gratitude for America, the mere singing of God Bless America, or the simple, radiant joy in fireworks, hotdogs, cheap beer, apple pie, and taking your guns out to the shooting range conjures up warnings, cautions, and coolshaming from the usual high priestly quarters. Red-blooded American Christians who see all the messes, all the sin, all the hypocrisy, all the bloodshed and perversion, and yet can also see all the good still piled up high in families and friends, churches and trucks, free elections and relatively free markets — instinctively think they ought to give thanks. We instinctively think we ought to rejoice, eat some good food, and shoot some loud colors into the sky — and why not? But the school marms and nannies come running with their warnings. Watch out for nationalistic hubris. Watch out for patriotic pride. Watch out for identifying with red state GOP ideologies. Jesus isn’t a Republican, after all.
And like many warnings, there are elements of truth in all of it, but the cumulative affect is to caution Christians away from obedience into a more watered down piety. Yes, I know lots of American beer is already watered down, but beer with me for a moment. Heh.
And here’s the point I want to make. Christian wisdom and obedience is not less material, less grounded, less situated, it is more material, more grounded, more situated. Our problem is not patriotism. Our problem is actually that we are not patriotic enough. As Lewis says somewhere the reason Jesus could pass through doors after the resurrection was not because He was less material, but because the walls and doors of this world were less material than Him. Jesus had become more material, more solid. As the hymn puts it, “solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know.” The resurrection is not the cosmic rejection of the material world, particularity and historicity, the resurrection of Jesus is God’s downpayment for the redemption of every good thing — and that includes particular nations.
“And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).
Christians are called to lean into the resurrection.
And summing up the glories of the resurrection, Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Set your minds on things above, where Christ is seated. We are called to keep our eyes fixed on the prize of Christ, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness. But God has called us to this task in this material world, in this moment in history, and to my fellow Americans, as Americans. We are absolutely Christians first, and we are lots of other things before we are Americans (e.g. male, husband, father, pastor, etc.), but one of the gifts God has bestowed is the gift of place, the gift of a brief moment of life in the history of this world, the gift of nationhood, the gift of neighbors and stories in a particular locale. And leaning into the resurrection, seeking the prize of Christ is not less than these gifts, it is inconceivably more. It is not less than apple pie and grilling hot dogs in the sun. It is more. It is not less than colorful explosions in an indigo sky. It is more. It is not less than the deep gratitude you have for grandfathers and great-uncles who served, who fought, who died, who loved, it is more.
How do we build a Christian culture? How do we build (or rebuild) a Christian nation? It is not through less identification with the people and places where God has called us. It is actually through a deeper identification with them, a right way of identifying with them that is actually far more patriotic, far more joyful. This is not a blind or mindless patriotism that would vote for yellow dogs if they have the right letter after their name on the ballot. This is a patriotism that sees all the evil, all the horror, and yet also sees with eyes of faith the goodness that God has given and presses in toward that. Understood rightly, true patriotism is just practicing love and loyalty and friendship to our particular neighbors. There’s a pretend neighborliness that projects friendliness out on the idea of hospitality. And then there’s an actual grill with actual meat, and actual drinks and actual chairs, and actual joy. In the former, the idea might be a little more fancy and pristine in your mind, and in the latter, there might be some fussing and ketchup stains here and there that needs sorting out. But in one, real love and friendship and loyalty is been practiced and attempted, however faltering, and in the other, selfishness and isolation and disloyalty is what is actually being practiced, whatever the marching band may be playing in your head.
So what are you practicing for? Are you practicing for the resurrection or for eternal isolation?
Don’t imagine a pretend America, a pretend patriotism in your head with nothing touching the ground, nothing material or historical. Give thanks for the real America, the true America the one on your street, in your home, on your back porch. Christian patriotism is just simple gratitude for those particular moments and gifts. It’s a gratitude that sees the true America sparkling in the eyes of your wife, so you hold her and kiss her like you mean it. It’s a gratitude that hears the true America in the laughter of your family and friends on a sweaty patio with Johnny Cash strumming in the background. It’s a gratitude that smells the true America in the smoke and sunscreen and wheat-tinged air. It’s a gratitude the feels the true America as your hand plays with the wind as you drive down the backroads lined with amber rolling hills.
God gives nations, and God does not give bad gifts. We turn His gifts to evil. We ignore our Maker and we do terrible things. And we have. But this means that our mission is not to refuse the gift. Our mission is to see the gift, to receive the gift, to cherish the real gift, confess our sins, and then lean in deeper. Try to lean in towards the resurrection, towards the New Jerusalem, where all the nations will bring their glory and treasure to the Lamb.
Happy Independence Day, y’all. I’ll be on my back porch grilling in a bit.