I don’t want my country back; I don’t think I want America to be great again; and I don’t even think I want to “win this nation back” for Jesus, either. There, I said it.
I suppose I should explain.
This theme seems to keep coming up, in various forms. We all know Donald wants to “make America great again.” It’s worth noting that what that phrase likely evokes for most people is nostalgia for the “good ol’ days,” usually in reference to the ’50’s, and it must be remembered that those days may have only seemed “great” because they were relatively better than what had come before, namely the Great Depression and two world wars. Nonetheless, there was progress in the 50’s, to be sure, and those who lived through that time may have experienced it as being “great,” but it again must be remembered that it was only “great” for some, and that “great-“ness came at the cost of the oppression of many others. The Daily Show recently tackled this issue:
Still, those who support Donald and others of their ilk often speak of wanting “their country” back, again hearkening back to a “great” time that exists in nostalgic memory much more so than it ever did in reality, and usually such comments go hand in hand with calls to secure the borders and keep “America” for “Americans.” This is wrong on many levels, but I’ll name two. For starters, it’s at best ignorant, perhaps willfully, as the “country” they want to secure only exists because the land was stolen from its original inhabitants, destroying their culture and way of life in the process while committing genocide against their population and repeatedly breaking treaty after treaty with indigenous peoples whenever it suited the new nation’s interests, as this TED talk attests to:
Secondly, and relatedly, calling the land “America” is itself objectionable. It’s only called this because a European map-maker chose the name in honor of one of the earliest European explorers of the “new world,” Amerigo Vespucci. Of course, Europeans did not “discover” the continent(s), as indigenous peoples (with forebears from Asia) had long been here, and likely had other names for the land, which they regarded reverently and treated with much more respect than we of European descent ever have. As one indigenous person said:
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit
Still, even if you accept the usage of the European named continent(s), it’s likely that when most people hear “America” they think of the United States, thereby failing to remember that in North America alone there are three major countries- the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. This is to say nothing of the many countries that make us South America. Thus, most often when I speak of “America” or “Americans” and am referring to the U.S. or its citizens, I will call it “USAmerica” or “USAmericans.” It still invokes, for me at least, the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent(s) and destruction of their land and way of life, but at least it doesn’t double down by presuming that the U.S. is the only country that matters in “America.”
For all those reasons, I am not among those who want “my” country back. But again I’m also not sure I want USAmerica to be “great” again, because again, it seems to me that those who use this phrase are referring to a time when, if it was great, it was mostly so for (male) whites. To be sure, those who long for what they perceive to be better times also do so in recognition that, according to the Bloomberg article linked to above and here, “the past decade has witnessed stagnation and rising inequality.” The appeal of both Donald and Bernie Sanders as presidential candidates points to this reality, as does the Occupy movement. “Yet,” that Bloomberg article goes on to say, “by almost every other objective measure, life is simply much better now than it was in the ’50s for just about everyone.”
It’s also worth noting what the above analysis hasn’t yet, namely that the foundation for a growing postwar economy was laid many centuries before not only through the hard work of industrious USAmerican entrepreneurs, but much more so through the hard and terrible work exacted from a nation of slaves. As this article notes:
In the pre-Civil War United States, a…case can be made that slavery played a critical role in economic development. One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth. In addition, precisely because the South specialized in cotton production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the slave South, including textile factories, a meat processing industry, insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers.
The beauty of our current “first family” being a black family living in a house built by black slaves doesn’t change the fact that it was built by slaves, however well-fed they might have been. Moreover, what the recent past decades prove, if nothing else, is that the remarkable growth the USAmerican economy enjoyed for so long was unsustainable. It helped us become the richest nation in the history of the world, but at what cost? As I have often written about, we USAmericans use a highly disproprotionate amount of the world’s resources, and produce an equally disproprortionate amount of the world’s waste. Along the way, we’ve become addicted to growth even as our economy shifted from one based on manufacturing to one based on the service sector. As I said above, this is unsustainable, and alternatives to the current service based economy predicated on never ending growth must be sought.
All of this is is to say, then, that USAmerica must not become “great” in the way that Donald and his followers pine nostalgically for. I hope to be part of a country that moves forward, not backward, and that is resilient, courageous, and wise enough to recognize the need to make fundamental and painful changes.
So, again, I don’t want “my” country back. It’s not mine, and never was. I don’t want USAmerica to be great again, either. It wasn’t all that great for many USAmericans in the ’50’s, and sadly, it still isn’t. This country has had some fine moments, to be sure, and there may be finer ones yet to come, but if they are to come, they will do so because we build bridges, not walls; because we build an economy based on service to our common humanity and the planet we all share, not one based on unmitigated capitalistic self-interest. I pray that this occurs.
I also don’t want to “win this nation back” for Jesus, either. I’m sure Rend Collective didn’t mean much when they wrote that lyric, but it’s one I’ve never been able to sing. It’s the back part that bothers me most. As I’ve said recently, there’s a real dearth of modern worship music that both helps us really worship so we don’t shrink, but that also avoids simplistic tropes and can engage us at a deeply theological level. The song that speaks of winning the nation “back,” presumably for Jesus, has some good moments but when I get to that line I just can’t say it, because I just can’t mean it. Talking about winning the nation back sounds a lot like winning “our” country “back,” for starters. And when you say you’re winning it back, even if you mean for Jesus, you imply that somehow he once had it, and now doesn’t. Is this what we really mean?
I don’t think a country can be “Christian” any more than a college or a mint can. Can a thing be Christian? For me, there’s a direct through-line from a “Christian” nation to the many “Christian” colleges (of which I’ve attended several), straight on to Testamints, which I despise. I despise Testamints for what I hope are obvious reasons, but if they’re not, here’s one. For starters, Testamints are obnoxious, and not just because of the play on words in their name. If you want a mint you’re probably not much interested in being proselytized, and if you want to hear about Jesus, it’s insulting to be handed a mint and think maybe that’s done the job. Moreover, to say that a thing can be “Christian” whether it’s a mint or a bookstore or a college or a country begs the question of just what being Christian means. Most days I hesitate to say that I’m a Christian, not only because of the societal baggage involved, but because I hope I’m not quite so proud. The early “Christians” were called “followers of the way,” which implies that they were, perhaps obviously, followers. Jesus initiated the call to his first disciples as he does to every one since then, with the simple admonition to “come, follow me.” Being a Christ-follower is about following Jesus along the way that he leads. As my favorite writer Frederick Buechner says:
Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.
Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.
Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.
Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.
A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.
That’s it, right there. “A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it.” For that reason, I like to say that I’m not a Christian…yet, but I might be some day. I’m on the way, though not very far along. I’m trying every day to follow Jesus as best as I can, because I can do no other. I know he loves me, despite it all, and I want to love him back.
The point is that being “Christian” is about following Jesus, and things, including nations, just can’t do that. Only people can. Besides, the only “country” that could ever be truly Christian is the kingdom of God, and that’s where my true allegiance lies. I may hope that the people who inhabit the U.S. will see God’s love, maybe even in me, and likewise choose to work at following him. In that sense, I hope to “win” this nation for Jesus, but that’s the only sense.
I know some argue that this country was founded by Christians with Judeo-Christian principles underpinning our laws and system of government. This is debatable. The fact remains, however, that for those who would follow Jesus, he is our ruler, our lord, our king. We live as subjects in his good and gracious kingdom, and most of us believe that one day all of humanity will recognize this to be true. Short of that day, however, every effort to wed the church with any secular crown has been disastrous. Do I have to point out why? For starters, the Church is the bride of Christ according to Scripture; so any effort to settle for any other bridegroom/ruler is ill-advised. And history has borne this out. From Israel’s early clamoring for a king other than God to the Crusades and on throughout history, whenever the Church has been in bed with the state it has muddled her mission, at best, and compromised not only her virtue but her very purpose, at worst.
Again, the Church is the bride of Christ, after all, and it exists for those yet to become a part of it. We cannot serve two masters. We must give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s (our taxes), but to God what is God’s (our very lives). We ought not pursue worldly political power, but serve Jesus best when we focus on serving and loving our neighbor, as he did. In fact, historically the church seems to thrive most when it is most out of favor politically, as the situation in China has long made clear.
Yet the more the Chinese government tries to control and co-opt the “official” Chinese church, the more the underground church seems to grow. This is why the start of this post has a picture of the (in)famous “conversion of Constantine.” It’s worth noting that his conversion allegedly came during the heat of battle, after which he and his troops were victorious. The aftermath of his conversion has been no less bloody. With Constantine came Christendom, the long, slow slumber of the co-opted church who gave up her mission to follow Jesus and love the world, and instead pursued worldly power, conquest, wealth, and prestige. This treatment of the topic is particularly interesting. As the author notes:
…it all went downhill after Emperor Constantine, when ‘Christ, who had turned the Roman empire upside down, was turned into a lap-dog for the Roman emperor’ (Andrews 1999, p. 70). The early church had strived to enact Jesus’ teaching. But with Constantine’s ‘conversion’, what had begun as a voluntary, nonviolent movement, a conscious choice of love, forgiveness and sacrifice eventually became a compulsory and hence meaningless tag synonymous with the status quo.
One result was the bloody Crusades. Another was the conversion of Native Americans, sometimes forcibly. The Bible was used to justify slavery, and I could go on, but it should be clear that Jesus is not to be found in any of this. No, if the Chinese church has grown best underground, out of favor with the government, we should learn from this. Something seems right about this, after all, if we are really following a leader who always could be found on the margins of society, with the “least of these.” We follow him best when we follow him there. We follow him not at all when we find ourselves in the halls of earthly political power.
So let’s win the nation for Jesus, but not by trying to get “back” any political power we think we’ve lost. Let’s try to get back our love, our eyes to see where Jesus is. Let’s seek him where he may be found, among the outcasts, with the poor, the lost, the broken, the sick and in prison, among the refugees who would be teeming at our shores if only we’d let them. That’s where Jesus is, and so that’s where we must be. See you there?