Whose side is God on? A outsider’s perspective on American Christianity

Original post: October 22, 2008; repost: March 30, 2010.

I don’t tend to react very well when a person claims God for their agenda or their side or their country. As an American citizen, born and raised in Hong Kong, and educated in London, I have somewhat of an outsider’s perspective on the role of faith and American politics, notably in how many view America’s affiliation with the Christian faith with caution and even outright hostility. I remember following the effects of 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq War with my English friends, Christian and non-Christian, wondering—and at times, cringing—at the ease with which President Bush claimed God for the American ‘side.’

In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne describes what he saw in America after the events of September 11th, 2001:

Conservative Christians rallied around the drums of war. Liberal Christians took to the streets. The cross was smothered by the flag and trampled under the feet of angry protesters. The church community was lost, so the many hungry seekers found community in the civic religion of American patriotism. People were hurting and crying out for healing, for salvation in the best sense of the word, as in the salve with which you dress a wound. A people longing for a savior placed their faith in the fragile hands of human logic and military strength, which have always let us down. They have always fallen short of the glory of God. (2006:199)

The Christian faith became too easily subsumed into American patriotism, and there were many in the American Church too easily persuaded to support the war in Iraq. Yet Obery Hendricks Jr. argues that this is not an isolated incident but a cultural phenomenon: “in the strange calculus of American political culture patriotism has come to be virtually equated with Christianity. Love of country is extolled in the same breath as love of God” (The Politics of Jesus, 2006:324).

Such an attitude is not only unbiblical, but it undermines the global and universal nature of God’s invitation and salvation. As Jim Wallis comments, “Nationalism doesn’t go well with the kingdom of God. The church is the international body of Christ, and “God bless America” is not found in the Bible” (The Great Awakening, 2008:74). In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in 1865, he acknowledged the tragic irony of asking God to be on one’s side:

Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we not be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. (quoted in E.J. Dionne, Souled Out, 2008:186)

His advice: “Do not say that God is on our side. Let us hope that we are on God’s side” (quoted in Hendricks 2006:193).

It would be easy, especially in a country where Christianity—or some semblance thereof—is so ingrained into the cultural identity and where national pride is so encouraged, for Christians to allow their faith and their love of country to become intertwined, for God to be seen as promoting their agenda—whether conservative, evangelical, liberal. When this does happen, as has happened in part already, the American church’s mission to the world—to demonstrate the love of Christ and the power of the gospel—is hampered by her association with all other things American: “For many in America and around the world, the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ” (Greg Boyd, The Myth of an American Nation, 2005:14).

The day God broke my heart and changed my life (again)

Original post: March 19, 2008; update: January 26, 2010. March 19 was the day I think God really spoke to me about the direction of my life; this was the day that God really broke my heart for justice; this was the day I found my calling.

Part of the fun (I use that term ironically) of letting God do what he wants is that he may (read: often, at least in my experience) do some breaking, so that we don’t carry all of our preconceptions and pride and baggage with us. So in tandem with the excitement of the last week, God’s also been breaking me. Seriously.

Shattering.

And it hasn’t been comfortable, even though I know it’s good for me.

The following is a mosaic of words from songs and books (Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, U2’s When I Look at the World, Broken by Lifehouse, and Jars of Clay’s God Will Lift Up Your Head; oh, and the Bible) that I’ve been reading and listening to lately. God is messing me up.

I’m falling apart, I’m barely breathing; with a broken heart that’s still beating. In the pain, there is healing; in your name, I find meaning. So I’m holding on, I’m barely holding on to you …

Thus says the Lord: maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance will be revealed.

We are called not to be successful but to be faithful.

Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

When you look at the world, what is it that you see?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them?

When there’s all kinds of chaos and everyone is walking lame.

Love your neighbor as yourself. We are the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. Christ is living inside of you and me, walking the earth.

So I try to be like you, try to feel it like you do. But without you it’s no use; I can’t see what you see when I look at the world.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. … Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. … We can adore his cross without taking up ours.

And I am here still waiting, though I still have my doubts; I’m hanging on another day just to see what you will throw my way. And I’m hanging on to the words you say; you said that I will be okay.

I can’t wait any longer, I can’t wait till I’m stronger. I can’t wait any longer to see what you see when I look at the world …

Give to the wind your fear; hope and be undismayed. God hears your sighs and counts your tears; God will lift up your head!

Leave to His sovereign sway to choose and to command …

Through waves and clouds and storms, He gently clears the way. Wait coz in His time, so shall this night soon end in joy. Soon end in joy.