Yesterday, I read an article at Larry Tomczak’s blog entitled, “40 More Days and the Nation Will Be Destroyed.” It was,apparently, originally published over at Charisma News. I hesitate to link to thing published at Charisma News because I’ve generally found them to be inflammatory at best, though I’m sure there’s plenty of decent content that doesn’t belong in that category. Also, I’m trying to step out of my natural “Christian Internet Police Officer” role because a) I’m not that and b) it’s generally unhealthy for me.
In this case, though, I was particularly bothered by a couple things because I think they’re typical of a way that certain kinds of American Christians think and communicate. I also think these specific kinds of things are examples of things that an increasingly unchurched population in America use as reasons to despise Christianity. And the thing is, these are not ideas that are central to being Christian, so perhaps if we examined the way that we talked, we’d eliminate unnecessary barriers for those who may be inclined to consider the claims of Christ. For those reasons, I figured I’d try to point out these things that jumped out to me.
One thing before I dig in:
I know/knew the author at a personal-ish level. By which I mean that he was the pastor of my family’s church for years. Of course, I was a kid in his church (middle school and high school). I have pretty much nothing but fond memories of that church, even if I already did feel ill at ease theologically. (Yes. As a high schooler, I felt uncomfortable theologically. So yeah… I was an annoying kid to be around at times.) What I’m saying, though, is that I have no personal issue with Larry Tomczak. I doubt he ever thinks much of me, so I’m almost certain he has nothing against me. We know of each other but we are NOT enemies in anyway. I don’t intend to change that in the slightest. In fact, when I was living in South Africa, people there looked at me in wonder when I said that I’d gone to his church. He was a big part of some really cool stuff in the 70’s and beyond. He’s done way more for the Church than I probably ever will. I’m a nobody. So let’s be clear: I’m not attacking anyone. I’ll refer to him as “the author” or “Tomczak” not because I’m mad at him, but because I don’t want to be presumptuous and call him by his first name and, basically, because I was trained to refer to people’s last names in things that I write.
Ok. That’s out of the way. Here are a couple themes that I think we need to reconsider when we talk about Jesus and America.
1. American Exceptionalism
To be clear, I do not think it is wrong in any way to love your country, love its history, or care deeply about its destiny. Nations exist. They are part of our individual context. They are part of our identity that we are born with. There’s nothing wrong with caring about your country and wanting the best for it. But Christian American Exceptionalism is suffused with a moral and spiritual tone that carries with it a belief (or so it seems) that America is divinely called as a sort of second promised land. You can pick up this kind of language if you go back and read the words of early settlers of America or the way we talked about expanding West. But it’s important to read critically and ask ourselves, “Is this actually true? Are we divinely chosen for something unique?” I guess the answer could be yes or no depending on your slant (every nation is providentially “called” to something and we’re all unique so….). But I’d argue that the sense in which many American Christians talk about this is in fact misguided.
Here’s some examples from the article:
“‘But there still is hope if we believe that God will have mercy on us if we humbly turn back to Him and the ways of our Founding Fathers.'”
Which Founding Fathers are we talking about? The ones that said slaves counted as 3/5 of a human for voting purposes? The ones that skipped the slavery issue altogether? Or the ones that cut apart their Bibles in pursuit of perfect Deistic instruction? Or the ones that looked away from or even participated in the extermination or forced removal of Native Americans?
My point is not that there were not very good Christian men who used Biblical principles in the formation of American’s government. There were. There were wonderfully devoted followers of Jesus who helped shaped this country in other ways. Many of them were!
But we have to stop this idea that the Founding Fathers were quasi-prophets who all walked in complete holiness that formed an archetypically Christian nation whose perfection we need to return to. They were sinful and flawed people just like us. There were grievous national sins that they oversaw. There were non-Christians who were very important in the formation of government, too! They didn’t form a theocracy. They didn’t form a national church. What I’m saying is that our past religious history is mixed, too. We need to stop pretending otherwise.
“Days ago I spent some time with my wife in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, called the “Secret City” during World War II. Here 75,000 citizens worked tirelessly to develop the atomic bomb to ultimately defeat Japan and bring about their surrender. These patriots, alongside of our servicemen and women who gave their lives on battlefields, and the D-Day invasion persevered to secure our freedom.”
I’m sure these people at this place were lovely folks. I’m sure they sacrificed and loved their country. But are we going to brush by the fact that they were building an atomic bomb? An instrument of warfare that killed hundreds of thousands of noncombatants? We have to stop glossing over this kind of thing in our past. We are the only nation on earth that has ever used a nuclear weapon and we did it twice. In civilian population centers! I cannot find anything within the Christian Just War tradition that would approve of such an act. But because we see ourselves as the good guys, we sort of justify, if not glorify this kind of act because it helped us win more quickly. This isn’t Just War. It’s a terrible shame to us.
No more American Exceptionalism. Not from Christians. God loves all the people of the Earth. He is not American. He does not love us more than anyone else. Today, when people hear/read words like this, they don’t remember the very good things about our nation’s history. They think that Christians excuse deplorable behavior because we were “more Christian” back then. And we don’t. Or at least we shouldn’t.
2. Things are terrible and way worse is coming
We are invited by Tomczak to consider a scenario in which any number of terrible disasters simultaneously falling on us as a country. The final picture we are invited to meditate on this:
“To picture what it could be like when some of these events explode on the scene, picture a segment from the film “Mad Max” or the TV show “Walking Dead.” [I don’t watch these but have seen pictures from them.] Or visualize a city like those in the Ukraine—once-thriving cities now lawless centers of desperate people who’ve become marauders and looters carrying out criminal acts with impunity.”
Or we should consider this:
“We are currently engaged in a titanic, unprecedented struggle with forces of evil and must categorically reject wishful thinking that this is simply temporary, cyclical or manageable.”
Tomczak briefly mentions that we shouldn’t “have a spirit of fear,” but that’s the only reference to fear in an article that I think pumps quite the opposite message very hard. In fact, when I showed it to a couple people, Christian people, the primary message they got from this article was: “Be afraid!” When you invoke Jonah’s message to Nineveh (a city God was threatening to destroy) and doomsday imagery, what other message should a reader be left with?
The thing is, this idea of impending national doom, is both far more grandiose and far cheaper than a much more real and present fear that actually could positively motivate the Church in America. I think it’s unproductive to call to mind hollow, burned out cities and whisper about judgment from God on this nation. For one, we don’t have recognized prophets in the Old Testament mold to tell us that this or that disaster actually is judgment on our country. So we’d be over-stepping to make such Biblical analogies. Second, it undermines a full understanding of God’s judgment in both it’s active (sending disasters) and passive nature. Without being able to clearly determine what kind of tragedies might actually be active judgment (for example, I don’t think Pat Robertson was right about why Katrina hit New Orleans), we are on far studier ground when it comes to God’s passive judgment. Tomczak seems to be keying in on the Supreme Court’s decision about the nature of civil marriage, but in fact a judgment that will likely legally redefine traditional marriage is itself a demonstration of judgment. You get the sense from reading this article that God is waiting around for a Supreme Court vote and is trying to decide how many lightning bolts he’ll send if they decide like I’m almost sure they will. But if you read Romans 1, such a decision is far more in line with what God’s judgment often does look like: a giving over to what you want, the terrible destructiveness of your own autonomy. That is the terrible judgment.
But most distressingly, I think this kind of language is not the kind of reality check that the Church needs. Is judgment from a holy God real? Should we pray for a Third Great Awakening? Absolutely! But looking back to the First Great Awakening and a famous sermon on judgment by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (which is unfortunately all that people know of a man who preached far more about the pleasures of loving God) brought to mind what kind of judgment to people? Personal judgment. What kind of sin were people worried about? Personal sin, not national sin. Who was revived? Church people! Nominal Christians! That’s where it started. And the great declines in religion that people saw before the First and Second Great Awakenings were not linked so much the terribly immoral decisions of a government or a falling away from “the ways of our Founding Fathers.” It was all about growing cold towards God. The sermons challenged people to see the coldness of their hearts and the judgment hanging over them or even being experienced in their lives as they ate of the fruit they planted and to respond to God’s call.
What I’m concerned with in articles like this is the fingers pointing to the government over there or the elected official over there or the legal decisions over there. What should scare us, though? What should disturb us? 1. Our coldness towards God. Our addiction to comfort and security and places of cultural privilege instead of the grace of Jesus. 2. Our neighbors and friends and family who hate God and are living far removed from Him. Those things should make us weep and repent.
My point with these two themes is that we shouldn’t spend our time imagining America’s destiny is hanging in the balance. There’s no point in imagining if our government might fall and we might descend into ruin. Spoiler alert: IT WILL! Every nation falls. Ours will too. It may or may not have something to do with the active judgment of God. But right now, today, what draws me and my neighbor closer to Jesus? Is it fear of doomsday that should draw people to the Gospel Table?
I really don’t think so.
I think we should invite people to the kingdom the same way John the Baptist and the early Church and, hey, maybe even the way Jesus did. Jesus mourned for Israel on a couple of occasions, yes. But what was the message he primarily preached? The kingdom is here! The king is here! The kingdom brings healing and wholeness and life of a different kind and quality. The Church went around preaching the simple message “Jesus is the King!” and undermined the counter-claims of the empire. Was their message primarily, “Ruin is coming! Save your country!” No it wasn’t. I think we’d be well-advised to consider preaching the Gospel that way.
Sin and judgment are real. But the odds are that many people who are unchurched actually do believe in judgment of some kind, they just wouldn’t call it that. In the quiet moments of their heart, if you ask them about their life and the bitter fruit they sow and reap, they have no problem saying life can be pretty messed up. And we are right their beside them saying, “Yeah. I know. Me too.” But we get to tell the Gospel to ourselves and to one another that the Good News is that judgment need not by our only meal. We can let Jesus swallow up judgment for us. We don’t have to keep living lives as humans disconnected from the fullest expression of our humanity; life with God is what we were made for.
Let’s not make the Gospel less good than it actually is. Let’s not make the coming of Jesus less wonderful than it is. I think Jesus wants people who are tired of their sin, their autonomy, to come to him wounded and worn out and he wants them to give up what they’re carrying. I think he wants them to see how good he is and how far removed they are from his goodness. And I think we need to hear that too. For my family’s sake. For my neighborhood’s sake. For my town’s sake. And yes, for my nation’s sake.
So, by all means, pray hard for a Third Great Awakening in America. Please! But don’t do it because you’re trying to avoid a scene in Mad Max. Do it because you see the coldness in your own heart and you want to see yourself revive. Do it because you see the wounds of your family healed. Do it because you see the lostness of your neighbors and you want them to come home.
It’s not the fire raining down from heaven that John the Baptist screamed out to the listening crowds. It was, “Behold the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world!” It wasn’t ruined cities that Peter expounded in Acts 2. It was the murdered Jesus made risen Lord. And their message was very simple:
“Come to Jesus. Come let him be king. Come let him deal with your sin. Come to Jesus.”
If we’re going to preach anything, let’s preach that.
(P.S. Can we all agree that Joel Osteen probably shouldn’t be the first name that comes to mind when we think “Christian Leader?”)