Yesterday was the 4th of July and I tried to spend some time thinking about what the day means and what my response should be as a Christian. The question, “What should my response be” my feel like a ludicrous, even sacrilegious question for some people. Jesus is basically wrapped in an American flag and we worship him as the image of the bald eagle descends on the church. That is not how I see things, to say the least. Our church doesn’t have an American flag (or any flag) in our building because the Cross is our flag.
But I’m not anti-American either. I’ve lived outside the country, traveled outside the country in addition to that. I love other cultures and foods and customs. But I’m also glad that I’m an American. There are many advantages and benefits. I think American ideals are legitimately good and were even revolutionary in the 18th century. Americans are generous economically (in terms of aid distributed). We at least used to have a reputation as being particularly hospitable to refugees and those in trouble. I’m grateful for all of those things. So I tried to give thanks to God for the many blessings and privileges I enjoy here.
It’s also worth reflecting upon how being American affects me and many other Christians in this country. This came to mind as I read this piece by Tish Harrison Warren. I really commend the whole thing to you. It’s about how Christians, especially pro-life Christians, ought to care about economic justice, specifically care for the poor and wealth disparity in a society. Much of her piece is to show, through Christian history, how frequently income gaps and poverty were seen as a major, perhaps even primary means of social engagement in the Church.
I think Tish is right that, for many Christians, especially white evangelicals, this is entirely a question for individual social action. And it is! Historically, active church-goers have been very generous people in their communities (on average). This may be shifting a bit as religious labels and commitments and institutional trust change, but historically that has been the case. However, for many people, this is only a question of individual charity.
My instinct says that this is a place where being American has particularly inflected our expression of being Christian. I think Christians in other nations probably understand the need to address poverty as a national, governmental problem and an arena for individual generosity. It’s also entirely possible that Christians in other nations are influenced the other way, prone to only look at government programs and not individual generosity. I don’t know about that part.
This is only an example, though, of what I think is a primary place for American Christians to exercise self-suspicion. Our country, our culture particularly emphasizes the supreme importance of the individual. In America, rugged individualism is part of our national mythos. This cultural ideology has fueled incredible innovation and capitalist conquest. But there is a great cost: every problem comes down to each individual person. Of course, this also protects Americans from a mindset that pawns every problem off onto a governing institution. It’s a trade-off.
What we have to acknowledge as a people and particularly as Christians, that it is indeed a trade. And we ought to be careful.
I see this individualism theologically all the time. More and more Christians today, in this country, wander into theological and church practice territory that is entirely inconceivable to most Christians in most places and times. Theological decisions (or capitulations) are made all the time on a version of this rationale: I have read the Bible myself and I personally have decided what this means and I personally do not feel that I am wrong. Therefore, I will do/believe this. Here are the verses and podcasts and experiences that confirm my decision.
So many decisions about economic justice or gun rights or lifestyle choices (I can buy what I want!) or church structures or spiritual beliefs come down, ultimately, to a concentration on the individual and not the community. The Almighty “I.”
This is a trans-national problem. It is occurring in many countries in this world. But we have to be aware that we, as Americans, are particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking. “You can’t tell me what to do” is one of our de facto national mottos. We see it in movies, in books, and in our churches all the time.
This is not a Christian mode of thinking.
Your individual experience, interpretation, and conscience are all very important. I think the Bible actually teaches that. But all of that is nested into a larger, communal way of thinking. The story of the Bible is ultimately the story of the revelation of God in one God-Man: Jesus Christ. However. Jesus’ story is inseparable from the story of Israel. A people. From the Church. A people.
Throughout Christian history, it has not been left to the individual to determine what is right and what is wrong. The Church provides the context and the guardrails for personal experience. That sounds so dangerous and threatening to so many people in America. And let’s be clear: it has often gone horrendously wrong! The community, the authority has been abusive and oppressive. We acknowledge that. But a radical association of individuals is NOT what the Church is meant to be either. If you come to me and tell me that God has told you that you can leave your wife to explore new romantic experiences, my answer will be pretty simple (assuming there’s no abuse or adultery or something like that): God did not tell you that. Your interpretation is wrong. You should submit to the communal authority of the Church and live in accordance with your vows.
The society, the community decides for you to bind your individual will to what is right.
That is radical, unAmerican thinking. But I very much do believe it is Christian thinking. And I actually do think most Christians would agree with that specific example.
But that mode of thinking is often absent from the kinds of things that Tish talks about or our nation laments when looking at tragic shootings in Uvalde or Highland Park (or on and on and on and on…). I have no definitive answers or political strategies to advocate for here because I am not a poly-sci guy. But if our only response to societal ills is to foist everything upon the individual (“get them mental health help!” “give more to charity!”), the society is not operating as it should. A society built by unjust people is often, unsurprisingly, unjust. Therefore it is both the individual and the collective that needs to be addressed.
I think we can forget that. Individualism is powerful and ever-present in our country.
We ought to push back against it.
No, I’m not saying all Christians should vote a particular way or that we have to live in a commune or that people’s individual conscience and rights don’t matter. Not at all. That all or nothing reaction is symptomatic of the larger problem! “It’s either all about my right to do x or it’s about enslavement!” No. The hedging of personal rights in a corporate setting is simply part of the dynamic of a rightly-ordered society.
It is Christian to think thus and so.
I’m grateful to live in a place that emphasizes the protection of all individuals. I really think it’s incredibly important and a lot of good has come into the world through America precisely because of that. But every gift, every call comes with a burden, an inclination to a particular kind of error. This, I think, is ours. We ought to be careful.
And Christians ought to be ready to be out-of-step with “what it means to be America.” We ought to be weird and foreign and, frankly, a bit annoying because of our refusal of cookie cutters.
My prayer is that, for me and my family, we will serve the Lord. Not the American dream. Not our own desires. Not the cravings of our flesh or the dictates of individualism. No. That we would serve the Lord.
Let it be so with God’s help and the help of His Church.
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