I returned home from a trip to Saudi Arabia last week.
When I landed in New York, I was greeted by a stern-faced U.S. Customs agent grilling me about my travels. Next, a perfect stranger in airport security felt me up so thoroughly that I must now confess a sin of adultery to a Catholic priest. Then, I paid $17 for lunch in the airport food court, where every outlet serves a menu of soggy cardboard warmed beneath the tender glow of four giant heat lamps.
And I loved everything about it. Home sweet home.
After my meal and subsequent indigestion, I sat in the lounge waiting for my final hop back to Nashville, soaking in all of the familiar sights and sounds. College hoodies. Southern accents. Bluetooth headsets. I overheard a couple talking in the row behind me, grateful to be around a familiar language once again. As I listened, I imagined their names were Harold and Mabel. The TV news was running a story about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with justifiably angry talking heads decrying extremism and cautioning against racism.
“What is this world coming to?” Mabel asked.
“Nothing good, that’s for sure.” Harold quipped.
I glanced back at the screen above me, enjoying their banter. A little while later, the news ran a story about Miley Cyrus, the all-too-familiar celebrity. Apparently she thought it would be a good idea to release a bunch of nude photos. But Billy Ray’s heart wasn’t the only one that was achy-breaking.
“And look at that?” scoffed Harold. “Can you believe it?”
“Good Lord.” Mabel replied. “I can’t believe we allow this kind of thing in a CHRISTIAN NATION.”
A CHRISTIAN NATION.
We’ve heard it so many times that the words just seem to go together. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Or Bert and Ernie. But in that moment I was struck by a harsh realization.
It’s simply not true.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am about to say. I am a Christian. Big fan of Jesus! I try and fail every day to be more like Him. And I’m not just talking about the carpentry part. Whether the task is trimming out cabinets or extending grace to others, I have a devil of a time getting it right. Still, it is a goal of mine to become more Christ-like in word and deed.
Because of this, you might think I would be on the bandwagon, lamenting the fact that we’re looking less and less like a CHRISTIAN NATION every day. Especially so fresh from a trip to a Muslim country where openly sharing my faith is punishable by death.
But I am not lamenting. The truth is, the United States is NOT a CHRISTIAN NATION. And, as Christians, there are three big reasons why we need to get this crazy notion out of our heads.
First, when we say we are a CHRISTIAN NATION, we look like imbeciles to anyone who has read a grade school history book. The founders of our nation, most of them Christians, drafted the First Amendment (and Article 6 of the Constitution) to guard against state-sponsored religion. They had lived through true persecution, and understood how faith in the hands of government can easily stray from its original intent.
Second, saying we are a CHRISTIAN NATION provides an easy way for a people of faith to shirk responsibility. While I do believe governments have an obligation to assure citizens are afforded equal rights under the law, and government systems should not encourage marginalization, that does not mean Christ-followers can leave this work to elected officials. It is up to each of us to reach out to the “least of these” and take the humble stance of a servant. Every. Day.
The third reason gets to the heart of why Christ himself did not want to be “of this world.” Jesus had seen what happens to religion in the hands of politicians like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In fact, he saved some of his harshest words for these folks, calling them “snakes” (Matt. 23:33) and “manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh.” (Matt. 23: 27 MSG)
Stop sugar-coating it, Jesus. Tell us how you really feel!
Jesus knew we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we shouldn’t want to be Caesar.
Bottom line: there is a big difference between being a CHRISTIAN NATION and being a NATION OF CHRISTIANS.
A CHRISTIAN NATION claims persecution when others don’t allow official prayers, or prohibit the use public space and funds to display the Ten Commandments or a government-sanctioned Nativity scene.
A NATION OF CHRISTIANS recognizes that although the vast majority of the population is of the same faith, there is an ocean of difference between sharing that faith and imposing your beliefs on others. You just can’t legislate devotion.
A CHRISTIAN NATION fears Sharia Law and all things Islam, labeling Muslims as terrorists or extremists, even though the majority of terror acts are committed by non-Muslims.
A NATION OF CHRISTIANS looks for places to be the healing hands of Christ in the midst of extremism, while constantly reflecting upon their own behavior to see if it, too, could be classified as extremely far afield from the loving example of Christ.
A CHRISTIAN NATION takes a protective stance, concerned about securing its borders to keep out the alien and those who don’t belong.
A NATION OF CHRISTIANS takes a welcoming stance, concerned about loving their neighbors as themselves. There is simply no greater commandment.
A CHRISTIAN NATION legislates love, making rules that govern who can and cannot commit their lives to one another, treating the marginalized as unequal in the eyes of the law.
A NATION OF CHRISTIANS sees everyone as equal in the eyes of the Lord, wonderfully and beautifully made in the image and likeness of God.
A CHRISTIAN NATION demands commitment and effort, and those who aren’t willing or able to give that effort are less than worthy, placed outside the circle of the deserving.
A NATION OF CHRISTIANS live by the mantra of Christ that those who sue you for your tunic should be given your cloak as well. Those who ask for a mile shall be given two. And those who beg and borrow shall not be refused.
Perhaps all of this is best captured in the words of the Apostle Paul, who was once a zealous Pharisee himself.
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil. 2: 1-8 NIV)
In the end, turning the United States into a CHRISTIAN NATION might ensure that “Christian values” are more consistently displayed on television screens and “Christian principles” are more practiced in schools and assembly halls. But that simply isn’t the answer. Because a NATION OF CHRISTIANS, made up of individuals striving to be Christ-like, understands that no one comes to the faith by force. Instead, people must be drawn to the faith of their own free will. Like a magnet to metal. And in this pursuit let us all be as strong as steel, praying this prayer together.
May our joy in despair be contagious.
May our humility in service be infectious.
May our generosity in poverty be irresistible.
And may our love and grace be offered without condition
to a nation of souls who need it so desperately.
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