As the July 4th weekend approaches, I find that it poses something of a challenge for me as I seek to be a follower of Jesus, especially in this day and age. So many of my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters have spent the last many years forging a close relationship between patriotism and their faith. For them, being a good American and being a good Christian have become synonymous. And, I have to say, that it seems to me that in that union it is usually being the good American that wins out. Being a good Christian-American in this perspective means adopting a certain political point of view (always on the right of the political spectrum), and it means believing that America and Americans enjoy some special blessing from God that gives us a privileged position on earth and in history. It’s Jesus dressed in red, white and blue and waving an American flag.
I certainly am a supporter of my country. While I often think we are, as a nation, losing touch with reason and sanity more and more these days, I feel fortunate to be a part of this nation and I hope that we can be a positive force in the world. I am deeply aware of how much better my life is, particularly in terms of my material well-being, because I happened to be born here. However, I can’t get on board with the red, white and blue Jesus thing. And I can’t get on board with the idea that we as Americans are particularly and specially blessed.
In the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel struggled greatly with a similar perspective. They experienced themselves as God’s chosen people, and a whole host of assumptions flowed from that conviction that caused them to elevate themselves in their own minds above the other peoples of the world. Yet, the long history of the ancient people of Israel is full of tragedy and sorrow. Woven into the narrative of chosen-ness is another narrative: one of wondering why God allowed such tragedies to happen to Israel if they were indeed God’s specially chosen, specially blessed people.
Interestingly, Jesus seems to have short-circuited the narrative of specialness. His teaching seems to make clear that a relationship with God does not depend on any kind of chosen-ness or special status, but rather on a humble heart that truly and sincerely seeks God. Over and over, Jesus warns the people of his time and place not to put confidence in their status as the chosen people. It is part of a theme that is present not only in the Gospels but throughout the narrative of the early church: that following Jesus means transcending the narrow, tribal mentality that so often afflicted the people of his world. Allegiance to one’s tribe, one’s nation, one’s people must give way to allegiance to God in Christ.
How ironic that today, so many followers of Jesus seem to embrace that tribal mentality as if this is what Jesus would have wanted and approved of. In so many ways, it runs counter to the heart of his teaching. And the heart of that teaching, the very heart of Jesus’ whole life and ministry, is not the independence of nations and persons, but rather our inter-dependence. Our lives are intimately related to God and to one another – whether that person is our American neighbor next door or a non-American one on the other side of the globe. Independence is ultimately an illusion: inter-dependence is the deep truth of who we are.
So let us, indeed, celebrate the Fourth of July fully, giving thanks for the unique history and culture that are ours as Americans and for the many opportunities that we have as citizens of this country. And let us indeed remember that none of of this has come cheaply: some have paid a high price on our behalf. But let us not ever allow ourselves to think that this means that God esteems us any higher than any other people on earth. Let us remember that many of our fellow human beings around the globe have also paid, and continue to pay, a price for our standard of living. And let us remember that as followers of Jesus, our highest allegiance is not to our nation but to God: the One who is not on our side but on the side of the whole human family, upon whom God gives the blessing of life. Our celebration of national independence should also be a recognition of our global inter-dependence.