Why do American Christians get so ridiculously angry when you question nationalism, or question how nationalism gets grafted into our faith?
It seems like every time this question comes up, people get really angry– and get there quickly. Yesterday when I suggested that it was inappropriate to have nationalistic, pro-military worship services in Church– the place where we’re supposed to worship the risen Christ and nonviolent lover of enemies– people were pretty pissed about it. At one point I noticed that my FB page count was dropping, which has only happened one other time (the first time I blogged about the rapture). It was the same “love her or leave her” reaction I got when I suggested that Christians might want to abstain from reciting the pledge of allegiance, and whenever I suggest that loving our enemies means we don’t shoot them in the head or blow them up. One commenter on Twitter even stated they hope a military member didn’t see the post because it was a “slap in the face” to the military (I guess he didn’t realize that I’m probably the only Anabaptist you’ll meet who is actually retired from the Armed Forces), and others suggested I should move to North Korea (for real).
Blogging against the rapture can ruffle feathers, suggesting that Jesus taught nonviolent love of enemies is offensive, but when you question nationalism? That seems to be the issue that pushes people over the edge.
The question becomes, why? Why is this issue so infuriating?
Here’s a few reasons why I think my fellow Christians get so touchy when you question the mixing of nationalism and Christianity:
Nationalism has long been considered a “Christian” virtue in America, and many of us end up believing it.
All cultures have a tendency to blend cultural values and practices in with the Christian faith (a process technically called “syncretism”), and for generations this has been the case with nationalism and our faith (something uniquely American; this isn’t the case in Canada for example). The two have been blended together so strongly in our culture that any suggestion we separate the two becomes an infuriating concept that literally feels all wrong. Being a good American often becomes synonymous with being a good Christian, which is a false pairing. In fact, sometimes being a good Christian will mean one is radically disloyal to whatever empire they find themselves in.
We’ve long been taught that we as a nation are “exceptional” compared to everyone else (See “American Exceptionalism”).
From our earliest years, we’re taught that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of mankind. I don’t mean this metaphorically either– just listen to some of our politicians closely and you’ll hear folks actually say this, repeatedly. In fact, during the last presidential election one of the candidates stated during a debate that the United States remained the “greatest hope for the future of the world”. Instead of simply being appreciative for where we live and appreciative for what we have, we take it a step further and idolize the nation itself, which means that when someone questions this belief system, it feels like blasphemy. We are not the hope of the world– the hope of the world is a man named Jesus, and to suggest differently is nothing short of idolatry.
We’ve rarely been taught to think critically about our nation.
Being taught that we are the greatest nation in the history of the world means there’s something we’re not being taught: critical thinking. While there is much to love and appreciate about our country, we arrived at our place in the world by a history of utter atrocities against humanity– some of which we are still actively committing, such as killing children with drones and calling it a “bug splat”. However, because of the pairing of nationalism and Christianity and because of our belief that we are the “greatest”, when people question our violent history and present reality it creates too much tension for us to handle. As a result, we attack the person who brings it up in hopes to assuage our own desire to avoid the full truth.
Conservative commentators even have a term for folks who talk about our moral national failings– they call it the “hate America crowd”. This is precisely because thinking critically about our nation goes against our national value of exceptionalism. Such critical thinking risks revealing that we might have believed a lie, and that our loyalties might be in the wrong place.
In America, we’ve often replaced the Kingdom Jesus spoke so often about with our own nation– thinking that God established America, instead of remembering that he came to establish a Kingdom that was “not of this world“, to quote Jesus. The truth of God’s Kingdom is that it is nearly impossible to live in it if one is still stuck holding onto loyalties to an earthly kingdom.
Jesus calls us to forsake everything to follow him, and this includes forsaking our loyalties to anyone but him. When it comes to issues such as sexual ethics, we’re taught that Jesus wants all of us, and that we’re to forsake the ways of our culture in favor of his Kingdom. However, when it comes to nationalism, we’re told that it’s actually good and right to hold onto the values of our culture and that there’s no incompatibility between the two. The actual truth however, is that God’s kingdom is so radically different from anything you will find in this world that it is completely impossible to harmonize the two– something that’s true on sexual ethics but is also true about nationalistic idolatry.
In summary, the pairing of nationalistic loyalties and the Christian faith is largely an American phenomenon. It occurs because of some bad things we are taught, some good things we are not taught, and because we have a difficulty separating what it means to follow Jesus and what it means to be a good American.
If we are to usher American Christianity into a more beautiful expression than generations past, we must learn to reclaim what it means to live in God’s kingdom. We must reclaim the Jesus-value of living radically different than the culture that surrounds us in all areas, not just sexual ethics.
Yes, we can (and should) be thankful for where we live and all that we have. However, we must not forget that scripture calls us “immigrants” and “exiles”. Instead of the Empire of Man we are called to be loyal to the Kingdom of God– the place where we find our true citizenship.
For this reason, we should not be turning our worship services into nationalistic celebrations around the 4th of July.