Make American Great Again? When was America ever Great?

Make American Great Again? When was America ever Great? August 30, 2020

It is not uncommon today to see the polarized camps of the right advance the slogan “Make America Great Again” only to have pundits on the left reply, “When was America ever Great?”

Others have cleverly taken this slogan and its characteristic red hat in order to market their own agendas:

Those in the cheese industry have suggested putting a ban on pre-shredded cheese so that we can “Make America grate again.”

A bookstore sign states, “Make America Read Again.”

Those in the wine industry have suggested, “Make Napa grape again.”

Then there are those who have taken the opportunity to sardonically advance other political entities:

One such group sported a picture of Obama wearing an, “I already made America Great Again” hat.

Some of my British friends and relatives have suggested: “Make America Great Britain Again.”

Another quipped, “Make America Native American Again.”

And still another, “Make America Mexico Again.”

And then there was the “Wait, what about Canada?” hat; for which someone posted a “Please leave Canada out of this” hat.

Trump’s MAGA slogan has certainly appealed to many. While some have used it to advance an agenda of American nationalism, others have simply rallied around the notion that we should put America first.

Some among the older generations hold to an idealistic conception of America and have memories of America as the defender of democracy. Others look to the era of Reagan and the demise of the communist east as a time in which America was great.

There is no question that America has advanced a form of democracy and freedom that has been largely unparalleled in history. And many have benefitted from it.

What is often overlooked, however, and as racial tensions continue to rise in our cities we must recognize the legitimacy of the fact that for many others America has never been great.

Certainly, this is true for the indigenous people. It is also true, with perhaps one brief 12-year exception (1865-77), and even that is debatable, for most African Americans. For many African Americans, this country has hardly been great. Sure, it has been at times better than many countries.

In fact, the African American narrative notes, if this country has been great, it is likely because it was built on the back of slaves.[1]

Many white Americans have a misperception that since the 13th amendment ended slavery, life has been well, or at least better and improving for people of color ever since. The reality, however, is that, as W. E. B. Du Bois lamented, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

I will not recount the horrors in this post that African Americans have faced since the end of slavery except to note that in many ways life became remained just as bad for the majority of them. This is a fact that, and I will speak for myself, I was simply unaware of until recently. You might view the Netflix “13th”; or, read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, or watch the film by the same title; or, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Remained just as bad as slavery you might inquire? Yes, with the advent of convict-leasing, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and chain gangs up to the present state of mass incarceration, life has not improved for many African Americans.[2]

I am sure that I will need to double back to this point in future posts. There are some who believe that there is basic equality between whites and blacks in modern America. I can assure you that not only is this wrong, it is terribly wrong!

What does this mean for us?

First, the people of God are called to advance the gospel of the kingdom of God.

That gospel begins with Jesus as Lord. This is not some nice and meaningless utterance (I am convinced that most Christians have given little thought to what “Jesus is Lord” really means and the implications of such a declaration: perhaps a good place to start is the series of 7 posts on what is the gospel and the kingdom of God).

The proclamation that Jesus is Lord means that we are not; neither my power, time, wealth, education, aspirations, family, good looks, nor anything else you may want to add here. Only He is Lord. (This is important because too often we live our lives as though we are Lord. We fail to give, serve, and love as though He is Lord, and instead give, serve, and love to meet our own desires).

To proclaim that Jesus is Lord also means that Caesar is not: neither is any government, dictator, king, president, nor any other ruler. (This is important because too often evangelicals have identified our empire—for most of you reading this it would be the US—with the gospel of the kingdom of God. Too many evangelicals have wrapped their hopes and convictions not in the gospel of the kingdom of God, but in the garb of secular politics. They have assumed that a political party is the party of the church/kingdom. And that the hopes and aspirations of this party are synonymous, maybe not always, but certainly too often, with the gospel of the kingdom).

I Digress: I know that some of you may disagree with this assertion, so I will digress to address it briefly by noting two things:

First, that the hopes and aspirations of the kingdom of God have been too closely associated with the state is evident when Christians bemoan the lack of prayer in schools or the posting of the ten commandments on government property. I hear 2 Chron 7:14 (“if my people . . . humble themselves and pray . . . then I will heal their land”) cited and applied to the US way too often. This passage has nothing to do with any secular state.[3] The gospel does not need prayer in the public schools to advance. Christians should respect other’s desire to not have prayer imposed on them and instead should focus on living out the gospel in their own lives and allow that to be a witness.

Secondly, that the hopes and aspirations of the kingdom of God have been too closely associated with a political party within the state is evident when leaders within that party are identified as chosen by God to lead the people. God chooses people within the church to lead His kingdom and advance the gospel. Surely, we can acknowledge that the leaders of secular states are chosen by God (but this means that God chooses all leaders), but they are not put in power to advance the gospel of the kingdom. They may be called to maintain justice and fairness, but they are not called to advance the gospel.

Also, the claim that certain leaders of a given state are Christians and that God has instituted them so that they may advance the gospel can be quite dangerous to the advancement of the kingdom of God. For one, some of these leaders do not display any serious commitment to Jesus as Lord and advancing them as Christians only makes a mockery of the gospel. Non-Christians look at them and laugh at the church. “If that is what a Christian looks like, then I do not want to be one” is a common sentiment.

Furthermore, the leaders of a secular state are put in power to advance the well-being of that state. The ambitions of that state will often conflict with the gospel of the kingdom of God.

I note this first point—that Christians are called to advance the gospel of the kingdom of God—because too many evangelicals are advancing the gospel of a political party or the gospel of our nation as a Christian nation. The secular state and the kingdom of God are often, though not always, at odds.

Secondly, nations will often benefit those in power even if that means that others suffer.

The fact is that those in power often seek the well-being of those who helped them get in power, as well as their own well-being, in order that they might retain said power. This is simply the nature of power.

The problem is that power and its benefits come at the expense of others.

Thus, to “Make America Great Again” may seem like a great ambition: even for those who do not advocate its nationalistic and racial implications. For others, however, MAGA says, we need you to suffer more in order that we might accomplish this.

What does this mean in light of our present climate?

Here is where my two points come together. The church is called to advance the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is “good news” (i.e., the gospel) to the “poor” and the “oppressed” (Luke 4:18). And it is here that the goals of a nation and the kingdom of God clash.

What does this mean? Shall we not endeavor to make our nation great? Of course, we should. But, from the perspective of the kingdom of God, we should endeavor to make it great for all—especially the oppressed.

When Scripture says that God has established governments and places kings in power (cf Rom 13:1), it notes that they are, “a minister of God to you for good” (Rom 13:4). From the perspective of Jesus and the kingdom of God, “good” must apply to all.

What does this mean when it comes to the current climate of the US: both in regard to the racial issues that continue to foment and in regard to the election season?

It means that seeking to make our nation great begins with addressing the racial inequities that beset our country.

It also means that the state is empowered to be a means through which justice can be achieved. But we should never blur these two into one.

The aims of the people of God in relation to the kingdom of God and the aims of a nation are not the same and are often at great odds with one another.

Thus, the people of God must be a voice to the nation making sure that the nation is advocating principles of God’s kingdom and not merely its own agenda. For, its own agenda too often excludes those with no power.

When it comes to “Make America Great Again” we must remember that for some “When was America Ever Great?” is a reality.

footnotes:

[1] We must recognize that Africans were not the only people group upon which the wealth of this nation was built. The Chinese were brought over the build the railroads in the west and treated brutally. There was the bracero period in which Mexican workers (and some from Guam) were used to provide agricultural labor and endured tremendous injustices.

[2] I recognize that the issue of racism effects more than just African Americans, but all people of color. In the limited space of this post, and in light of the recent events of the shooting of another black man, I am only addressing the racial tensions that affect African Americans.

[3] In its OT context it applied to the nation of Israel or the southern kingdom of Judah to be specific. I would contend that an application of this verse in light of the coming of Christ and the beginning of the kingdom of God would be that God would restore the NT people of God in relationship to His kingdom. The NT people of God, however, do not reside in only one nation today. We are in most nations. Thus, applying this verse to one nation over and above the others, fails to recognize that the church exists within various nations and is not identified with any one nation. Applying this verse to the US is also tragically imperialistic.


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