I grew up in a church that has an American flag right up front each and every Sunday morning. On national holidays we would sing anthems to the greatness of the US. The impression was clear: to be a good Christian is to be strong in support of America.
(I should note one thing. That same church is one of the biggest reasons I am a Christian serving in full time ministry today, so that first paragraph is not an indictment on the whole church.)
I went to seminary and during my second year there took exegesis of Revelation with Dr. Lowery. This class shattered my worldview in many ways. We studied Revelation in its original context and the message we got, week in and week out, was that there is a battle going on between the Lamb and the Beast. The Lamb is Jesus Christ, the one who suffered and died for our sins. To follow the Lamb is to take the path that may lead to our own suffering. The Beast is any worldly power that attempts to seduce God’s people. For John’s first Christians, that was Rome. Rome had the best military, economy, political system and standard of living. Further, Rome offered safety and security. Get on board with Rome, be a good patriotic Roman, and life will be okay. This was the temptation for the Christians to whom Revelation was addressed: would they get on board with Rome or would they stick to the Lamb?
The question we could not get away from was whether the American church has already compromised, getting on board with the American empire, the “Beast” of our day?
Before I go any farther, I do not want this post to come across as anti-American or anti-any sort of government. The early Christians held to two truth: Rome’s existence is very good and important for they keep worse things at bay. Some Christians saw the fall of Rome as to be followed by the rise of the antichrist and the end of the world (such as North African author Tertullian who lived around 200 AD). Many Christians when accused of being bad citizens responded that they do more good for the empire in their prayers than the armies do. So Christians are not anarchists; I believe Christians can and should support (for lack of a better term) the government (however that works out practically) wherever they are. The other truth though was that Rome was persecuting Christians, promoted an anti-Christian way of life and was evil. Christians lived between these two truths. Or to put it another way, God is sovereign but (and) Satan is the prince of this world.
I think one of the biggest temptations for Christians in America today is nationalism. When living in the way of Jesus clashes with living in the way of America, we choose America. Many Christians find their identity more in their political party then in their faith. Thus, when wars of ideas occur whether a person is a “D” or an “R” says more about what they will argue than whether they are a Christian. Rather than offering a unique, Christ-like perspective, Christians just take the sides defined by he world.
Part of the Christian mission is helping people see that putting their hopes in any political power is ultimately to have a false hope. No political person, power or ideology cares for you…they care for their own gain. We see this right now with the attacks on Libya. Predictably, many who opposed a similar war on Iraq, are now quiet. When a Republican does something, the Democrats complain…but when a Democrat does the same thing, most Democrats go along (and Republicans are the same way). To be fair, a very few Democrats will criticize their own but they are nowhere near the majority.
Glenn Greenwald points this out, responding to an article by John Judis in an article titled “The Manipulative Pro-War Argument in Libya“. If the USA is involved in Libya to help innocents, that leads to a whole host of questions:
my real question for Judis (and those who voice the same accusations against Libya intervention opponents) is this: do you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression, or to stop the still-horrendous suffering in the Sudan, or to prevent the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast? Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?
I would add Congo and Darfur to the list. But the point is made. Stephen Walt also has a brilliant article on this, showing how those on the left and on the right agree, more or less, in foreign policy.
The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power — and especially its military power — can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America’s right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.
So if you’re baffled by how Mr. “Change You Can Believe In” morphed into Mr. “More of the Same,” you shouldn’t really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I’m not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.
He ends the article by reminding us that, as a country, we are broke: “And who’s the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China’s leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.” Jon Stewart, in a much funnier way, points out the same thing in recent episodes of the Daily Show.
The point of this post is not my view on war. My point is that I see clearly here another instance where national self-interest shines through. The USA, like every country, may at times speak of high ideals, but in the end we get militarily involved in countries that benefit us while ignoring those (Congo, Darfur) that do not. In 2012 we will have another election where two people tell us the other guy is the problem and if we vote for them then they will fix everything. But many things, including the idea that America is the best hope for the world, will not change.
As Christians, our mission is to point people to the true hope of the world, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, by the way, was crucified by the best political and religious system the world had ever come up with. If the powers of this world execute the only innocent person, then why put our trust in them?
Ultimately, I believe Christians should be good citizens, supportive of our countries (whatever that practically looks like) while recognizing that all nations are temporary and no matter the rhetoric, defined by self-interest. Putting our greatest hope in these powers will lead to disappointment. Conversely, hope in Jesus Christ, and seeking to live as his disciple, makes us a part of a kingdom that will never disappear.