God & Country

Memorial Day is a weird holiday, isn’t it?!? It’s widely regarded as the official start to summer (so fun!); but it’s also the day on which we remember the people who have died in the service of the American Armed Forces (so sad!). I never really noticed the oddity of this mash-up until after our family moved from Amsterdam to Kent, when I was in my mid-30s. But ever since then, much to my chagrin, the patriotic holidays of the United States that used to be so blissfully-uncomplicated for me have been kind of weird and unsettling. It’s usually just a low-grade, background dissonance in my heart. But honestly, every parade… every pledge of allegiance… every singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”… every time people start chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”… It all feels a little bit nationalistic. Even militaristic. I know better than to say that’s the motive of others who participate in these things, but that’s just how they can make me feel.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Marci and I basically decided to amplify that dissonance when we rented the documentary “God & Country” to end our Memorial Day holiday. It’s been on our watch list for a couple months. And the circumstances just came together for watching it tonight.

The film attempts to explain how Christian Nationalism is becoming a more and more divisive force in the Church today. It’s also becoming a more and more divisive force in American culture and politics, more generally. Because of my aforementioned hyper-sensitivity cultivated by my international experiences, I’ve been attuned to this cultural undercurrent for several years. However, as the documentary portrays, it seems like Christian Nationalism, or White Religious Nationalism (as phrased — more accurately, in my view — by one of the interviewees in the documentary), has become more focused and more problematic recently.

The documentary effectively highlighted this phenomenon which, generally speaking, conflates Christianity, conservative politics, and (to an extent) institutional racism. And it’s not a neutral framing of the story, as the film addresses Christian Nationalism with a tone of great concern. Still, I found it interesting that the film was produced by Rob Reiner (who is not, to my knowledge, a man of faith) — yet it includes several educated, articulate Christian voices to sketch out the scenario: Jemar Tisby… David French… Russell Moore… Phil Vischer… Skye Jethani… Kristin Kobes Du Mez… I’ve read these people’s books. I’ve listened to their podcasts. They’re not super-fringe voices from the Evangelical Christian community, so their testimony feels credible. And even the interviewees who represent some of the more-liberal points of view one might expect from a secular filmmaker, like William J. Barber (a Black bishop from a Disciples of Christ church who leads diversity rallies) and Simone Campbell (a Catholic nun and lawyer who works with impoverished communities) speak with conviction and clarity regarding the dangers of Christian Nationalism.

I definitely think it’s a worthwhile investment of time to watch this film. In my view, though, the main problem with “God & Country” is that the film tries to cover a lot of ground, and they don’t always do the best job of establishing context, or connective tissue between the different points of concern. I also felt a little disappointed with the documentary because it didn’t create a very winsome case for why any Christian Nationalist would change his or her views on Christian Nationalism. It didn’t provide much hope for the future of the American Church. And honestly, it just made me more queasy about what we all might experience in this lead-up to the election in November.

Fortunately, as I’ve reflected further on the themes raised by the Memorial Day holiday and the “God & Country” documentary, my mind has been drawn to the Gospel of Matthew — which does provide a clear alternative to Christian Nationalism. And it’s from the mouth of Jesus himself.

When Jesus was tempted in the desert and offered all power and all glory over all the earth’s kingdoms — in a simple exchange for his allegiance — Jesus refused flatly, saying, “Beat it, Satan!” And “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness” (Matthew 4:10). And then, when teaching his apprentices on a hillside, he offered blessings that were totally counter to Christian Nationalism. He said:

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are — no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought… You’re blessed when you get your inside world — your mind and heart —put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom…”

Matthew 5:3-10

It’s so beautiful. It’s so on point. And so, so counter to the ugliness, the distortion, and the perversion of Christian Nationalism. Our “Christian” identity should be so overwhelming that any elements of “Nationalism” should be far removed from our identity as citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom led by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, I believe it’s good to honor, celebrate, and memorialize anyone who puts the interests of others ahead of his or her own self interests (including those who die in the service of the American Armed Forces). So, I don’t want to disparage any of the core elements of this Memorial Day holiday. But I do hope and pray that American Christians can live under God’s blessing, more than the privileged position of political power. I hope and pray that we can keep trusting God and serving others, even when they are perceived to be enemies (see Matthew 5:43-48). And I hope and pray that we will find a way to facilitate cooperation and peace in an adversarial environment. So help us, God.

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