**The following sermon was delivered at Durham Mennonite Church on Sunday, July 3rd, 2011. The readings for the day, on an adjusted lectionary, were Isaiah 31:1-32:8, Ecclesiastes 8:2-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-10, and Matthew 17:24-27.
America and I have a complicated relationship; it’s one of those “love-hate relationships.” Sometimes I can’t decide which it is. I love the freedoms that we enjoy here that many other nations don’t have. We can speak our mind openly without much fear of retribution. If we choose to, we can contribute to the electoral process by voting. There are plenty of things that I love about America. I even love the way America looks. Over the summers, I do a lot of driving, and one of my favorite things to do is to drive through the countryside with the windows down listening to a favorite album. Sometimes, I swear I can hear God whispering to me in the wind blowing through my car.
But there are things that I hate about America too. I hate that our government steals resources for education, healthcare, and jobs from the poor and gives them to corrupt banks and military budgets. I hate that national policy favors rich, white religious men. Sometimes I wish I were not American. When I was in the Middle East in 2006, watching, among various other evils, Palestinian homes being demolished by Israeli bulldozers made in America, I stood outside the U.S. embassy seriously considering surrendering my passport and declaring myself a stateless person, like the many Palestinians I had met. Just like in the passage we read from Matthew, America unfairly disadvantages other peoples children. Jesus asks Peter who pays for Empire, the benefactors of the system, or the rest of the world? Peter responds correctly by saying that it is others that end up with the bill for the Imperial Dream. There are plenty of reasons to hate America.
My favorite class in high school was the intro to psychology course, led by a white-haired thread of a man whom I admired. He taught us that love and hate are actually emotionally related. They are not opposites. Instead, the opposite of love is indifference. Hate, he would tell us, is really just frustrated love. Think about it, when a child says, in anger, that she hates her mom or dad, does she really mean it? No, when we hate something we still actually are seeking attention, and this is not a bad thing. We want to be reconciled when we hate in this sense, we are still engaging with the person, which means we can (and often want to) be reconciled with them. My teacher was a very energetic and boisterous man, but when he talked about indifference, his entire demeanor would change. He would say solemnly, “Don’t ever stop caring. When that happens, your soul begins to die.”
Martin Luther King too, spoke so viscerally of our country not out of hatred, but love. Such great disappointment, he said, was not possible without great love. Tomorrow, as we celebrate the birth of our nation, we must not love America shallowly, as a great number of pundits do. You certainly hear them speaking so casually about how great this country is, how it is a gift from God to the world. This is a misunderstanding of how God has ordained nations. Nations are a tragic necessity at best. Like our gender, skin color, or height, they are accidental to creation, they are not an organic part of God’s plan for the world, but a contingent reality in place because of the fallenness of our world. Romans 13 uses the language of ordination because it is something that God has commissioned to keep our corruption in check, something that has no place in the final reality and ultimate end that we are moving toward. That Paul writes from prison acknowledges the finitude of these ordained structures to actually serve justice and honor God. Like pastors, ordained things serve a limited purpose – in the hereafter, we will finally be that nation of priests our spiritual forbears were called toward, we will no longer need gender, skin color, or nationality. Insofar as the nation claims to be immune to the trappings of time and the limitations of this-worldly love, it is an idol. In as much as a person claims to love America but cannot turn their eyes to her faults, they are idolaters. Patriotism, a measured love for our land and its features, might be okay, but nationalism, the love of our land to the exclusion of others, is not.
So can Christians love America?
The 4th of July is the ideological birth of our nation, the day we declared our independence from the English monarchy. My own feelings about our origins are mixed, but I think it is okay to celebrate as long as we are doing so with full awareness of our nations shortcomings. Of course, that is an overwhelming understatement, but I stand by it nonetheless.
What I learned standing outside the American embassy in Jerusalem back in 2006 was that, no matter how I tried, I could not wash the America from me. Stomping my feet and getting angry wouldn’t do me any good. Even if I did surrender my passport, as soon as people saw me walk or heard me talk, they’d know – I was American. When I returned to Iraq in 2010 as a civilian, I saw a person I was sure was American as we pulled up to a police station in at the small city of Rutba. When the man turned toward us, however, I could see he was Iraqi. He had ben trained by US Special Forces, and had absorbed even their manner of speech and movement. He stood out from his fellow Iraqis with a kind of aura of arrogance and rugged indifference that characterized myself and others when we were in Iraq in 2004, when I was there with an infantry platoon under much different circumstances.
We can’t get the America out of us until the end of this world, when Jesus returns to replace it with something that will consume all these accidental and superficial identities we embody. Until then, we can’t be fully rid of our skin color or gender either; just ask anyone if Michael Jackson was white or if RuPaul is a woman. To be clear, I sympathize with and respect folks who seek to alter those things about themselves, but it never fully accomplishes what it attempts. I know people who have moved to another country in a kind of protest, but they are still seen in their adopted country as “Ex-patriots.” We can never fully undo our own formation, however troubling it might be for us.
So how do we love our land without becoming either cynics or idolaters?
Remember, love is not boastful or proud, it does not dishonor others. To love America is not to sing its praises blindly, but to recognize its strengths as well as its weaknesses. True love is critical without being contemptuous; Love refuses to look past mistakes, to ignore injustice. God does not love us shallowly, so nor should we have love for others that is trivial. No, we should love America as much as we are able by setting healthy limitations on our expressions thereof. We need to recognize that love for country is not limitless, that Caesar only gets what’s his after we’ve given to God what belongs to God. Once we’ve rendered to God, it may only leave scraps for Caesar, but we should give even that with love and respect.
In my work, I deal most directly with other veterans and service members who are trying to discern between Christian faith and military service. Often, they have seen or done horrible things, only to come home and be told they are heroes. The loudest voices in our country right now are venerating military service, preventing soldiers from grieving their experiences. When that happens, they are left alone to dwell on their deeds and misdeeds, painfully aware of how short they come to being heroes. Other voices have emerged as the country began questioning the decisions to go into Iraq and Afghanistan. Those voices are becoming louder, and they sometimes fail to speak in love in an inverse way; where the Christian patriots shout pious platitudes about love of country, the Christian pacifists declare sanctimonious trivialities about love of God, as though our love of either preempts love of both. Rarely are our veterans welcomed home in ways that acknowledge their very real sacrifice and journey with them in their grief.
Our binary way of thinking about God and country has seeped into our perceptions of soldiers. We put on elaborate and ornate costumes that celebrate religion or politics, a disguise that denies that we can love God first but not exclusively. Our love of God should guide us in our love of other things. Was it not a Roman soldier that Jesus praised as having greater faith than all of Israel? Wasn’t it a Roman soldier who was the first to confess Jesus as the Son of God at the foot of the Cross? We should take a lesson in humility from these soldier saints. We need to stop thinking about nationality in binary terms, as though by loving God we can condemn our countrymen or that by loving our country we can ignore Jesus.
I know all the passages about war and peace. I can cite a great number of them, most Christian soldiers can. They can become weapons we wield against one another to advance the frontlines of our own ideological camp. That is not the spiritual battle Paul calls wrote about to the church in Ephesus, or the good fight he describes to Timothy. A proper Christian political stance loves God first and foremost, and tolerates Caesar. The only way to love our country is to recognize the inherent limitations of any and all nations to provide peace or ensure security. We must love our country, but we must do so as Christians, as people whose love for Jesus and for one another defines and orients all our other loves. If Caesar tells us to harm our enemies, we must not stop at Romans 13:1 and merely be subject to his authority. We must continue on to Romans 13:10, in which we are reminded that love causes no harm to its neighbor. The world might claim we must love it without qualification, but we must love it with exception. We must obey God rather than the world.
In humility, we must not withhold our love from our national community. We must love it as Dr. King loved it, with all our heart and in spite of all its many, many failures. As people called to be the salt of the world, we need to be sure we are contributing positively to the welfare of the land we call our own; we must take advantage of opportunities to provide rich flavor, and not let it all go flat. In doing so, we need to remember to love God first and forever, that all other loves are secondary and finite. After all, being a Christian is about falling in love, not falling in line.
If you look in your bulletins, you will see an image used by one of my favorite music ensembles, the Psalters, who are based out of Philadelphia, the city of familial love. It is an image of an upside down flag, which in U.S. Law signifies distress. This flag adorns my prayer closet at home, it is a poignant reminder of what ultimately lasts. The first line amidst the stripes of this upside down flag remind us that God’s kingdom is not like the kingdoms and nations of this world. Another line is reminiscent of the reading for this morning from Isaiah 31, “Woe to those who go down to [the Empire] for help, who rely on [military force], who trust in the multitude of their [tanks] and in the great strength of their [soldiers]…” Luke’s sermon on the plain should also ring in our ears; “woe to you” who are rich, well-fed, satisfied, and popular. Woe to us, especially if our hope is in the nation’s resources, which are too often acquired from slave labor or stolen from the poor.
There is resplendent imagery in Revelation about the nations growing drunk on their own power. Maybe our own nation has become a whore of Babylon. I am willing to entertain that thought, especially after having spent 14 months “serving my country” in Iraq and seeing all that such a service includes. But then I remember even the Church has been described as a whore, but that we love her nonetheless because she is our mother. Let us love our country in the way proper to it. The Psalter’s flag reminds me that in the end, the nations, even our own, will crumble around us. It has been said that in those moments, the fallen will mourn and the angels will rejoice. What will we be doing? The challenge will be to love God more than country, to have one master, but many friends.