Happy Fourth of July? How does a Christian celebrate the beginning of a nation with such a shaky foundation? Thomas Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths that were so abstract they excluded women and black people from their universality. The land the American Revolutionaries fought for was stolen from the First Nations people. But I don’t think calling out the obvious evil at the heart of the American project is a deep enough critique. In fact, critique is not deep enough at all. We must build an alternative which allows us to love the world from an entirely different footing.
Because this is where we live. The people in my neighborhood (whom I LOVE) are having a house decorating competition seeing who can be the most red, white and blue. What am I to do? Must I boycott the fanfare entirely? Must I close my eyes and ears to the fireworks? Must I register my non-participation by draping my house in the black of mourning (I considered that). I’m thinking my “yes” to the kingdom of God is more important than my “no” to empire. I say this in part because I despair at the prospect of making a significant impact. This might just be despair, but it might be the unavoidable truth of history.
From my perspective, human history is not a grand sweep toward progress, but a cycle of violence and collapse. The near future science fiction of Octavia Butler, written in the mid-nineties, seems eerily prophetic. I think that could actually happen! Empires rise and fall. The industrial revolution was less than 150 years ago. An incredibly short period of time! Throughout history, when the state of things ushers in more and more concentration of wealth, the powerful eventually lose. This seems inevitable. How then do I engage?
I recently read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, which is another prophetic book from the mid-nineties. Hauerwas and Willimon argue that the church has accommodated the political concerns of the State for most of its history. We have entered into the fray in many disastrous ways. They call this “Constantinianism” after the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, who co-opted the church for the unity of his empire. His empire fell but the arrangement between Church and State persisted and the modern Church in America has not repented even if separation of Church and State is part of the founding documents.
Hauerwas and Willimon argue that both contemporary conservative and liberal churches in the United States have basically capitulated to the State. We have surrendered our imaginations to the limited options provided to us by the myth of American progress. Our prophecy is bound by two options: 1) “America is bad” and 2) “America is good.” The locus of change is in, and by, and for the State. William Cavanaugh wrote an excellent book called Migrations of the Holy which charts this development through time. Hauerwas and Willimon say that both conservative and liberal churches have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31).
Their alternative resonates with me. “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a ‘supportive institution’ and our clergy as members of a ‘helping profession.’ The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).
But when the streets flood in the middle of a pandemic with people calling for a drastic reevaluation of how we ensure public safety for all people, I am stirred. I have gone to a few marches myself. I joined up with other faith leaders in New Jersey to consider what can actually be done to reimagine policing (faithinnewjersey.org). I put a Black Lives Matter sign in my window. I have dug deeper into the personal work of understanding my own deformation by this pernicious power of white supremacy in our culture.
All of these tactics coming out of the movement have been met by some suspicion from some folks in our church. They have read Hauerwas and Willimon’s book, or they have at least adopted its posture because we have been teaching it as Anabaptists for a long time. Are we conforming to the way of the world, and in so doing are we abandoning the Church’s alternative mandate? Are we standing on a side just because of our political persuasion? I have definitely heard this from the body, and I sympathize with that concern.
However, I see in the Gospels a decided sidedness to Jesus’ Way. God has forever been on the side of the poor and the oppressed. From the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the inauguration of the People of God, the scripture has reminded us again and again to be a peculiar people who does not cooperate with empire. And yet we have undoubtedly cooperated with empire and must be on guard against doing so now. Jesus’ teaching made an alternative abundantly clear. He was not creating a new morality, or a new ethic, or new means of righteousness. He was himself our righteousness and his teaching aimed to awaken us to a new way of seeing the world. He called into question the foundations of Israel’s self-understanding and practice, and he ought to do the same to every generation and every nation.
The kingdom of God is a new way of seeing and being in the world. Jesus gave us a new place to stand. Jesus created a new humanity belonging to a new kingdom which allows us to speak to the empires, like America, or the G20, or Netflix, without centering ourselves on the outcomes of their worldly projects. We have a new identity in Christ which provides us the freedom to do more than critique and repent (though Jesus calls us to that as well). We can build on a foundation that will not be shaken because our Kingdom is eternal and is not subject to the course of empire.
But the people I love, especially the poor and the oppressed – especially the descendants of Black slaves who were not considered equal by the declaration that is celebrated this weekend – especially the descendants of the First Nations people who have been systematically impoverished and killed via government sponsored genocide and ongoing marginalization – especially the descendants of the women who are still fighting for recognition of their full humanity and unmeasurable contribution to our communal wellbeing – these people whom I love, and whom Jesus leads me to love, require my partnership. I feel compelled to submit to the movements that seem viable to change the outcomes for these people.
When I join in these movements, when I am even led by them, am I abandoning the place Jesus has given us to stand? It’s possible. There is a real tension here. And I think Circle of Hope is feeling it. We must prioritize our togetherness as we figure this out together. If we let the confusion and disorientation of our incredibly polarized national conversation divide us, I am sure we will then be abandoning our God given new humanity. The bond of peace between us must persist or we will have nothing left to offer the world. The faith, hope and love that fuels Circle of Hope’s compassion and action on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (which is considerable!) will crumble if we cannot love one another through these difficult days.
I want to have something more to offer my neighbors than my objection to their celebration, and I think it is the Church. I think Circle of Hope really does create an excellent environment for people to connect with God and act for redemption. That redemption includes our prophetic voice to the evils of the world, but it also creates a protective container of grace which makes personal transformation possible.
This grace permeates my relationships with me red, white and blue addressed neighbors. I have spent years in the spiritual gym of Circle of Hope, learning to love people who disagree with me, irritate me and even attack me at times. The Church is a place where grace muscles are grown – where we become more than the limited imaginations given to us by the world.
We grow from the certainty of a future declared to us by Jesus, inaugurated by his death on the cross, confirmed in his resurrection from the dead, and manifested daily by the power of the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by all this promise and power from God, I believe we can stand together, love one another and offer an alternative, even as we diverge in how we engage in the struggles to which we are called.