Our national filter
It should not be a surprise that where we were born and raised has had a profound influence on our lives (culturally, politically, economically, socially, psychologically and religiously).
Had we been born and raised in another family, in another place or even another country, we might have a very different understanding about who we are, why we’re here and how life works. There’s even a chance we’d be part of a different religion (or perhaps have no religion at all).
Having said that, much of our early childhood was completely out of our hands. Decisions were made for us about what home life should be like, what our moral or spiritual compass should be, what neighborhoods we’d live in, what church(es) we’d attend, even some of the childhood sports and extra-curricular activities we’d participate in.
Of course, as we got older we likely began thinking more for ourselves. We likely even changed our minds about some things we were raised or taught to believe.
However, most people in general don’t change their minds easily.
The values, beliefs and ideals we were raised with and that have consistently been reinforced in our lives are often deeply ingrained into the way we think, believe and live.
When you live in the most powerful nation on earth
Like other life influencers, being born and raised in the most powerful nation on earth will undoubtedly have an affect on your outlook, values and assumptions.
Like the way you see and treat people from other countries.
Like the way you understand the economy.
Like the way you understand the international community and global politics.
So for Christians who live in the US, our Christian identity is more than likely filtered through our American identity which is filtered by the particular narrative of American history we have become persuaded by.
Over the last two hundred years, a large number of Christian Americans in the US have bought into a particular way of thinking about and telling the American story. This particular way is called American exceptionalism.
In summary, this telling of America’s story makes the assumption that the US is a superior nation and people, over and above all other nations and people groups around the world.
There’s a Christianized version for understanding American exceptionalism that goes like this: the very reason for America’s superiority was due to God’s blessing and the fact that a number of founding fathers identified with the Christian faith.
American exceptionalism is why the belief in Manifest Destiny thrived at one time in the American conscience.
This is what prompted (in part) the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from their lands and eventually relocating them onto reservations.
And why hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved in the US.
Because (it was believed) God had given the land of the Natives to the new Americans.
But that was all in the past, right?
Actually, the religious version of American exceptionalism is still alive and well in some sectors of Christian church society.
It’s seen in the way they speak about and treat foreign nationals.
The way they generally look down on other nations.
The way they use and excuse inflammatory rhetoric.
Of course, it’s not every Christian nor is it every church, but the general mentality still permeates a culture of Christian American elitism still lurking in our midst.
How American Christians miss Jesus’ central mission and teaching (or ignore it)
For those who have bought into a religious version of American exceptionalism at all, its very easy to filter one’s faith in Jesus through the lens of a deep sense of nationalism and patriotism rather than the other way around.
I know because I have done so in the past (and sometimes still do).
In practice, this means that one’s patriotic allegiance to our country is nearly indistinguishable to their allegiance to Jesus. As if they are one and the same thing.
It also means that when they read their Bibles, they will likely favor Scripture passages that appear to support staunch and arrogant nationalism.
For instance, the Bible records that ancient Israel believed they were chosen and blessed by God. This kind of thinking was not new. Other ancient nations also believed similar things about themselves.
And like many ancient nations, ancient Israel’s kings began making very questionable political decisions involving military action, doing so in the name of their God and justice, all the while claiming they had the right to do so because they were “blessed” and “chosen” by God.
The mission of Jesus versus American exceptionalism
If you are doing all you can to hold onto a Christianized version of American exceptionalism, you will likely soften, overly spiritualize or flat out ignore the mission and teaching of Jesus.
The sobering reality for the early disciples of Jesus, when they acted and behaved in ways that were extremely nationalistic (“Israel first; other nations bow down”), Jesus rebuked them. Giving allegiance to nationalistic efforts was in many ways contrary to his very mission, a mission which included Israel but went beyond it to include the entire world.
Central to Jesus’ mission and teaching
For the previous five hundred years leading up to the time of Jesus, ancient Israel had been subservient to other nations who had taken control of their land. While Israel had a large degree of freedom during the time of Jesus, Rome (the most powerful empire on earth) had taken control of the nation politically and economically.
Many first century Jews prayed and hoped that God would send them an earthly king in the Davidic line who would overthrow Rome and restore Israel as a sovereign nation.
Jesus’ first followers hoped that he was that king they had been waiting for. And they were getting ready for an all out bloody war against Rome that Jesus himself would lead.
However, going to war couldn’t be further from the way Jesus acted out his mission or how he taught his followers (dare I say commanded them) to treat the Romans or anybody else for that matter.
The first will be last
On one occasion, the disciples were all having a chat about who was going to be the greatest and most important in Jesus’s new kingdom. And they weren’t talking about “kingdom” the way church people talk metaphorically about “God’s kingdom” today. Because many of them believed Jesus was leading them into battle, they were discussing who was going to be great in Jesus’ national kingdom effort.
Because when you are great in the kingdom you’re in a position of control over another person.
You call all the shots.
You’re the best and most powerful in other people’s eyes.
At least, that was the perception.
Again, this can’t be overstated, the disciples were hoping Jesus was the long awaited national king, which would mean he would set up generals for his army and wage war against the Roman military, which in the end would restore a deep sense of nationalistic identity.
Here’s the kicker though. Instead of getting on this nationalistic bandwagon, Jesus rebuked them saying, “Whoever here wants to be the greatest or most important needs to first learn how to be a servant to everyone.”
Surely you don’t mean learning how to serve Rome Jesus? They’re our enemies!?
In the closing hours of Jesus’s life, prior to his arrest, when opportunity later presented itself for his followers to finally fight, Jesus told them to put away their swords because those who live by the sword die by the sword.
Jesus’ very mode of operation, the way he lead people, the way of life he taught (yes commanded) others to live, the very way he died on a cross critiqued everything ancient Israel and ancient Rome believed about authority and power and how to express it.
Jesus’ way of leading Israel as a people was not by fighting and killing off their enemies, but literally by giving his life for his enemies even at the hands of his enemies.
“Wait a second Jesus! This is not what we signed up for Jesus!”
But central to Jesus, his life, his mission, and the way of life he taught people to follow was about laying down their ambitions to be first and greatest (the “best” if you like), and instead serve others in his name, reflecting and expressing his self-sacrificial way of life.
When you make life about being the best, about dominating and controlling others, you won’t give much thought or attention to serving others.
But when you make your life about serving others (Yes! including serving your enemies), you will find yourself in direct conflict with any ideology that asserts itself through the usual means that people in power do (through national and political control, dominance and coercion) in order to maintain power, prestige, and wealth.
This can happen at the individual level, at the national level or the geopolitical level.
It’s true that you can’t help where you were born and what ideology came with that upbringing.
At the same time, once you come across Jesus’ ideology and way of life, you have a new choice on offer to you.
Will you embrace it and the let the one you formerly had die?
Or continue as is?