It’s the Sunday before the 4th of July, which means a lot of preachers have spent hours, days, weeks, or even months deciding what to do with the enormous red, white, and blue gorilla in the room. Some very publicly embrace it, with the hymnody of patriotism reverberating through the sanctuary. Others stand opposed, decrying the proximity of national flag and eternal cross. Those in the middle either make meek acknowledgement, or simply pray their congregations will listen to the sermon rather than be distracted by the sparklers being frantically waved by the patriotism gorilla.
This annual tension is inseparably tied to debate over whether the United States is currently or ever has been a “Christian nation” and, from there, how should this affect public policy and private life. Personally, I’m not sure how a temporal nationstate can be “Christian” any more than an avocado or aardvark can be Christian. But no matter where we stand on July 4th in church or the veracity of Christian nation claims, I imagine most of us can agree that the United States as it stands politically and culturally in 2016 does not align with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
So, what is an American Christian on July 4th to do? I think a look at scripture in one hand and that most American art form, dumb comedy, in the other hand can guide us. When faced with disenfranchisement, the loss of cultural hegemony, and exile, the Israelites deported to Babylon receive what I’m sure was a surprising word from God through the prophet Jeremiah: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Don’t miss the profundity of that. Israel did not debate its religious status like we do; it openly prided itself on being God’s chosen people. And yet, the nation had been torn asunder by two of the most vicious military powers of the day. The noble, the intellectual, and the skilled hauled to Babylon to assimilate and augment the conquerer; the commoner classes left behind under the thumb of a polytheistic power. And in that dark moment, when despondency or panic seems almost logical, God clearly says not to panic. And moreover, rather than retreat into a bubble, the exiles are to actively go out and seek the good of their new cities, awash in a culture whose very foundation stands in opposition to their own.
Though not nearly as dire (please do not devalue serious Christian persecution by dropping the “p” word on the overwhelming majority of negative things we might face here), we do face a similar choice. We can panic. It would be understandable. It would be awfully human. But it would only make matters worse. In 2008’s Semi-Pro, an ill-advised bear wrestling promotion at a basketball game turns to chaos as the bear escapes. The crowd, hung in a moment of uncertainty, is tossed into pandemonium when Will Ferrell’s character screams, “Everybody panic!” through the mic. Panic begets panic, and everyone’s safety is at risk. Too often I hear the same guttural cry from Christians alarmed by our changing culture. But such panic begets panic and increases danger for everyone. The world sees our fear, and knows our talk of blessed assurance must be nothing more than spiritual snake oil.
But there’s another path. A path of following the same God who called to the exiles and empowered the charity and defiance of early Christians in Rome. We have access to the same God, who has decided to send us to this land, replete with political, legal, economic, and technological advantages of which our forebearers could never dream. We are truly without excuse when compared to their hardships. So let’s seize hold of what God has promised us as well as what history has provided us. A catchphrase, forever tied in my mind to 2006’s Talladega Nights seems applicable: “Drive it like you stole it!” We didn’t do anything to earn God’s promise to be with us always. If we were born here, we didn’t choose to be born here any more than the exiles chose to go to Babylon. But here we are. So this July 4th, let’s realize the unmerited blessings around us, drive it like we stole it, and always seek the welfare of where we’ve been placed, “Christian” or not.