Many of us said the pledge of allegiance throughout our school years. Our hands cover our hearts when the National Anthem is played. The American flag flies higher than any other on our flagpoles. The Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, and we are making plans to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence over 200 years ago. This post is a call to ask you: how much of your identity is wrapped up in the country in which you live?
With the Supreme Court deciding 5-4 in favor of the legalization and institutionalization of same-sex “marriages” in the Obergefell case last Friday, many Christians have been pushed in uncomfortable ways as they think about “our” country, America. While the Obergefell case is not the first time many evangelicals have had doubts about the direction of this country and our place in it, nevertheless, it has brought us to the point of asking ourselves how much of who we say we are is wrapped up in being American. Is claiming a part of our identity with a country counter-productive to the work of God in redeeming the entire cosmos, of which the “United States of America” is only a part? Are we to identify with something more holistic and supreme?
In this short post I am arguing for a different view of our current situation – a view that would see us as the redeemed people of God living in America, rather than Americans who are the redeemed people of God. I understand that the distinction might seem pointless, but I believe there is strong biblical evidence to support this view as well as compelling reasons to adopt it.
Disclaimer: This is not a post advocating a) the retreat from America and the larger culture, b) an aggressive assault on America, or c) not cheering for the USA Women’s National Soccer team in the finals. I think Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.17 and 22 should be a strong anchor: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him… Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.” God has placed us in America at this time by His divine providence according to Acts 17.26, and therefore, we should not be trying to flee, but humbly engaging the culture with the gospel wherever we can because we know that our God is the God of all nations and is redeeming a people from every nation, forming one Nation in Christ.
The two explicit passages in the New Testament that urge the Christian community to think of itself as “exiles” are Hebrews 11.13-16 and 1 Peter 2.11. Hebrews 11.13-16 reads:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
These verses come after the writer has described the faith of the Jewish forebears and how they were living in expectation of the future redemption God had promised. We find ourselves in a similar predicament—the “already-not yet” to use a phrase we have begun to use. We, like the Jewish people, find ourselves without our promised homeland here on earth.
We are creatures who are made for more than the physical realm can offer us. To be sure, the physical realm is part of who we are—the first man named “Adam” which is a word that meant “earth” in Hebrew—but Adam was made for communion with God and the natural world. After the fall, humanity tends to its identity only in one or the other: either by building up a life solely in the physical world or by trying to escape the physical world through any sort of mental or “spiritual” exercises (think meditation, yoga, chanting, etc.). By trying to identify with the physical, we put on labels in order to separate ourselves from others in an attempt to define our individuality—“American”, “Southern”, “Georgia fan”, “Engineer”, “Mother.” Lecrae, a hip-hop artist, describes himself as “not a ‘Christian rapper’ but as a ‘Christian who raps,’” and his point is that his “label” or identity is first and foremost “Christian” then, secondary to that, “rapper.” Christ came to integrate what we try to segregate.
In 1 Peter 2.11, the apostle Peter urges his readers to abstain from the passions of their flesh “as sojourners and exiles.” This verse comes right after he acknowledged them as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” in verse 9. Peter told the saints who they are—the “elect… according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1.1-2)—and points to their identities as “new creations” in Christ to call them into a new lifestyle of holy living. One of the beautiful things about the gospel of Jesus is that it is a reality in which we stand, rather than one in which we are called to realize by our own works. Paul says in Philippians 4.12 that he presses on to know the power of Christ’s resurrection through his suffering and work, not because he needs to earn it, but because “Christ Jesus has made [Paul] His own.” There is but one righteousness that clothes a Christian, and it is the same righteousness that covers his brothers and sisters in faith, so that no one may boast before the Father (Ephesians 2.9) and all may be joined together under Christ (Ephesians 2.19-22, 4.15-16).
By finding our fundamental identity in Christ, we are enabled to relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ no matter where they are from or what differences stand between us. We can become bringers of the gospel to one another, knowing that it is the finished work of Christ that makes us stand unified over any geographic or cultural dividing lines. We then, by God’s grace, see the Christian man in Afghanistan as our brother and the Christian woman in South Africa as our sister. We see the new believer who lives in Bankhead on the west side of Atlanta as one with us. We can go to Argentina or to Calhoun County as “ministers of reconciliation” knowing that the people there who will believe were our brothers and sisters in Christ before the foundations of the world according to Ephesians 1.4. God, in Christ, has broken down the dividing barriers between people and has instead created a new people, the true Israel, which is the redeemed and restored humanity in and with whom God makes His dwelling. By identifying with one another in Christ, we can begin to not hold up our American culture to the world as the example to follow, but we can hold up Jesus. Galatians 3.26-29 says, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
When we think about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding homosexual “marriage” let us not be crushed with hopelessness in “our” country that we shrink from the world and hide away. Our country is not located on a map. Our country has a king whose reign is everlasting and who is making all things new (Jeremiah 10.10, Revelation 21.5). Our country has the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5.6, 9). Our country has a Good Shepard who will lead his people to springs of living water (Revelation 7.17). Our country has an eternal river and the tree of life (Revelation 22.1-2). Our country will have the ultimate wedding ceremony (Revelation 19.6-10). Our country is populated with people from every tribe and nation (Revelation 7.9). Our country has no need for a temple or a sun (Revelation 21.22-23). Our country is a far country of which we only see glimmers of now, but soon we shall see it face to face (1 Corinthians 13.12). Our country is where all of the sad things come untrue. Our country is coming soon.