Saturday, April 25, 2009

America's Character

Great nations argue about their character with a rich range of voices, and right now, we're engaged in a mostly serious, and sometimes raucous, discussion about who we are.

At the heart of our conversation are two elements:
1. The long-standing conviction of some that America is always pure and clean, that we're innocent at heart, driven by the highest ambitions and the best motives.
2. Historians and essayists who do their careful work, who see not only our best, but our worst, who hold an honest mirror before us, celebrating our virtue and confessing our sin.

Christians, and all people of faith, have a role to play here - especially Christians of the Reformed tradition (read Calvin) who are no strangers to the pervasive power of sin - that relentless self-interest which destroys marriage and family, brings down great corporations and distorts a nation's purpose. Calvinists never flinch from the terrible realities of sin because of an overarching confidence in God's mercy.

God surely loves all of us as we are, and allows for a great deal of latitude in our growth and development - God's ways with us are gracious and kind, but God's love also holds a mirror before us, and for Christians, the mirror is Christ - in his face, we see a picture of humanity, a portrait of what it means to be a human being.

Though God's love for us is gracious and gentle, God's love is also honest and transformative - God loves us as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us as we are!

So it must be for Christians and their regard for the nation in which they find themselves.

The great sorrow of Nazi Germany is that too many Christians paid no attention to the drift into darkness - the Fatherland was their be-all and their end-all. Germany could do no wrong. Germany was under attack by Jews and Communists and homosexuals. Germany needed to do what it needed to do, to protect itself and provide for its people. The German Church largely failed - they were Germans before they were Christians, and Hitler and his gang knew how to manipulate people of faith. Much of what Hitler said had the ring of religion about it - God and country - what a powerful combination, and when the German Church closed its eyes and signed on with Hitler, the Church lost its way.

Christians are Christians first, before they are a citizen.

Yet in America, the distinction between Christ and citizenship has been terrible blurred in some churches - where the American flag and the cross of Jesus are intertwined in a strange form of piety and power - where guns and conquest are celebrated, where the nation is exulted, and like the German Christians, vision is obscured by power, and the church loses its way.

Some voice immediately: "We're not like Germany! It's different here."

Well, it's always different, that's for sure.

But here we are - debating our nation's behavior, our character, our soul.

And it's a good debate, and it's important?

Did we do wrong? That's the question.

If we exclude that question from our conversation, we do great harm to our soul.

As a nation, it's in our best interests to look honestly into the mirror of history, to listen to our allies, to seek the opinion of the world.

And if we're people of faith, to add to the conversation a special courage to face ourselves and, when and if needed, to fess up and make amends!

Great people do this all the time ... and so do great nations!

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