I am a Christian in America – very gratefully in America, since this country affords me opportunities and liberties unavailable and even unimaginable in many other nations. And yet, I watch the approach of Independence Day with a certain ambivalence tinged with fear and trembling. On this day, like no other, there is a crossing of lines, a blurring of borders – a not so subtle insistence on serving two masters – as churches are decorated with patriotic bunting and cross and flag are adjoined in our sanctuaries, assuming the cross is still evidenced. A sign prominently displayed at one local megachurch tells the story:
Freedom in America
Freedom in Christ.
I struggle to understand what this sign is intended to communicate, and I struggle against what it might be intended to communicate. Does it proclaim that the freedom we have in America is the same freedom we have in Christ: that the freedom from sin and death won for us in and through the incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and preserved for us through the Holy Spirit is one in essence with the freedom from political oppression and tyranny won for us through the political insight, will, and revolution of our founding fathers and the ongoing heroic sacrifices of our military? But surely these freedoms are not consubstantial. The Christian narrative and the American narrative do not tell the same story, nor are they merely different chapters in the same book. The Christian narrative is based not upon certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but upon man’s rebellion against his Creator, upon repentance, upon the recognition that there is no life, liberty, or happiness apart from reconciliation with the Creator through his son, Jesus Christ. The Christian narrative has nothing to do with democratic rule and everything to do with the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God; its pledge is not of allegiance to a flag but to Jesus as Lord. Christian freedom is mediated through the proclamation of the Gospel, political freedom through the power of the sword. This distinction is particularly vital just now when America and other western nations are engaged in battle on multiple fronts with radical Islam. Christians must be clear and must clearly communicate that this war is not religious – our battles are not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities and the rulers of this dark age in the heavenly places – but political: a battle between democracy and shari’a. This battle is about the political right of a nation to defend itself from foreign threat. (Ironically, both sides agree on this.) It is about the self-interest of exporting democracy. But it is not about Christianity. To the extent this distinction is not made our faith suffers by appearing violent and imperialistic, exactly what our nation opposes in radical Islam. Freedom in America and Freedom in Christ are not the same.
Is the sign intended to communicate that America is – or was and may yet be again – a Christian nation? If so, this is simply, but importantly, a category mistake on the order of saying a dog can be a good cat if it only learns to meow and develops a certain disdain for humans. But no canine can ever legitimately be placed in the category feline, no matter its behavior. Likewise, no nation, however rightly it acts, can be placed in the category Christian. Christian denotes a human being created in the image of God, ravaged by sin, redeemed by the salvific acts of Christ, sealed and transformed by the Holy Spirit. The collection of all such Christians is the church – the Body of Christ – and not this nation or any nation. Nation denotes a social construct – a human invention – comprising a people, land, law, government. How would such a construct become Christian: by making and enforcing laws based upon biblical principles? But this very idea violates biblical principles. If we did not receive the Spirit through the works of the law or through some Pelagian-like heresy, how can an entire nation do so? While a nation can – and, Christians believe, should – strive for law based upon God’s sense of restorative justice – including a preferential option for the poor – that will not and cannot make that nation a Christian one, but simply a good secular one. Even these good laws must be imposed by the majority on the dissenting minority and enforced by the coercive power of real or threatened force: fine, imprisonment, and, in extreme cases, execution. But imposition and coercion never were and can never be the way of Christ. And, if threatened by enemies foreign or domestic – as it certainly will be – must not a nation protect itself by the power of the sword? “Put away your swords,” Jesus commanded his disciples precisely at the moment of greatest threat. Christians must do that, it seems; nations cannot. Christian nation is simply a category mistake that breeds confusion in our own minds and throughout the world. “If you are an American you must be a Christian,” is a damaging idea held by many around the world – an idea we have sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, promulgated.
I do not know what the sign is intended to communicate. Its ambiguity – and the blurring of distinctions between faith and patriotism evidenced in many Independence Day observances – is precisely the source of my ambivalence. So, I will opt for a hermeneutic of trust and attribute to the sign the most favorable interpretation. As a grateful citizen I will celebrate the political freedoms that are mine in America and honor those who have sacrificed to win and preserve those political freedoms. As a thankful Christian I will celebrate the spiritual freedom that is mine in Christ and worship the Lord of Life who sacrificed himself to win and preserve that spiritual freedom. I may possibly wave a flag, but I will certainly fall on my knees before the cross. And, I will be careful never to confuse the two.