Thursday, March 12, 2015

Is America the Last, Best Hope of the World?

This post originally appeared at Evangelicals for Liberty.

MYTHS OF AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM
 
The idea that America is the last, best hope of the world is the spirit that animates a great deal of political activity in our country. The “last, best hope” is one of the most enduring rallying cries preached to garner support and enthusiasm for major government initiatives throughout American history. It has become such a widely accepted notion that its veracity and relevance for lawmaking and executive action is simply assumed, even among Christians.

In his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson reasoned, “I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want [lack] energy to preserve itself? I trust not.” Jefferson lifted America’s republican form of government up as the world’s best hope.

 Abraham Lincoln returned to the theme six decades later while the world’s best hope, as embodied by the Union, was in danger of dissolving. Speaking in his Second Annual Message to Congress in 1862, Lincoln movingly declared, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” For Lincoln, an intact Union personified the cause of freedom in the world. The freedom provided by a united America was the last best hope of the earth.

Ronald Reagan famously revived the theme in 1964 in an effort to strengthen Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy during his nationally-televised “A Time for Choosing” speech: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” Reagan persuasively championed “the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order.” He exposed governmental force, coercion, and control of the people and warned against a path that would lead to “the ant heap of totalitarianism.” For Reagan, the destiny of the nation and therefore the entire world rested upon the outcome of this presidential election.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama carried the theme to new heights preaching, “The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

A bipartisan foursome worthy of their own Mount Rushmore – the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Great Emancipator, the Great Communicator, and the personification of Hope and Change – all upheld the United States of America, its form of government, its influence for freedom, and even its ability to heal the very planet itself as the last, best hope of humankind.

While Barack Obama represents a leftist vision of America as the last best hope, conservatives have their versions of the theme as well. Conservative thinker Bill Bennett responded to what he perceived to be a decline in young Americans’ understanding of what makes America so great, despite its imperfections, with his three-volume set: America – The Last Best Hope. Fellow conservative sage, Dennis Prager, recently offered his contribution, Still the Best Hope, in which he contrasts the competing visions of “Leftism,” “Islamism,” and, what he calls, “Americanism”: a “trinity” of core values - “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum”. While there may be competing ideas as to which values best represent the American ideal, it is widely held across the political spectrum that America is the last, best hope on earth.

The question for American evangelicals is: Is America truly the last, best hope of the world? Let me begin to respond to this question by first asking, are there any alternatives that ought to come to mind when Christians begin to consider this question? Is there anything else Christ-followers might believe is the hope of the world? Do we as “little Christs” have a competing theory? Any “good news” on the topic? What’s that? The gospel of Jesus Christ, you say? Yes, I think that may be it!

 “C’mon, that goes without saying!,” you might reply. Does it? Early Christians promulgated the New Testament creed that is commonplace and almost boring today: “Jesus is Lord!” Yes, we say, Jesus is Lord of my life. He’s the Lord of my heart. This may be what “Jesus is Lord” means to many Christians today but in the 1st century it was a competing pledge of allegiance that directly contradicted the loyalty oath of the Roman empire: “Caesar is lord.” Jesus came to establish his own kingdom, the kingdom of God. When a Christian declared “Jesus is Lord,” the obvious and deliberate implication was, “Caesar is not.”

 Just as a Christian in the first century would never make the claim that Caesar or the Roman Empire is the last, best hope of the earth, Christians today make a mistake by elevating any kingdom of this world to the status of “the hope of mankind.” When we slip into the mindset that America is the best hope of the world along with the assumption that we must do something to preserve this status, we will eventually find ourselves supporting acts by the government that are contrary to the kingdom that deserves our first and ultimate allegiance, the kingdom of God.

The kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God offer radically different visions for the world. American evangelicals along with all Christians ought to reject the idea that America is the last, best hope of earth because this is a form of idolatry. It is giving a status that ought to be reserved for God to someone or something else. If America is the best hope of the world then the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom is not.

Unless we strongly affirm the earliest of Christian creeds, Jesus is Lord, we will tend to give the agendas of earthly kingdoms undue importance. Unless we me make it clear that our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his kingdom, we will tend to look to the State rather than the church for the solutions to life’s challenges. If America is the hope of the world then the State ought to export this hope to the world and Christians should enlist in that cause. However, if Jesus Christ is the hope of the world then the church ought to be about the business of the kingdom of God.

America as the last, best hope of the world was chosen as a “myth of American evangelicalism” because it is one of the underlying assumptions of both conservative and progressive evangelicals. Both camps believe that if they can just gain control of the State then they can use its powers for good. They just differ on what “good” looks like. And when they’re implementing their version of good, they’re "restoring" America’s status as the last, best hope of the world as Barack Obama put it.

Preserving a grip on the reins of governmental power causes evangelicals to embrace or overlook what was “evil” when their opponents held the reins of power. Progressive evangelicals who howled in righteous indignation over the war in Iraq and American imperialism under President Bush fell silent when their preferred “Peace President” bombed seven different nations. In November of 2011,
President Obama boasted to troops returning from Iraq, “That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.” Same means, just the “right” ends (and notice the language of “empire”). On the other hand, many of the conservative evangelicals who applauded the civil liberties violations of the Patriot Act under President Bush are now decrying the Obama Administration’s use and expansion of these same policies as a “police state.” Contradictions such as these are tolerated because of the larger aim of controlling the do-gooder powers of the last, best hope of the world.

Liberty-minded evangelicals support the furtherance of peace and the preservation of civil liberties during all administrations. We don’t need the State to coerce others into doing good. We have the superior resources of the kingdom of God. The State, American or otherwise, is not the last, best hope of the world, Jesus Christ is. Jesus Christ is Lord and, therefore, all other Caesars are not.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is the founder of Evangelicals for Liberty. He is a Chaplain in a "city of lost souls" and holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary. His other areas of interest include the kingdom of God, American evangelicalism, the ministry of the local church, obstacle course racing, and all things Star Wars. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr

P90X Round Three!

I got a bit lazy after I completed my Spartan Race but I'm back in the swing of things again. I started another 90-day round of P90X this week. Today was Shoulders & Arms which is one of my favorite workouts for some reason. Keeping the momentum going!

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Kingdom of God and a More Integrated Life

How hectic is your life now that the new school year and fall sports have begun?

Many of us spend our days feeling pulled in a hundred different directions.

Why?

We’re pursuing the “good life.”

We want our kids to get the best grades possible in school. Why? In order to get into a good college. We often push their involvement in sports and the arts in order to bolster their portfolio for college admissions.

Why do we want our kids to get into a good college? So they can make as much money as they can.

Why? So they can have nice things, provide for their families, buy the things they want, and travel as they desire.

Why? Well, that’s just what we do. This is what it means to have a good life.

As we’re pursuing this good life we can hardly manage our family schedule. We have to be three places at one time.

We continue to accumulate stuff. Then we have to have more space for our stuff. And we have to keep up with the latest versions of our stuff. Our kids need to have the best and latest versions of our stuff.

We’re busy, stressed out, and overwhelmed by life.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. We can begin to view life through “kingdom lenses.”

Consider the words of Jesus according to Luke 12:22-32.
 22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. 32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 

We juggle a hundred different tasks as we seek after the things of the good life. But in the kingdom of God, we only have two concerns:

First, seeking after the kingdom of God and, in distant second, “all these things.”

We end up living like the world when we don’t consider the present realities of the kingdom of God. Jesus said all the nations of the world seek after these things. When we fail to look at life through the lens of the kingdom, we seek after these things too.

While the world seeks after the things that are causing us to be anxious and overloaded, we are supposed to seek the kingdom. And as we’re seeking the kingdom of God, the Father knows we need some of those things too.

Seeking these things = disconnected, self-centered, anxiety.

Seeking the kingdom = integrated, God-centered, kingdom-centered, contentment.

There is a Hebrew word in Scripture, tom (sounds like “tome”). This word is often translated as “blameless” which causes us to think of behaving in a good, moral manner. Tom has a much deeper meaning, however.

Tom is completeness, fullness, wholeness. A life characterized by tom is an integrated life. God intended for us to live this kind of integrated, whole life which is possible in the kingdom of God.

Why are we living such fragmented, disconnected lives? We’re seeking after “these things” rather than the kingdom of God. We’re not viewing life through the lens of the kingdom.

We have to retrain ourselves to simplify the components of our lives into the two categories of 1) the kingdom and 2) these things.

As our understanding of and appreciation for the kingdom of God deepens, we’ll become amazed by the fact that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Forget about all these other things that command our attention for a moment…God is giving us the kingdom!

God knows we need the necessities of life and they’ll be added to us as we seek his kingdom. Seeking the kingdom is the good life.

[Originally posted at Kingdom Subjects]

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Kingdom of God and Competing Loyalties

A Response to Ann Coulter's "Ebola Doc's Condition Downgraded to 'Idiotic'"

Conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, blasted Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan’s Purse for wasting the charity’s finances, needlessly risking his life, endangering his family’s well-being, and ignoring the plight of his fellow countrymen for the futile purpose of serving Africans suffering from Ebola. Coulter writes,
“Which explains why American Christians go on ‘mission trips’ to disease-ridden cesspools. They're tired of fighting the culture war in the U.S., tired of being called homophobes, racists, sexists and bigots. So they slink off to Third World countries, away from American culture to do good works, forgetting that the first rule of life on a riverbank is that any good that one attempts downstream is quickly overtaken by what happens upstream.

America is the most consequential nation on Earth, and in desperate need of God at the moment. If America falls, it will be a thousand years of darkness for the entire planet.

Not only that, but it's our country. Your country is like your family. We're supposed to take care of our own first. The same Bible that commands us to ‘go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel’ also says: ‘For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'

Right there in Texas, near where Dr. Brantly left his wife and children to fly to Liberia and get Ebola, is one of the poorest counties in the nation, Zavala County -- where he wouldn't have risked making his wife a widow and his children fatherless.

But serving the needy in some deadbeat town in Texas wouldn't have been ‘heroic.’ We wouldn't hear all the superlatives about Dr. Brantly's ‘unusual drive to help the less fortunate’ or his membership in the ‘Gold Humanism Honor Society.’ Leaving his family behind in Texas to help the poor 6,000 miles away -- that's the ticket.” 

Coulter’s critique strikes at the believer’s identity in Christ. Yes, we are Americans and there is nothing wrong with loving our country and seeking the best for our nation per se. It is natural for us to have a deeper affection for those closest to us whether they be family, members of our local community, or fellow Americans.

It should go without saying, however, that the Christian’s deepest and most essential affiliation and allegiance belongs to Christ and His kingdom. The kingdom of God knows no geographical boundaries and supersedes all national, political, racial, and ethnic divisions and differences. Being an American pales in comparison to being a member of the family of God. God is still calling men and women, boys and girls to become members of this family which is why Christ gave us the command to “go” as Coulter cited.

If Christians followed the other command to “open wide your hand” to those “in your land” in the manner Coulter seems to suggest, we would never go into all the world. After all, there will never cease to be needs in our own land. Stay where you are and take care of your own. This is where Coulter reveals her misplaced allegiance.

For Coulter, “your country is like your family. We’re supposed to take care of our own first.” This sentiment goes beyond a natural love for kin and country. This is a form of nationalism incompatible with a predominant allegiance to the kingdom of God. For Christians, the family of God isn’t like your family, it is your family.

“But he [Jesus] replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:48-50).

“So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5).

If Coulter believes your country is like your family, wouldn’t it follow that we should strive to build a massive welfare state in order to care for our fellow “family members”? But we know she doesn’t believe this.

If we ought to focus on helping our fellow countrymen rather than go to all the expense, hassle, and hazard of helping people overseas, shouldn’t we stop all foreign aid and military interventions and use those resources to fund this welfare state? Again, we know she would not support reducing the size and scope of the military in this way.

So why should Christians be singled out for condemnation for helping the “needy” abroad but not the State if it's true that your country is like your family?

Furthermore, if Christians are to give preference to one group over another when it comes to charity, preference should be given to fellow Christians rather than fellow countrymen. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

The Church is mature enough, gifted enough, and empowered by the Holy Spirit enough to walk and chew gum at the same time as we 1) do good to everyone, 2) do good especially to the household of faith, and 3) work to expand that household of faith as we obey the Great Commission both locally and globally.

Christian narcissism is annoying but so is prostituting the mission of the Church in order to sustain America's glorious status as the most consequential nation on earth.

If Ann Coulter is a Christian then she is called to serve others in the name in the name of Christ too. If she's called to focus her efforts on her fellow Americans, great, but that's no reason to attack the desperately few individuals called to minister to people overseas.

"The needy in some deadbeat town in Texas" do need Christ but they also constitute some of the wealthiest people of the face of the planet. What people like Ann Coulter would demean as slinking off to Third World countries others identify as selflessly charging to the front lines of the battle.

Hebrews 6:10 reminds us, "For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints" and I would add, "whether these saints are in America or Liberia."