Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world…” (John 18:36)
Dear People of God,
America is not God’s kingdom on Earth.
This should not be a controversial statement. After all, about the only thing the political left and right can agree on is that America badly needs changing, though they wildly differ on what kind of change is needed. Those on the right argue for the restoration of the glory days, reclaiming the old ways so that America can once again be a bastion of freedom and prosperity. Those on the left argue for embracing progressive ideals of justice, correcting the legacies of abuses that have kept this nation from living up to its promise. And even when there is no overtly religious language being used, the fury with which these two sides fight indicates to me that something like salvation is on the line. It seems the very soul of America is at stake, so that everything depends on the success or failure of us Americans to do what is right. With so much riding on the outcome of this fight, it’s no wonder emotions are running so high.
But here’s the thing: not only is America not God’s kingdom on Earth, it never was, and it never will be.
Although this nation’s founding is often portrayed as a hard-fought victory of oppressed European Christians in establishing a nation of religious freedom, the reality is much more complicated. Many of the founding fathers were not what we would recognize as Christian, even if they did profess belief in a Deity of some kind. What’s more, from the very beginning the US constitution codified a form of slavery that was even more violent and dehumanizing than that which had been present in the Roman era. And as the states began to overflow with westward-moving settlers, the false doctrine of Manifest Destiny* led those who drove out and killed the native tribes to claim they did it in God’s name. For all of America’s strengths and successes (and there are many!), there was never a time when it was God’s kingdom on Earth.
But the same is true going forward. No matter how much progress is made, no matter how thoroughly equality and justice are established, no matter how utopian some future version of America becomes, its significance will always be limited to this world. Even if America somehow managed to fully live up to its ideals, it would still not be God’s kingdom on Earth, and to declare it so would be to make it a false god. Every nation will one day pass away; not even the greatest of them has eternal significance. When God’s kingdom which is not of this world is revealed on the earth, it will not come about by any human efforts, but only by the gracious act of God.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not against America, nor am I against working to make it better. What I am against is confusing an earthly nation with God’s heavenly kingdom. When we give our conceptions of America eternal significance, we make it into an idol. It matters little whether this idolatrous image is liberal or conservative in character, for idols of all kinds imprison us and blind us to the real world in which we live.
Looking backward, idolatrous notions of a pristine past force us to reject evidence of errors and injustice, blinding us to the needs of our neighbors. They drive us to react harshly, even violently, against all who contradict our picture of a near-perfect America. Looking forward, idolatrous notions of what our efforts can accomplish make us discount the real good that is present now, and so blind us to the good gifts of God. They lead us to judge our neighbors by their commitment to our goals, denouncing as degenerates all who do not meet our standards for ideological purity. As long as these idols captivate us, we are blinded to what God is actually doing here and now. And in order for us to be good and faithful citizens of the nation in which we live, we must be set free from these idols.
As Christians, we are first and foremost heirs of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is not from this world. Because we have such an inheritance, certain and secure, we can be honest about the problems of every worldly kingdom and country, while still giving thanks for their blessings. Because our citizenship is in heaven, we can acknowledge America as it is while continuing to work for its betterment. Because we know that neither God’s kingdom nor our righteousness comes by our dedication to ideals of justice, we can be gentle with those whose commitment doesn’t measure up.
America is something of a mess right now. But then again, it always has been. And yet, as the nation in which God has placed us, it is full of gifts to be enjoyed and benefits for which to give thanks. Like everything else in this fallen creation, here the good is all mixed up with the bad and it is beyond our power to purify. Rather, as Christians in this world, we faithfully carry out the vocations God has set before us, tending to the needs of our neighbors while working for the betterment of the nation in which we live, all the while knowing that only God’s action can ultimately save.
Your Brother in Christ,
*Manifest Destiny: the teaching that Americans are God’s chosen people to take possession of land away from the non-white non-Christian native peoples.