exceptionalism and American Christianity’s love of war

American Christianity–especially American Evangelicalism–has a love affair with war, guns, ‘freedom,’ and the military. Christians in America are historically very supportive of our military, our various interventions around the globe, and all things pro-gun-related. This support is manifested in Evangelicals’ love for patriotic church services, their admiration and gratitude for those in the Armed Forces, their consistent support of hawkish political leaders, and their outspoken support of the NRA and other Second Amendment groups.

All this may sound great, but there’s a problem. The more I have traveled around the globe and interacted with Christians in other nations; however, the more I have consistently and sincerely been asked, “Why?”

Christians in other places around the world are not nearly so infatuated with war, guns, and violence (political or personal). In fact, many of them loathe such things and cannot fathom why American Christians believe and act like we do. They believe that war is antithetical to Christianity, that violence begets violence, and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52, ESV). In short, their views are much the opposite of our own.

How can this be?

I think the answer lies more in the theology of American Exceptionalism than it does in the pages of Scripture. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan John Winthrop first proclaimed the notion that America was somehow different, unique, and under the special watch care of God. While still on the seas from England, he taught his fellow passengers:

God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission…

From this beginning, Winthrop went on to encourage his shipmates in ways they might practically take care of one another, provide for one another, and forgive one another that their great journey of faith might be a successful one. Their success was important, because the world was watching, just as Egypt was watching Moses and the Hebrews when they were taken out to the wilderness:

We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.

Winthrop’s idea of America as occupier of a special place in the heart and plan of God runs deep in the American DNA. Jesus’ phrase about the ‘city on a hill’ has been invoked by Presidents Wilson, Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan, Bush (43), and Obama as evidence of America’s uniqueness in the world. And what is popular in the secular realm of politics is even more strongly emphasized and believed in American Evangelical churches, where American biblical heritage and our direct blessing by God are routine talking points–especially in election years.

With this in mind, doesn’t it only make sense that American Christians would believe and act the way they do? If America is indeed specially blessed and endowed by God as rich and powerful, doesn’t that translate into enforcing our version of liberty and justice for all around the world? If America’s heritage has been enabled (dare I say guaranteed) by its indelible roots in faith, family, and guns (a la Duck Dynasty), doesn’t a faithful Christian family need that same American trinity? If America’s foreign policy is deeply influenced by Christian ethicist Richard Land and those of his ilk, who single-handedly redefined the Just War tradition to include pre-emptive wars, isn’t America’s warmongering heritage morally defensible?

No. No. No. And NO!

America is a great nation. There is nowhere I’d rather live. But we are far from perfect. American Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to seriously rethink some things many of us take for granted as right, reasonable, and true. Our views on these things conflict with those of our brothers and sisters around the world. More than this, our views conflict with those taught by our Lord Jesus whom we claim to follow above all else.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

photo credit: Creative Commons |  One Way Productions via Compfight

consumed with legality while ignoring morality

Law Books

We live in a society where questions of legality abound and questions of morality are all but ignored.  When deciding a course of action, we have little hesitation about asking “Is it legal?” but typically fail to ask “Is it right?”  A recent example comes from the leaked DOJ memo containing legal rationale for the killing of American citizens who have joined Al-Qaida or an ill-defined “associated force.”  The memo outlines why, in the opinion of the DOJ and current administration, such activities are considered legal.  Following its release and subsequent public outcry, Sen Lindsey Graham (at the opposite end of the political spectrum) supported the President’s position and issued a statement saying, “The process of being targeted I think is legal.”

One of the many issues in this scenario is the question of legality vs. morality.  Lawmakers (like Obama [as Senator] and Graham) make laws.  Lawyers (like Obama and Graham) practice law.  In theory, I’m certain that most lawyers, judges, and lawmakers genuinely desire moral laws…but there is absolutely zero guarantee that what is legal according to the law is also moral (exhibit A: slavery).

Where are those asking whether such things as targeting killings (of American citizens or others) are morally right?  Reading the outcomes of our judicial system, it seems that just about anything can be argued to be legal, but where are the discussions of morality?  They are, in large part, nonexistent.

This is true not only in politics.  As a military chaplain, one of my mandated charges is to serve as a moral and ethical adviser to the chain of command.  While I have been consulted on personal ethical matters time and time again by commanders and individual airmen, I have never once been consulted on matters of morality regarding command decisions.  The JAG, of course, is consulted routinely to ensure whatever course of action is legally defensible.  It seems commanders can be easily removed for taking actions that are illegal, but as long as they are legal there seems to be little concern for whether or not they are ethical.

Simply because something is legal does not mean it is right.  We must to be concerned with both.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Mr. T in DC

Rev. Lowery…My Final Thoughts

Several people have replied to my earlier post on this blog and made statements elsewhere on the web in defense of Rev. Lowery’s benediction during the inauguration.  In short, the response has been that his words should not be interpreted as racist remarks.  The rationale for dismissing his statements as not racist are essentially three:

  1. Whites have never been treated like other races in the United States…so get over it
  2. His statements were thanking God that the day mentioned in his song had arrived
  3. He was merely quoting an old song familiar to many in the civil rights movement

To the first objection, my response is simply this:  You’re right, whites have never suffered the horrible atrocities that other races have been subjected to in United States history, but two wrongs don’t make a right.  This objection is bogus.

To objection number two, if you look at the transcript of his benediction on my first post, Rev. Lowery prays that God will “help us work for that day…”  Clearly this is not thanksgiving for the arrival of said day but a pleading that we will get there in the future.

The most common objection is the last one, that he was merely quoting (or alluding to) a song familiar to those in the civil rights movement.  Wonderful!  If Rev. Lowery wishes to pay homage to those who have labored in the civil rights movement against adversity, persecution, and the horrors that have been a sad part of our nation’s history, I will be the first to stand by his side (as a Caucasian) and say, “Amen!”  I for one am horribly ashamed of the racism that has been and arguably is still part of U.S. history.  To quote or allude to a song that itself is racist (which this lyric clearly is…whites after all are the problem that needs fixing in this verse) as a tribute to Civil Rights leaders is so blatantly wrong and hypocritical, I honestly struggle with the fact that we’re having this discussion in the first place.

If I, as a Caucasian, were to be in the position of Rev. Lowery and quote any kind of racist poem as part of my benediction I would rightly be called to account for my actions.  Why the same standard is not being applied to a Civil Rights leader, who from his own hallowed experiences should know better, is beyond me.  If we are to move beyond racism in this nation, this sort of language must perish from the lips of all.

President Obama’s Glorious Burden

This is, by far, the most stirring thing I’ve read from President Obama’s first day in office:

On this Inauguration Day, we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy, and that this legacy is not simply a birthright — it is a glorious burden. Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more.  (from A National Day of Reconciliation and Renewal, 2009)

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Rev. Lowery’s Racist Benediction…So Much for Reconciliation…

On a day when many of my conservative and/or libertarian persuasion are deriding President Obama’s inauguration as something nearing the end of the country as we know it, I have been much less pessimistic but still anxiously awaiting what the future will hold for our great nation under a new administration.  Indeed, our new President’s first official act after taking office was to issue a proclamation decreeing a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation and calling “upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.”  I applaud President Obama’s actions here–indeed I am ready to draw fire from many fellow conservatives by recognizing and sorrowing over our nation’s less-than-proud heritage of racism and discrimination.

With those thoughts in mind, I was horrified to hear Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction during the inauguration today.  Specifically, I am shocked and offended at his closing paragraph (see below), which is just about as blatantly racist as one can be.  To suggest that whites, to use his words, fail to “embrace what is right” is hardly rhetoric that tends to inspire toward renewal and reconciliation.  Indeed, Rev. Lowery, my brother in Christ, this very language is divisive, caustic, and just plain hateful.

I, for one, am outraged, and would like an apology from Rev. Lowery and President Obama.  My letter will soon be on its way to the White House.

Mr. President, this is hardly the change so many have hoped for for so long.

(Transcript courtesy Federal News Service, foundhere)

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.

Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right. [emphasis mine]

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

AUDIENCE: Amen!

REV. LOWERY: Say amen –

AUDIENCE: Amen!

REV. LOWERY: — and amen.

AUDIENCE: Amen! (Cheers, applause.)

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The Lesser of Two Evils

How should someone concerned about the morality of abortion AND (pre-emptive) war vote today?  Is there a moral choice available?  Does one candidate represent the ‘lesser of two evils’?

The Political Enquirer has an intriguing post this election day on the subject of ethical voting.  What begins with a typical-sounding scenario from a basic ethics class quickly adds a dash of Augustinian thinking and ends with the a thought-provoking conclusion that:

There is no ethically relevant different [sic] between this [classroom ethics] case and the case of choosing between a rabid pro-abortion candidate, and a rabid pro-war candidate.

So, if he’s correct, it appears that the Christian is left with only two options:

  1. Vote for a third-party candidate
  2. Abstain from voting altogether

Are these the only ethically acceptable options for the Christian in this election?  What about anyone else concerned with the morality of abortion and war?  What do you think?

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This Made Me Laugh

This is just plain funny…

When liberals start acting like they’re opposed to pre-marital sex and mothers having careers, you know McCain’s vice presidential choice has knocked them back on their heels.
–Anne Coulter

HT: The Fearsome Pirate

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