Recently I was driving in my friend’s car. As we drove along he slipped some Johnny Cash into the CD player, and the song “Old Rugged Flag” began to play:
I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench, an old man was sittin’ there.
I said, “Your old court house is kinda run down,
He said, “Naw, it’ll do for our little town”.
I said, “Your old flag pole is leaned a little bit,
And that’s a ragged old flag you got hangin’ on it”.
He said, “Have a seat”, and I sat down,
“Is this the first time you’ve been to our little town”
I said, “I think it is”
He said “I don’t like to brag, but we’re kinda proud of
That Ragged Old Flag
“You see, we got a little hole in that flag there,
When Washington took it across the Delaware.
and It got powder burned the night Francis Scott Key sat watching it,
writing “Say Can You See”
It got a rip in New Orleans, with Packingham & Jackson
tugging at its seams.
and It almost fell at the Alamo
beside the Texas flag,
But she waved on though.
She got cut with a sword at Chancellorsville,
And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill.
There was Robert E. Lee and Beauregard and Bragg,
And the south wind blew hard on
That Ragged Old Flag
“On Flanders Field in World War I,
She got a big hole from a Bertha Gun,
She turned blood red in World War II
She hung limp, and low, a time or two,
She was in Korea, Vietnam, She went where she was sent
by her Uncle Sam.
She waved from our ships upon the briny foam
and now they’ve about quit wavin’ back here at home
in her own good land here She’s been abused,
She’s been burned, dishonored, denied an’ refused,
And the government for which she stands
Has been scandalized throughout out the land.
And she’s getting thread bare, and she’s wearin’ thin,
But she’s in good shape, for the shape she’s in.
Cause she’s been through the fire before
and i believe she can take a whole lot more.
“So we raise her up every morning
And we bring her down slow every night,
We don’t let her touch the ground,
And we fold her up right.
On second thought
I *do* like to brag
Cause I’m mighty proud of
That Ragged Old Flag”
As I listened to the lyrics I had this thought: the history of America is a history of violence. When I think about the major moments in American history, I think of extreme violence. The “pilgrims” landing and colonizing and stealing land from native tribes that had lived on the land for thousands of years, the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, World War One and Two, The Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, The War on Terror, not to mention blankets covered with small pox, slavery, reservations, child labor, slums, ghettos, gangs and on and on.
America is a nation founded on and reinforced by violence. It has been a place that has proudly carried a “Big Stick” around the world wielding military superiority and economic power as its weapons.
When I began to have these realizations I started to ask the question, “whose history was I taught?” It was at this moment that I began to read other versions of the same events and stories about events not talked about in public education history classes.
The story I was taught was, “America is great, America is God Blessed and set apart from the rest of the world.”
This began to be awkward for me as a Christian, because the guy who started this movement, this revolution, Jesus of Nazareth, was a religious and political insurgent in an occupied Middle Eastern territory…and the Bible was not written by victors celebrating their victorious history, it was mainly written by slaves, exiles, lone abandoned prophets, and rebels. One scholar has pointed out that the God of the Bible is the God of the oppressed.
But if God is the God of the oppressed, what implications would that have for me as a Christian in America?
As Biblical “Literalism” has taken off, what has been lost is an understanding of the scriptures in their original context.
The death of Jesus has been reduced to the Romans saying, “I don’t know why we should kill him, there’s just some hyper spiritual aura around him that is not fun so let’s off him…” With this shift any tangible application of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has been lost or morphed into some esoteric spiritual teachings by a nice guy who had an unfortunate death…but don’t worry he went to heaven when he died.
The story of Jesus is about God confronting the empires of the world. Empires build on greed, excess, and injustice. This is the DNA of the story of Jesus. Paul coins a hyper subversive phrase, “Jesus is Lord,” which is a modification of another popular saying in the first century, “Caesar is Lord.” When understood in its proper context the New Testament, and the Old Testament prophets for that matter are saying again and again, “God is greater that the kingdoms of this world,” “Jesus is greater than Caesar.”
I’ll be honest, when I was in Sunday school and the sweet old ladies broke out the large felt boards and acted out the gospel stories with little felt characters I thought to myself, “how stupid that people used to worship Caesar, thank goodness I live in a more advanced time where no such thing exists.” I was wrong.
What makes this picture shocking?
What happens at every major sporting event in the U.S.? the singing of the national anthem. When I was in school we said the pledge of allegiance before class. What do we hang from porches, cars, in church sanctuaries, on car bumpers, on businesses? The American Flag.
The flag, the pledge, and the anthem have become “sacred” objects.
Why did Barrack Obama’s former pastor get in so much trouble in the last election? It’s simple. He was challenging the dominant narrative in the United States.
What has to be realized is that the “history” of America is only the history of those on top.
Here’s what I mean. In 1973 J. Edgar Hoover (the head of the FBI) said that the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States was the free neighborhood breakfast put on by the Black Panthers.
Properly understood the Black Panthers are about defending a people group whose government at every turn sought to exploit and segregate. They offered social services and classes of which the breakfast was one.
The greatest threat to the United States is free breakfast? Or is it that the greatest threat to the all white, male dominated, wealthy upper class is community development in poor black neighborhoods?
Just recently I heard an interview with a high-ranking U.S. diplomat on NPR and they explained that the U.S. wants to see a world where no more wars are fought over boundaries and resources. This sounds noble, but at a deeper level why would the world’s main super power want to see the end of such wars? The reason is to maintain its own position on the top of the food chain.
This became painfully clear in Egypt this last spring, where people were taking to the streets in a beautiful display of humanity to protest and eventually overthrow their government. Sights such as Christians and Muslims occupying the same space and protecting the reverence of one another’s prayers were not uncommon. As the protests continued police threw tear gas to disperse the crowds. Just prior to this moment the U.S. said it was on the side of the Egyptian people. Back to the tear gas. The tear gas that the police were throwing was made in America:
All of a sudden, the Roman Empire and the United States of America do not seem too different. Which raises the question: have I been reading the Bible wrong all along? Have I been identifying with the wrong characters in the story?
If there is a driving conflict in the Bible between the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God, should there be a conflict between the Kingdom of God and the U.S.?
This goes beyond discussions about particular political issues. This is about the overwhelming reality that the Kingdom of God is not synonymous with the Government of the United States of America.
What would happen if the small slice of the Church that makes up the church in America gave up it’s colonial claim to ownership on the scriptures and on Christianity? What if the church in American felt like it could learn from oppressed people around the world reading the Bible in their own language? What would happen if Christianity and Western culture were no long considered the same thing?
I believe the world would change in a powerful way.
In a letter to one of the first Christian churches located in Philippi, Paul (an influential early Christian) wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In 2 Corinthians Paul says, “We are…Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
When Paul talks about soldiers he describes them clothed in non-violence:
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Soldiers of non-violence.
Heaven is coming to earth, and the Church is the embassy of heaven. There is no such thing as an American Christian. There are only Christians in America.
If this is true, that our citizenship is in God’s Kingdom, not any currently existing world powers, then should it be weird that in the majority of churches in the United States, Christians take communion in the shadow of the U.S. flag?
Or should it be weird that at a large Christian concert that I recently attended a representative from a particular political party that is all about the interests of a particular country stood up and told everyone it was their Christian duty to vote for particular issues and candidates?
This kind of nationalistic thinking prevents real world change. If Christians are citizens of heaven, a kingdom that encompasses the whole world, than it should be offensive that in God’s world half the world’s children live in poverty, thousands die from preventable diseases, there are child soldiers, or any soldiers for that matter? Shouldn’t it be shocking that there are and have been killings that have claimed the lives of thousands and even millions of people because of the tribe they belong to or the natural resources that exist on their side of the line in the sand.
We (was your first thought at the appearance of the word “we” to think the church in America? Interesting…), the Global Church need to be the first to do something about the suffering of our world and about the suffering in each other and point to a God that is big enough to save the whole world and not any one particular nation.
Maybe what God has been saying throughout human history is, “I’d really love to take a broom to those lines in the sand…”
Epilogue: We are being played.
A popular belief is that the United States is a Christian nation. Not only is this historically false, but when Christians point to this they are being played and taken advantage of.
The founding fathers were Deists, not Christians.
The phrase “One nation under God…” was not added to the pledge of allegiance until 1954 and is/was intended to be anti-communist propaganda (because naturally all communists are godless).
The so-called “Religious Right” was created because Ronald Reagan needed votes. He promised everything and delivered nothing to a group of Christian leaders and in the end they ended up looking ridiculous.
Any time government and religion flirt the results are disastrous and it’s the religious folks that end up losing.