America, be what you are!

I am appalled but not surprised when President Trump asserts that people who want to make America live up to its promise are people who hate America and want to destroy it.

After all, he himself, after his own perverse understanding of the definition of good, wants to “make America great again,” which inevitably implies that he does not think it is currently great, but he does not consider himself a hater of America. His “again,” though, does imply that it was perfect at some point in the past. This is symptomatic of his subscription to what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the “politics of eternity.” If you’re not familiar with that phrase, I suggest looking Snyder up. Or just get The Road to Unfreedom and read it. Dishonesty about one’s national past is an essential ingredient in the recipe for a dystopian future.

I am surprised, though, when Christian people accept Trump’s assertion that acknowledging America’s historic and current imperfections, and wanting to remedy them, constitutes hatred of America. Have they never sung “God mend thine every flaw?” Or to put a blunter point on it, have they never repented? Been converted? Undergone a long and sometimes painful process of sanctification?

Trumpianity (essential boast: I have nothing to confess, nothing to repent of, no need of forgiveness) is the diametric opposite of Christianity (essential prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, have mercy on me a sinner).

Anyone who has studied New Testament theology even a little will recognize “Be what you are!” as a nutshell version of the ethics of the Apostle Paul, and “already / not yet” as a nutshell summary of Christian eschatology. Created good, after the image of God, we have rejected and fallen away from that goodness. God, rich in mercy, sent prophets to give us instruction (“law”) and call us back to faithfulness, but we were unable or unwilling to heed those calls, so in the fullness of time God spoke again, this time through a Son who brought the very presence of the Divine into our midst, healing and teaching, and, in the clearest and fullest revelation and glorification of the character of God, laying down his own life so that being united with him in his death we might be united with him also in his resurrection, rising to walk in newness of life—divine life, life in Christ, life in God. Do we already see this divine life fully realized in ourselves? No. It is ours already, but not yet: already promised, not yet fully received; inaugurated, not yet perfected. The distance between the already and the not yet, between what we are potentially and what we are actually, defines the agenda of Christian discipleship, of the work of the Holy Spirit, and of the Blessed Hope of our Lord’s second coming to consummate all things.

America is not the kingdom of God, and citizenship is not discipleship. But there are analogies. For the person whose true life is hidden in Christ, every aspect of secular life will be understood as a through-a-glass-darkly reflection and imperfect imitation of the one essential story briefly sketched in the preceding paragraph.

How does my existence as a US citizen mirror my understanding of myself as a follower of Jesus?

First of all: Unwavering clarity that the claim of God on my life is absolute, while the call of country is subordinate and contingent. God is the very definition of good, which means that nothing else is, which means that America is not. Anything or anyone other than God that becomes for me an object of absolute, rather than conditional, loyalty has become an idol and must be cast down.

Secondly, though, I can see America—the idea of America and our historic pursuit of that idea, as a good thing, as a noble thing. But since America is not God, I am not permitted to assume that it is perfect either in conception or in realization. Not as a citizen but as a Christian who is also a citizen I must subject both the theory and the practice of America, and my own relationship to both, to a rigorous “examen,” repeatedly, persistently asking myself questions like: Where is God in my relationship to my country? How do my country’s founding and governing ideals line up next to my understanding of God’s law for my life and the life of the Kingdom of God, which is my true homeland? How does my country’s actual practice line up to its true ideals?

And knowing what I know about the already/not yet of my life in Christ, knowing that when Christ called me to repent he willed that my whole life should be a course of daily repentance and renewal, I should by analogy fully expect to find shortcomings both in my country’s ideals and especially in my country’s living up to its ideals. And if I hear anyone claiming that my country’s ideals are perfect, or that its performance of its ideals has ever in the past been perfect or is now perfect, or that only a hater of and traitor to my country would name my country’s imperfections and call upon it to become actually what it is potentially but has never yet been fully, am I not duty-bound as a citizen of my country, and as a citizen of the kingdom of God sojourning in this country, to stand up and shout: NO! NO! NO! YOU HAVE NOT UNDERSTOOD THE ESSENTIAL FIRST THING ABOUT AMERICA!

May God take me before I ever dream of saying that America has my highest loyalty, or is immune from criticism, or is anything other than a beautiful but fragile gift that we have yet fully to appreciate and accept, that is ours either to perfect—or to ruin by claiming that it is already perfect.

God bless America. God mend thine every flaw.

———————

Langston Hughes

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

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