Jesus vs. America First
Growing up in the Bible Belt, you believed Christianity was under systematic attack. The Ten Commandments were being removed from courthouses. Prayer was banned in public places and teachers were propagating post-modern values. The IRS was discriminating against Christian churches and charities. Meanwhile, the airwaves were being filled with the sound of government funded NPR and its liberal affiliates. It was only a matter of time before America would follow the way of Western Europe and throw pastors in jail for preaching on homosexuality and Islam.
The list could go on. America, founded by Christians on Christian principles, was now turning against its own. The solemn duty of American Christianity therefore was to stand up and fight for itself.
Let’s assume for the time being that the above is indeed true — that Christians are subject to systematic discrimination — and bring in the life of Jesus.
When Jesus was born, Israel was occupied by a brutal and powerful pagan empire. The Jewish way of life was under threat and whatever uneasy peace that allowed the Jews to go on worshiping in their own land would soon be eviscerated when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.
If a way of life was ever under threat, it was that of Jesus and his kin. So how did Jesus respond? Based on my reading of Scripture, the most politically explicit thing Jesus said was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” In other words, pay your taxes. There was no rallying cry to stand up for the rights of the Jews, no claim that the Jews should kick the Romans out of the Holy Land. This frustrated many of Jesus’ followers who hoped that, above all, they could reclaim their rightful inheritance from the hands of the heathens.
Instead of standing up for the Jewish way of life, Jesus did something very curious — he sought out the destitute, the lame, the blind, the poor. He actively confronted and made enemies with the Jewish leaders and elite of his time. If there was ever an ineffective way to start a political movement, it was right here: gather an army of cripples and alienate yourself from anyone important with resources.
Indeed, Jesus was concerned so little with self-preservation that he knowingly let a traitor into his inner circle. Then when it came time for him to be brutally murdered, he put up no fight.
Looking at his disciples in the book of Acts, you also notice very little energy being devoted to fighting for the safety and rights of Christians. Rather, even as Christians were being throw to the lions, the focus of the early church was almost exclusively on others, not themselves. How could they go out and reach more people? How could they lead exemplary lives as an inspiration to others?
Now let’s transport Jesus to the heart of America in 2017. He might hear something like this: “Finally Christians have regained a foothold in Washington. No longer will our country be overrun by atheists and Muslims and [insert grouping of people]. Only by sticking up for our faith will America prosper again.”
I believe Jesus would respond to this in the following manner: “Since when did I call you to make self-preservation your primary motive? Even if it was true that the media and courts and schools were out to get you, why is this surprising? Did I not say: ‘Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hates you?’ Your focus should be on helping those around you, not looking after your own well-being.”
If we followed this advice where would it get us? For one, we would spend a whole lot less energy fighting petty “culture wars” that have become Evangelicals’ specialty. There would be less focus on America as a political entity and more focus on America as a country consisting of neighbors whom we can reach out to.
Does this mean Christians should disengage from politics? Not at all. You go to school, you work, you raise a family, you support the best candidates — it is our civic duty. Just war and good law enforcement are all necessary. What this does mean, however, is that America can never be first, in the same way Israel was never first for Jesus. It was always: neighbor first (even the Samaritan), country second.
Will this cost us? Perhaps. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that people will try to take advantage of a less guarded Christian voting block. We might have less prayers at football games and more inquires from the IRS. At the end of the day, though, Christians in America have the most protected and privileged position of Christians anywhere in the world. I think we can give up a little bit of our right to self-preservation with the goal of loving others — even those who run the risk of hurting us. Certainly Jesus did.