The silence of our friends

The silence of our friends

Today is MLK day.

And while that means many things, one practical result is that today, of all days, we are more likely to see a plethora of King quotations sprinkled through our Facebook news feeds–if only to show friends that “I” am not a racist jerk.

There are many excellent MLK quotations; yet this is the one that I’ve been pondering:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” (The Trumpet of Conscience, Steeler Lecture, 1967)

The statement dovetails with an insight from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he spoke of what he called the “white moderate.”

There he admitted that

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In other words: The taunts of enemies are less crushing than the silence of “friends.”

Which brings me to me.

A MESSAGE FOR THE SILENT

On what injustices am I tempted to be silent over?

How am I prone to be like that “white moderate” described by King, who was, in fact, a greater stumbling block to justice than the KKK?

1. The resurgent racism of our MAGA moment

One area that I am sorely tempted to be silent over has to do with the rise in nationalism (and sometimes outright racism) that has accompanied our current MAGA moment.

By any metric, certain segments of America have been made more of a “safe space” for white nationalism, as evidenced by a sitting congressman who recently implied that terms like “White supremacist” and “White nationalist” should not be seen as offensive. (Along with a litany of lesser, though related, statements.)

Then, we watched in shocked sadness as an aging Native American man (who was also Vietnam vet) was jeered by a crowd of “Pro-Life” high schoolers as he chanted a peace song during an indigenous peoples march in Washington, D.C.

“Build the wall!” they shouted in his face.

[*See below for update]

chantrally

For the past week, I’ve said nothing about either. Why?

It’s simple: I’m a silent friend.

2. The un-cool connotations of the Pro-Life cause.

My second temptation (like that of Christ) is related to the first.

After all, those ignorant teenagers (a redundancy we should all remember before permanently crucifying them) in MAGA hats were in Washington for the “March for Life.” This is an annual event designed to raise awareness over the atrocity of legally slaughtered babies in America.

It takes place near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

And I said nothing about that either.

Why?

I’m busy. Obviously. But another reason is that the same crowd that praises me for writing occasionally about the resurgent racism of our MAGA moment, often doesn’t think it cool when I talk about the evil of abortion.

And when you’ve already alienated one pre-fab fan-base, the temptation is to keep the other group happy.

Based on our current (nonsensical) partisan arrangement, we are told that we cannot speak out about both problems (#1 and #2).  We must either choose everything from “column A” or everything from “column B.” And if you refuse to bundle your issues in a way that fits the Cable News silos, you will face hostility from both sides.

“Abracadabra: silence.”

3. The stuff that doesn’t qualify as “news”

A third and final area on which I’ve been too silent involves that enormous, cloud-covered mountain of important stuff that doesn’t fit the category of “shiny objects” in our news feeds.

If a tree falls in the forest and it has nothing to do with Trump or Kanye or the NFL playoffs, does it make a sound?  Not usually.

A friend was telling me this morning about the horrendous surge in persecution toward Christians in the world’s two largest countries: China and India. I’ve known about the former, but have I even prayed about it, much less write a blog post?

Not really.

It isn’t shiny enough.

There aren’t many “cool points” there.

I’m a silent friend.

“The root cause of this persecution,” he said, “is actually the same thing we’re seeing all over the world. The rise of nationalism.” It’s an anger towards “outsiders” in an effort to make China more Chinese again; or India more Hindu.

The result is a metaphorical mob of chanting nationalists, surrounding Chinese Christians, as they sing their peace songs.

Will anyone say anthing?

CONCLUSION

Of course, it isn’t possible to speak up on every issue. The world is too big. And “outrage fatigue” is a real thing.

In addition, speaking up is no guarantee of speaking well, since some self-styled “prophets” are just demagogues in church clothes (see here on trying to sort out the difference).

Nevertheless, these are the words that I am pondering today, spoken to me if no one else:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”


Update: After posting this story, new videos and firsthand accounts surfaced that call into question the earlier reports regarding the MAGA high school students in D.C. See here . If these reports are accurate, then it appears that these students are owed an apology from myself and many others.


Feeling baffled by the Bible? Check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements(here).


Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

In the second century Letter to Diognetus, there is this description of the early church:

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

The point of the passage—aside from the bit on marriage beds—is that while the first Christians were good citizens, they saw themselves as “foreigners” within their “fatherlands.”

They rejected nationalism, because they believed that they belonged to a Kingdom that transcended earthly borders.

I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (“When patriotism goes too far”).

Yet here I want to ask a more specific question:

Is it ever okay for a Christian to utter the now-resurgent slogan “America First”?

AN INITIAL ANSWER

In pondering the question, my initial answer was a quick and solid “Nope.”

America, despite my gratitude for her, is not first.

God is.

And Christ’s Kingdom knows no borders, tribes, or nationalities.

Beyond this, Christ’s Kingdom will endure long after America is a forgotten footnote in the dusty book of human history–alongside Rome, Byzantium, and others.

As Isaiah states:

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket

they are regarded as dust on the scales (Isa. 40.15).

All this is true.

Unfortunately, “Nope” is not a very lengthy blog post.

And, to be honest, I have considered one qualified(!) sense in which it might be okay for a Christian to put “America First”—though I will not be saying it.

Still, I’ll start with the massive problem with the phrase.

A “NOPE” TO NATIONALISM

If the expression “America First!” carries even a hint of nationalism (as opposed to gracious patriotism), it is quite obvious that a Christian should not say it.

As Ryan Hamm defines it:

  • Patriotism is a love of one’s country (which may be good).
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense, or disrespect, of other nations.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very notion of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

It is a form of syncretism that verges on idolatry as much as stacking plastic Baals and Buddhas on the altar at one’s local church.

A less academic term for syncretism (the mixing of gods) is what I call a “Ricky Bobby religion”—as evidenced by his heartfelt plea from inside an imaginary fire in the movie, Talladega Nights:

Help me Jesus! Help me Jewish God! Help me Allah! AAAAAHHH! Help me Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off me!

giphy

On a more serious note, it was a plea for national allegiance (from religious leaders) that led finally to Christ’s murder, which may make nationalism the first heresy.

“If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19.12).

Hence the twinge of pain emitted by the satirical July 4th headline on the Babylon Bee:

  • “Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service” (here).

The exaggeration only drives home the danger of a more subtle syncretism.

In sum: Nationalism is a cancer to the Kingdom, and one often senses it—like a poorly hidden accent—beneath the chanting of “America First!”

“YES” TO STEWARDSHIP 

Even so, I am trying lately to read the claims of others (and especially those I disagree with) in the most charitable way possible. We need that discipline these days especially.

As I’ve said before, I’m thankful for America; and I think a gracious patriotism may be rooted in gratitude instead of nationalism.

So while things like “charity” and “nuance” are Kryptonite to “blog-clicks,” here goes…

Perhaps, in some cases, it is possible to view the words merely as a call to take responsibility for one’s own “household” before moving on to others.

After all, as a father, if I claim to put my family “first,” I need not be implying that others don’t matter, or that my family is more important than my faith. In this case, the words may simply function as a reminder of, say, my duty to parent my own kids before trying to parent everybody else’s.

And if one works within a particular government, there is a clear duty to give priority to one’s own “house” before venturing off to mow all other “yards” and trim other “hedges.”

This need not be nationalism and it need not be sacrilegious.

It might be a form of stewardship, and the priority might be a “first among equals.”

Maybe.

CONCLUSION

Still, the question is not just what intention lies behind such slogans (for indeed “chants” are rarely the most measured or coherent statements), but what the words connote within the hearts of hearers.

Thus while the catchphrase may not always entail a conscious endorsement of nationalistic syncretism, I still much prefer the attitude described in the age-old Letter to Diognetus.

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed

When patriotism goes too far

When patriotism goes too far

Confession:

When I was in second grade, my favorite song in the world was the patriotic power ballad by Lee Greenwood: “God Bless the U.S.A.” I still remember singing it, with a lump in my throat, while reverently cradling my glued-together replica of an F-14 fighter jet.

The lyrics epitomized my second grade existence:

If tomorrow all the things were gone

I worked for all my life

And I had to start again

With just my children and my wife

I’d thank my lucky stars

To be living here today

‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom

And they can’t take that away!

That’s right! Try and take it Commies!

Later, I learned to play it on my saxophone.

And around that same time the Iron Curtain fell.

Coincidence?  You tell me.

The point is: I was VERY patriotic.

And in certain ways, I still am. I remain tremendously grateful to those who have sacrificed so that I can live in relative safety and freedom. And I am reminded of what a rare opportunity I’ve had to better myself through education, despite the fact that my family was not wealthy by American standards.

Yet as I grew older I began to grow more wary of certain forms of “patriotism,” and especially as I came to view the Christian gospel differently.

WHEN PATRIOTISM BECOMES IDOLATRY

In short, the problem occurs when patriotism becomes nationalism.

For sake of clarity, Ryan Hamm defines the terms like this:

  • Patriotism is simply love of country.
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense (or disrespect) of others.

What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the idea of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

So here’s the question: When exactly does patriotism become nationalism, and what are some clues that Christians can use to recognize when our love of country has become an idol?

Four points:

  1. When we fail to see salvation as a change in citizenship.

The contradiction of a “Christian nationalist” is contained within the gospel itself.

To be “in Christ” according to the Scriptures, is to undergo change in primary citizenship.

As Paul argues, “our citizenship is now in heaven” (Php. 3.20). And we exist now as strangers, foreigners, and sojourners in our home countries.

To be sure, this did not change the fact that Paul himself remained a Roman citizen. Yet this identity (as with his Jewishness) was clearly secondary. Thus it is hard to picture him chanting “Roma! Roma! Roma!” while gladiators reenacted Caesar’s Gallic wars.

His primary concern was not to make Rome great again (let’s be honest, Nero was no Octavian), but to serve the King of kings.

Number two:

  1. When we get angrier at unpatriotic actions than at ungodly ones.

You can sometimes tell your idols by what makes you really angry.

In recent weeks, the internet has practically overheated over a football player who refused to stand for the national anthem as an act of protest. And while I’m not endorsing this behavior, I can’t help but notice that many Christians seem far angrier over this than over the spate of players who have been busted for serious crimes including rape, child abuse, and domestic battery. Why is that?

The point is not to endorse a lack of national pride, but to issue a word caution: When you get angrier over things that are deemed unpatriotic than over things that are violently ungodly, you’ve got a problem.[1]

  1. When we feel more kinship with unsaved countrymen than with Christians from around the globe.

While I don’t always agree with John Piper, I think he’s right in this:

Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial … Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.

The issue, once again, is one of primary citizenship.

Last point:

  1. When we are blind to the sins of our nation while being acutely aware of those of others.

Every culture and country has uniquely beautiful and uniquely broken aspects.

In America, I’m proud of our general respect for things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democracy. I also celebrate our “can do” mentality, our constitutional design of a balance of power, and our stated belief (not always lived out) that all persons are created equal.

Yet a danger in patriotic pride is that it would overlook the uniquely broken aspects that are there as well. There must be a balance.

On a recent TV show, I watched a correspondent ask a group of political convention-goers to name a time that America was truly great. The responses were hilarious and deeply saddening.

It was amazing how many individuals took us back to the era of slavery or segregation as the time when America was really “nailing it.” To be honest, most of these folks were not intending to condone such acts, but they did portray a startling historical amnesia.

CONCLUSION

In the end, the solution to patriotism gone wrong is not national negativity but the power of the gospel.

In short, Christians must come to see salvation not just as a change of mind, a change of behavior, or even a change of final destination. In addition, it also a change of primary citizenship.

And (on a lighter note) for those still wondering if a man and his saxophone can change the world, I leave you this, and rest my case.

 

————

[1] Credit for this point goes to a former student, Matt Atwell, as he noted in a post last week.