“You are a city set upon a hill.”
Many American Christians heard that from Matthew’s Jesus two weeks ago, as they sat in church (Mt. 5:14). That image of a shining city on a hill has populated the speeches of American politicians for a long time and it stretches all the way back to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.
I freely confess to loving that bright, sparkling image of America – I love it, that is, when I agree with the policies of the political party in power.
And that’s the dolorous blow to Gospel witness that Christians must resist on this Presidents’ Day and every day. Christians have always faced a grave risk, ever since the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine apparently embraced Christian faith. American Christians seem especially vulnerable to the danger – I mean the risk of conflating triumphant nationalism with the Kingdom of God and mistaking patriotism for faithfulness to the Gospel.
No, that’s called idolatry.
I do believe Christians should be involved in the political process because we are Christians; I do believe faith communities have a stake in public policies because of our faith; and I do believe that this country’s guiding principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all express something vital about the Gospel; America might even come close to being “great” if we actually put those principles into effective practice.
And yet, I remain haunted – as every Jew, Christian, and Muslim ought to be – by the specter of idolatry lurking around every patriotic corner. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, presents a compelling case for why the modern nation-state generally (and not just the American version in particular) functions as a religion and is treated by many as a savior. It’s totalizing effects and demands for unqualified loyalty more than fit the bill for an idol.
“The church must be wary of nostalgia for Constantinianism,” Cavanaugh writes. “A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness.” He further encourages a range of church practices to help resist the “colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself” (p. 5).
Practices, that is, to help us avoid falling so easily, carelessly, and deeply into idolatry.
My friend and colleague Tripp Hudgins recently posted on Facebook what he called a “lament” for this Presidents’ Day and offered a searing reminder of what our peculiar faith as Christians demands from us in relation to empires, regimes, realms, and yes, nation-states.
Tripp affirms the need and necessity for Christians to stand against “Empire” in all its guises, including the democratic vestments this country currently wears. He cautions us, though, against supposing that resistance means a peaceful transfer of power or a bloodless revolution. More pointedly, “the truth about resistance and where it has historically…led Christians is to martyrdom.”
That path swerves decidedly away, as Tripp notes, from what many American Christians would consider laudable “revolution.” Too many understand heroic duty as the overthrow of tyranny with violence and far too few in the vulnerable witness of an Oscar Romero.
Tripp concludes with a reality check, the kind that can dispel my own romanticism about living as a Christian martyr and what such a witness actually entails. “Though Empires all share the same ending,” he writes, “they do not give up their power and position without taking the innocent down with them. And the Christian standing in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, and the innocent will find their end in the martyrdom of solidarity.”
I cannot love this country as I once did in my enthusiastically patriotic childhood. But I can love the land, and its people, and even some of its presidents when they inspire us to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I can love even the enemy, as Tripp says, “who cannot help but break your heart. Such love is the most profound Christian expression of solidarity with all creation.”
Wherever such love and solidarity are found, it seems to me, the shining city has once again been set upon a hill.