I am a Christian before I am an American. I don’t believe these two identities should be intermingled beyond recognition, though I believe that this intermingling is repeatedly done within the United States of America. While being a Christian undoubtedly should make me a better American, I don’t believe that because I’m American, that makes me a better and more competent Christian. As a Christian, my faith informs me to affirm the humanity and the dignity of all individuals who are made in God’s image.
Growing up, I thought that America had it all together because I learned from school and television and church that America was “the greatest country on the face of the earth.” Why? Because America is a “Christian nation.” And we are to be “a city on a hill” to all the other countries who are not “Christian” countries. As a result, I heard rumblings about “those Islamic countries” or those “postmodern, atheistic countries,” disapproving of their politics, and whether consciously or unconsciously, disapproving of their very people.
These responses make sense in the field of social psychology. Important psychological concepts exist called the “in group” and the “out group” phenomenon. Of course, being part of a group can be a positive experience; it’s how we feel belonged, included, cherished. However, when we’re part of a group, we undoubtedly begin distinguishing who is an insider to our group, and who is an outsider. As we scope out those in the “out group,” we notice that these individuals are different from “us.” We as humans easily demonize “different,” assuming that because someone is not like us, they are wrong, they are evil, they are inhuman. Our snap judgments cause us to make automatic reactions towards an individual. For example, the color of one’s skin or the kind of clothing he or she wears may make us feel in danger because of what we’ve seen on the news or in popular media about a people group.
I believe this in group and out group thinking plays a prominent role in how American Christians interact with others who do not claim our faith, and even with those who do.
I saw this idea of American exceptionalism at work in my own heart when I was overseas in a rural Eurasian country doing missions work. I went overseas with the understanding that because I was an American Christian, I was going to uniquely and beautifully add to the experience of the Christian nationals in the country. After all, because America has such a Christian culture, I should be able to inform these individuals of who Jesus really is. It took about fifteen minutes (if that) sitting cross-legged in my first church service in Eurasia to realize that as an American, I do not have a monopoly on Jesus. I do not have a monopoly on what Christian culture ought to look like because I live in a “Christian nation.” In fact, I’d go as far as to say that in Eurasia, I saw such a purer and richer form of Christianity than I had ever before beheld.
Jesus didn’t choose to establish an earthly kingdom by reforming the government of Israel. Instead, his kingdom was and is not of this world (John 18:36). Before his ascension (documented in Acts 1), his disciples are earnestly and anxiously asking him when he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus basically tells them again that that’s not what His kingdom is all about. He encourages his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit’s power to come upon them, for they will be his witnesses throughout all of the world. He doesn’t instruct them to subvert governments. He doesn’t tell them that they will “take Israel back for God – by militaristic force, if necessary.” No, he instructs them that they will love and serve him best by living by the Holy Spirit’s peace- and truth-giving power. His people (the Church) was and continues to be the vehicle of His love until His return.
What would Jesus do if he was living in the United States today, specifically regarding the refugee crisis? One could only guess what his actions would be. But I don’t believe he would be one to build fences or to fear difference of opinion. I don’t think he would involve himself in such efforts. I think he would do justice and would love kindness and would walk humbly with his dear Father (Micah 6:8). This is not abstract living; I believe we can see examples of his living this out all throughout his earthly ministry. He affirmed the dignity of all humans he interacted with, recognizing that they were made in the very image of God.
I think he would compassionately utter, “All you refugees, come home.” Home to his salvation, his freedom, his loving arms. For, we were all once refugees before Christ became our Savior. And when he invited us home to his heart, he didn’t check our passport, the color of our skin, our clothing choices, our past decisions. He took us in fully, filthy rags and all, for his salvation and grace and forgiveness were and are the only qualifiers for our redemption and homecoming. As Christians, we don’t have to deny this home to the refugee out of fear. We as the Church can continue living as the vehicle of God’s love, whether or not the government follows suit.
So, am I glad to be an American? I feel blessed. But I am even more glad to be a Christian, joining the company of a great, big body of Christ-followers who have a rich and vibrant faith – not only in the United States of America, but across the entire face of the earth. And I will not allow my citizenship and allegiance to the United States of America interfere with who I am as a Christ-follower. I don’t care that God’s moral law may never be passed by the U.S. legislature; for, whether this country is “Christian” or not, I know that does not affect my security, and that does not affect the way I live. In Christ alone my hope is found, and because he has freely accepted me into his arms, I will open my arms wide to the “foreigner,” knowing fear has no place in this heart.