Christian or American: What is your Primary Identity?

Until American churches actually function as outposts of Jesus’ heavenly empire rather than cheerleaders for America – until the churches produce martyrs rather than patriots – the political witness of Christians will continue to be diluted and co-opted.

Peter Leithart, Between Babel and Beast

The role of the church is not merely to make policy recommendations to the state, but to embody a different sort of politics, so that the world may be able to see a truthful politics and be transformed. The church does not thereby withdraw from the world but serves it, both by being the sign of God’s salvation of the world and by reminding the world of what the world still is not (emphasis added).

— William T. Cavanaugh, from The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology

These two quotes are very helpful for approaching the question of Christian identity in relationship to U.S. citizenship.  The reason for this, I think, is because they start with the church rather than merely with some abstract “Christian” point of view, which would assume that we can conceive of ourselves and our values apart from belonging to a worshiping community that makes particular confessions and truth claims.

At the same time, I think this can be taken too far, as many postliberals and “anabaptists” tend to do, by concluding on the other hand that our speech is entirely conditioned by its intelligibility within a given linguistic context — I believe language and human experience is more “naturally” cross-cultural and dynamic than that.  In other words, that we as Christians and members of specific churches don’t share the exact same moral operating system as the rest of society need not necessarily mean we are unable to converse with and understand to a significant extent, say, secular economists.  We just need to first acknowledge the tension and relative incompatibility of our competing paradigms and ways of interpreting the world.

I like what James K A. Smith says about this: “So rather than simply talking about a “Christian perspective on” economics, or simply offering a “Christian position on” [x, y or z], the eccesial critique of globalization [for the purposes of this post, read U.S. economics and foreign policy] sees the church as a community of practice called to enact culture as it ought to be, and hence called to be a community of economic practice that grows out of its worship.”  It is only, therefore, when Christians begin to see the world from this place of the church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world that they can faithfully live out, criticize and negotiate their national identity from a so-called Christian perspective.  Would that this were our primary criteria for making political judgments!

A little more about the church as the location of “Christian” as opposed to “American” identity: Stephen Long argues that “as the body of Christ in the world, the church is a transnational, global community whose allegience takes priority over all other allegiances — especially those of the nation-state and the corporation.  This allegiance requires a faithful, disciplined life in both our politics and economics.”  Specifically concerning the mission of the church, moreover, Rosemary Radford Ruether says this in her book Christianity and Social Systems:

The mission of the church is to be an expression (not the only or exclusive expression) of a struggle to overcome this dominator system [of globalization] and to transform the ways humans connect with each other and with the earth into more loving, life-giving, peacemaking relations.  In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “God’s Kingdom come,” that is, “God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  “Heaven” is the paradigm of where God’s will is fully manifest.  Our mission is not to flee earth for some transcendent realm called “heaven” but to put ourselves in harmony with this divine will for just, peace, and loving relationship, to bring them to earth, to make them present on earth.

Thus the church is not just another compartmental institution that pertains to the “spiritual” aspects of our lives, while other institutions are thought to govern the “natural” or “secular” realm.  No, the church tells a different story altogether and gives an alternative narrative for relations to the global market and first-world imperialism — the implications of which are equally comprehensive, because everything — all space and relations — is believed to be spiritual.  And perhaps most of all, the Christian way of life as embodied by the church does not have as its goal merely the greatest material wealth for the greatest number of people (though it can hardly be argued with any in-depth critical and worldwide analysis that free-market capitalism has or could ever achieve this in the first place).  This is not to say of course that Christians ignore the factors contributing to the supply or lack of material plenitude — I’ve been saying quite the opposite.  Instead, for Christians it is the goal in all dimensions of life to acknowledge and embrace the call to walk in cruciform fashion following the one who showed us how to love God and others.

With a commitment to this ethical identity and responsibility in mind as Christians, then, one has to at least try to understand what the most important issues are that face, yes, the people of this country, but most importantly, that face people everywhere.  I don’t have any secret special wisdom or exhaustive knowledge into what exactly must be done, but I have tried to become a very diligent student of global problems.  So, in the next post I will nonetheless attempt to draw on what I’ve been studying and learning about in recent years in order to very simplistically and imperfectly outline what I’ve come to see as most crucial for U.S.-Christian concern during this election season.

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