Dr. Richard Hughes, PhD in Christian History, gave a second address this evening. (Here's the one from this afternoon.) In a very thought provoking lecture he dismantled the notion that America is a nation with a Christian character. Agreeing that the Christian story has been a sub-text throughout America's history, he contrasted the current notion of a Christian nation with a biblical definition of the kingdom of God. Here's another set of rambling notes.
Anyone who wants to come to terms with America as a Christian nation must understand the only concept in scripture that’s analogous and helpful: the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is continually represented as a culture of peacemaking and social justice.
The nation of America tends to understand its Christian identity as a privatistic code of ethics and power.
The kingdom of God and the nation of America are polar opposites, in fact, an oxymoron.
Hebrew bible and the concept of the kingdom of God.
-1 Sam 8:40-42, Give us a king like the other nations.
-The intent was for the Hebrew nation to be God’s kingdom, different than any other.
-God and Samuel argued that the outcomes would be slavery, war and injustice.
-The people ignored this and they were given a king.
-The kingdom of God would be non-violent and just, while earthly kingdoms, including Solomon’s were filled with violence and oppression.
-8th century BCE, the prophets continually argued for Samuel’s vision of the kingdom.
-The message was that of social justice as the only means to peace.
-Amos argued that religious ritual was an abomination apart from justice for the poor.
-Isaiah draws a connection between social justice and national well being.
-Hosea sees the demise of Israel and asks, “where now is your king to save you?”
-Virtually all the Hebrew prophets became messengers of peace, understanding that violence would not work in securing a kingdom or national identity.
-A rejection of war and an embrace of peace, “a child has been born to us...” (Is 9)
-Zachariah picks up the theme; a new king would come not in a chariot, but on a donkey; not with military might but with humility.
New Testament and the concept of the kingdom of God.
-Matthew, “do not resist one who is evil,” “love your enemies.” “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
-John, “my kingship is not of this world.”
-Paul, “bless those who persecute you,” “repay evil with good,” “never avenge yourselves,” “if your enemy is hungry, feed him,” “overcome evil with good.”
-On the issue of social justice: Luke, “blessed are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God.”
-Lk 1 – Mary speaks of a radically new order in her Magnificat. Lift up the lowly, scattered the proud, filled the hungry.
-Lk 2 – An angel speaks: do not be afraid, good news of great joy, a new ruler has come, as a baby in a manger. A revolutionary and seditious announcement, in opposition to Caesar. To promote Jesus as Lord and Savior was treasonous.
-Lk 3 – John the Baptist orders compassion, sharing, the kingdom of God.
-Lk 4 – Jesus’ own announcement of the kingdom: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee.
-The kingdom of God turns imperial values upside down. The empire uses power, the kingdom uses justice. The empire starves, the kingdom feeds. The empire oppresses, the kingdom frees.
How have we missed these themes so often?
-American fundamentalism is the offspring of two stories: America and Christianity.
-An American bias toward radical individualism and private pietism.
-Americans read the bible through the lens of capitalism believing that “God helps those who help themselves” (a counter biblical phrase of Benjamin Franklin, not found in the bible).
-Americans have turned their back on a Hebrew world view for that of a Greek one, which focuses on the after life.
-Americans seldom or never read the bible at all. Biblical illiteracy abounds mainly among American Evangelicals.
-John Calvin sought to make Geneva into the city of God’s kingdom, to transform it in every way. He focused on society, politics, authority which influenced and shaped the pietistic, reformed character of early America. American fundamentalism continues to seek the transformation into the kingdom of God. America would be the model. But peacemaking and social justice were ignored for the political power and even military might.
-After 9/11 hoards of Christians were calling for revenge and military action. “Conservative Christians biggest backers of Iraq War.” 87% of white evangelicals supported the war on Iraq. Evangelicals said this would open up a new mission field for Muslims (Franklin Graham). Tim LeHaye sees it as an end times scheme. Many opt for a kingdom of power.
The kingdom of God
-relies on the power of love
-has no mortal enemies
-embraces the values of peace and justice
-exalts the poor and dispossessed
-promotes forgiveness not revenge
-prefers humility to power
In one sense America is a Christian nation in that 75% of it’s citizens profess Christianity.
“We have a great country. My concern is not to demean America. But the biblical account does not support transforming the nation into the kingdom.”
“Christianity has always been the subtext for the founding of the nation. American history cannot be separated from the Christian tradition.”
“From a cultural standpoint we are a Christian nation.”
“But the character of the nation is counter to the character of the kingdom.”
“My allegiance is to the kingdom of God.”
“The kingdom of God is now, but not yet.”
“So. Why then would we want to refer to America as a Christian nation?”