God First

“This Is My Song” (ELW 887), a poem by Lloyd Stone set to the tune Finlandia by Sibelius, was one of my dad’s favorite hymns. In this time of emerging Christian nationalism and resurging American exceptionalism, it’s quickly becoming one of mine. The tune itself is beautiful, but the words beckon us to remember that while patriotism, love of country, is a good and noble thing, it also can become quite idolatrous. (Listen here.) As we give thanks this 4th of July week as Americans for the freedoms so hard-won and constantly challenged, we as Christians must come to terms with the truth that “America First” is a breach of the first commandment. God is first—and not just any God. We’re talking about the God most fully revealed to us in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The children’s song got it right. “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.”

So-called “Christian” Nationalism carries with it a certain set of assumptions as to what and who are God’s chosen favorites. It also thus requires clearly defining what and who are not. Its weapons are blame and hate and a thorough, drink-the-Kool-Aid conviction that God is on the side of people like me (in the dominant culture). I unknowingly visited a restaurant recently in our synod whose window treatments touted “Trump and Jesus 2024.” It would have been no more acceptable to me had it said “Biden and Jesus.” The same establishment handed out fake dollar bills as souvenirs with the head of Jesus in place of George Washington. And they sold Confederate flags. While all of this is within the right of the proprietor, the whole scene was more than disturbing to me when I considered the religious fervor with which the proprietor and presumably many customers pedaled their politics.

It’s been ingrained in people my age for a lifetime that Christianity somehow goes arm in arm with white American culture’s version of patriotism, from American flags right next to the altar to scouts receiving their “God and Country” awards, implying that the two are equal and inseparable. From Manifest Destiny and a shining city on a hill to making America great again, systemically thwarting the rights of women, minorities, refugees and immigrants, and more, Christian Nationalism always finds God on my side, rather than the other way around. It creates God in my image, rather than the other way around, and it seems always aimed at preserving privilege and status quo. Someone said to me recently, “So you’re saying I should be ashamed of being white and American and male?” “No,” I replied. “At the same time, those traits do not make you better than, more favored than, or superior to anyone else.”

In biblical times, Jews hated the Samaritans and wanted to blame them for everything. Jesus used the Samaritan as the hero in the story. He reached out to and lifted up women, foreigners, lepers, the unclean, and not only included but embraced them. I have lived overseas. I am grateful and proud to be American. But from the very beginning, even in the covenant with Abraham, God promised that Israel would be blessed for one reason: to be a blessing to the nations. Perhaps America is called to be great. The biblical definition of greatness—the Jesus definition—is not lording over, privilege, and superiority. It is serving and loving. To be first is to be last. All people in all their wonderful nationality and diversity are precious children of God. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together. Or as in the vision of Revelation 7, at the end of all things, people of all nations gather around the lamb.

I love my country. And since God loves all the nations (John 3:16, kosmos), then so must we.

Walking with you in freedom,

NC Synod Bishop

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