Monday, July 25, 2016

God Bless America?

Last Thursday evening my wife and I went with a group of my work colleagues to a West Michigan Whitecaps game. A good time was had by all, as they say. The fact that this was minor-league play at its furthest remove from the majors didn't bother me; in any sport, I'd rather watch the local high-schoolers in person than the pros on TV. (To tell the truth, I'd rather pick up a bat myself, take ebullient swings at slow pitches by good friends, and trudge as far as possible around the bases before total knee-joint collapse; but I haven't swung a bat for decades.) For me, and I think for most of the crowd, being at a White Caps game was not so much about watching the game as such; it  was about participating in a whole complex of community-celebrating rituals. Among which: the seventh-inning stretch, when the whole crowd stood up to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

For a number of years following 9/11, the seventh-inning-stretch song was "God Bless America." I guess that was a song that we needed to sing when we felt bereaved and assaulted and threatened. Has some of that feeling worn off, or did we just get tired of singing that song at baseball games? I remember "God Bless America" from my childhood. At Dupont Elementary School in Hopewell, VA,  we sang it in music classes during the Cold War era, when we also had nuclear-attack drills. But I don't think the song was ever for us only about feeling threatened. It was also, like another favorite of our music teachers, "This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land," a celebration of the length and breadth, the natural and human expanse and diversity, of our beloved country. There were, and are, shadow sides to such celebration, but for me the shadows have never vitiated the positive impulse. At any rate, the song and the phrase stick with us. An expansion of the phrase is, for example, a common ending to speeches by our national political leaders. "And God bless the United States of America."

Do we not need to ask ourselves now and then what we mean by saying that? Perhaps especially in an election year, when we have to talk about our country a lot? I'm not going to ask here what our politicians mean by using that phrase in their speeches. I'm going to ask what it means for a Christian, specifically, to say "God bless America." The two questions overlap, of course, because some of our politicians are Christian, or want to get votes by being accepted by Christians as Christian, or both. But in what sense can an American Christian rightly say "God bless America?"

Any talk of God's blessing a nation inevitably recalls the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12: 

     I will make you into a great nation,
       and I will bless you;
     I will make your name great,
       and you will be a blessing.
     
     I will bless those who bless you,
       and whoever curses you I will curse;
     and all peoples on earth
       will be blessed through you. (NIV)

Some have imagined a simple and total transfer of the covenant promises from Israel to the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. Haven't ever heard of that? Good. It's called British-Israelism. As biblical interpretation it is profoundly confused, as theology it is heretical, and as ecclesial identifier it marks off one deviant sector of the lunatic fringe.

More commonly these days we hear the notion that God wants to bless America to the extent that America will single-mindedly and uncritically support the military and land-use policies of the most Zionist factions in the modern state of Israel and steadfastly ignore the plight of the Palestinian people. Maybe this is better than British-Israelism insofar as it recognizes one of the axioms of any Christian meditation on the topic of God and Israel, namely, that we should by no means say that God has rejected "his own people, the nation of Israel" by physical descent (Romans 11:1). I am not going to get into debates about who is at fault and what US policy should be in the painfully complex mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All I am going to say is that as biblical interpretation and as Christian theology, this notion of what it means for God to bless America is only minimally better off than British-Israelism and is more pernicious because it is more widely sold and bought.

I submit that the properly Christian way to pray for God to bless America means something different. For one thing, it means praying for the conversion of millions of hearts and minds in this country of ours to the way of Jesus Christ. It also means praying that we who call ourselves Christians will be given the wisdom and the grace to conduct ourselves, in all the contexts of our civic life, in such ways as to be a blessing to our fellow citizens, i.e., to be models and channels of the grace and truth that are in Christ. That grace centrally entails generous, self-emptying speech and action undertaken for the good of others (Philippians 2:6-11).

For various complex reasons (can't get into this without getting into the whole history of Christian understandings of the nature of secular government), I do not think Christians should expect our US government or its policies to be specifically Christian in this self-emptying way, nor do I think we should wish to elect only Christians to positions of authority in government. Rather, we should pray (in words cribbed, with minor adjustments, from Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon's Daily Devotional Guide) "for the peace of our troubled world and all her people, that evil and violence may be restrained, and that peace and justice may prevail; [and] for those who govern our country and our city, that they may govern with wisdom in these troubled times, with compassion for those in need, and with justice for all."

To pray or sing "God bless America" in the sense of asking God to enable our nation (or party, or candidate) to win by making losers of other nations (or parties, or candidates), or to ask God to bless us mainly or only by expanding our borders and further empowering and enriching us, or to ask God to bless us otherwise than in order to bless all peoples on earth through us, or to ask God to bless us in any other way than by transforming us individually according to the pattern offered in Jesus Christ and nationally according to the patterns of justice, righteousness, and benevolence that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and other moral and religious traditions from cultures across history and around the globe, entail as obligations for all nations is not prayer (sincere offering of ourselves for conformity to God's goodness) but blasphemy (abuse of God's name for selfish aims in disobedience to God's gracious, self-giving instruction).

With that preunderstanding in place, yes, please! God bless America! Take me out to the ball game, and may all the bats be swung only at baseballs.


P.S. In case you are not yet so sick of current events that you actually want an explicit link to current events, I will offer: The benedictions at the Republican National Convention included at least one blasphemy (by Mark Burns, Monday night, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNhVc5VXB5o) and one prayer (Steve Bailey, Thursday night, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB_ddVRjbPo). That is not a personal opinion or a liberal or conservative political opinion; it is the straightforward finding of a Christian theologian. That doesn't mean that it is infallible, but it does mean that if you want to disagree in a way that interests me (or is allowed as a comment in my space), you will need theological arguments. My personal opinions: the latter might have been stronger if it had been shorter, but its heart is in the right place; the former was garment-rendingly abominable.

P.P.S. Yes, for any who caught the echo and are wondering, I did along the way deliberately say that it is possible for a Christian to pray the "prayer of Jabez" in a sub-Christian and in fact blasphemous way.