Even when I was in the military, I wasn't particularly patriotic. I always felt strange about placing my hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to a flag, even a Jamaican one. I have seen so much nationalism disguised as patriotism over the past several years, that I don't even feel comfortable mounting either of my country's flags on my house. Don't even get me started on bumper stickers. The fact that so many of us readily slap abrasive, controversial, and/or virtue-signaling phrases on the back of our vehicles without thinking twice about the public image that we are curating for our neighbors baffles me. But that's a blog for another day.
Our rector (pastor for you non-Anglicans) has assigned us to read a book called Salvation By Allegiance Alone corporately. To say that it is a theologically dense book is a profound understatement. One cannot simply open this book and have a leisurely read while enjoying your morning coffee. It’s a book that asks a lot of its readers. Submit your full concentration, your present theological framework, your entire life philosophy, and your stamina for wrestling with cognitively demanding information to this rigorous mental exercise, the book seems to say. You will walk away with an aching cerebrum and profound brain fatigue each and every time.
It also says a lot about our pastor. I hear him saying through this directive that he believes we are capable of digesting meat rather than milk. I also hear that he cares to shepherd us in more impactful ways than a 30-minute sermon on Sunday mornings. So many things compete with spiritual formation. All of us, Christian and non-Christian, are shaped by the forces of our culture. Our jobs, our social groups, our social media feeds, our curated YouTube experiences, and our preferred news channels provide several hours a day of passionate opinions, agendas, and worldviews that subliminally tell us how to think, converse, and behave. One to two hours of church a week doesn’t stand a chance of influencing us to the same degree.
Our pastor recognizes this problem. He recognizes that if we can discipline ourselves to read a book like this and talk about it within the intimacy of our small groups, then follow the breadcrumbs embedded in his sermons leading us to the big picture, we stand a chance of becoming a community that looks a little more like Christ and lot less like a Twitter mob.
The thing about Americans is that we have been groomed to believe that we are the freest people on Earth. After all, we are a democracy (which is not only non-specific but inaccurate: our nation is a constitutional, federal, and state-representative democratic republic). It’s obvious why we shorthand it to just democracy, but this misnomer ends up fueling a lot of debates in which opponents are defending something they don’t understand let alone know how to define correctly.
Christians do the same thing. We fight culture wars defending things like religious liberty, pro-life positions, and Confederate monuments without taking the time to rightly define our terms or understand the historical underpinnings that inform our impassioned arguments. We drag Jesus and scripture into these arguments while ignoring most of the Old Testament, invalidating the importance of Jewish law and the Jews themselves (yet, strangely, still believing ourselves Pro-Israel), and going against the teachings of Jesus and the early church in the name of (wait for it) defending Jesus and the early church. Our beliefs (spiritual, religious, traditional, sociological, and political) are entirely inherited until we do the hard work of unpacking the origins of these positions and then carefully and contextually applying them to the current cultural moment.
What am I really saying here? I am saying that in America, Christians are primarily a people known for proclaiming faith in a person and a doctrine while living out an existence that appears entirely faithless. I’m saying that the liturgy of the way we live our daily lives proclaims what is written on our hearts. The faith we articulate with our lips is meaningless if we don’t recognize and eliminate the ways that our actions sometimes contradict our words. This process isn’t a single moment in time. It’s a lifelong process.
For me, reading this book has played out something like this: catching snippets of truth that shatter my misconceptions. Getting bogged down in the Hebrew and Greek definitions. Getting sidetracked by a highly nuanced point. Going off on a Google search rabbit hole or tangential thought and not finding my way back before it’s time to meet with the group for the next discussion. Feeling like a failure because I'm once again behind on the reading and still have so many unanswered questions.
Here are just a few of the ways that this book has managed to transform me in spite of the aforementioned: I now understand that the word “faith” defined in English is insufficient to capture what is required to live a faithful Christian life. Allegiance is a term that adds depth and dimension to the word “faith” and has opened up new layers of meaning for me in the scriptures containing this word.
Jesus isn’t my president; He is my king. I struggle with concepts like “king,” “kingdom,” and "subject" because they are foreign to the democratic republic way of life. They don’t feel consistent with the personal Jesus I was first taught to love. There is nothing wrong with thinking of Jesus as my personal savior, friend, and father. But I must also accept His cosmic mission that extends far beyond saving only my life and securing my eternal future with Him.
The gospel isn’t just about Jesus dying on the cross to provide salvation to sinners. It’s about him righting every cosmic wrong and redeeming the universe in the process. It's about him renewing and then bringing together heaven and earth into a beautiful, unified kingdom where the effects of sin and evil are completely eradicated.
I am free and yet bound. My life, my story--the entirety of my future belongs to Jesus, the King, and therein lies the paradox of my freedom. I matter, but I don’t matter all that much. America matters, but it doesn’t matter all that much. My country isn’t the center of the universe. My country’s politics don't govern the heavens and cosmos. My country’s problems and the proposed solutions to those problems by a particular political candidate and/or party are important but so many other things matter more.
I hope you understand what I’m getting at here. For me, this book has been about contextualizing my world rightly within my own mind and then bringing that right context before G-d for further scrutiny. It’s been about reconciling this seemingly impossible, dichotomous existence that Christians have been called to live out. Without G-d, we either make ourselves and the problems in our world too big or too small. Having a distorted vision of G-d or wrongly prioritizing His place in our lives leaves us privy to those same mistakes.
And so, I’m thankful that I have a pastor who isn't content to allow his congregants to build their lives on conspiracy theories, toxic political rhetoric, and false piety and call it faithful to the call of Jesus Christ. Thank you Pastor Kyle and Mr. Matthew W. Bates for challenging my suppositions and teaching me how to hold all of these conflicting, hard truths in tension. My good deeds won’t save me, but neither will an empty faith. Faith evidenced by good deeds (where good is defined by G-d, not by me or my culture) is the faith that will save me and, someday, the world. As for the United States, it took on the qualities of "the Babylon" it freed itself from in the 1700s without so much as batting an eye and has been struggling to appease the monsters it has created ever since. I don't pray for the Lord to take back America. His purposes transcend the sociopolitical concerns of the American people. I pray for Him to take back all of creation in His own good time. In the meantime, may He transform the broken wings of His church.
Stay ThoughtFul, Friends.