Asking New Questions (Jul-Aug 2009)

By Matt Dabbs

by Adam Metz
July – August, 2009

ChristiaNation?All of my life, I have been taught, both directly and indirectly, that America is a “Christian nation.” This “fact” was something I learned both in my public school experience as well as in my church. I witnessed my flesh-and-blood family and my Christian family pledge their allegiance to the flag, root for the United States to win the Olympic games, jubilantly celebrate the Fourth of July, and have had several members serve in the military. A member at the church I attend has a pin he wears on Sundays that kind of epitomizes the relationship between America and the church that was impressed upon me in my upbringing: a cross with stars and stripes colored red, white, and blue. It was made very clear that to be a good American was to be a good Christian and vice versa.

In recent years, I have become convinced that many in the American church have confused the American Dream for the Gospel. As a nation with many freedoms and bounty to be incredibly grateful for, as disciples, the task of cultural discernment and awareness is especially challenging. However, the bounty of America, much like the bounty of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:46-50), makes it all the more important that we maintain a healthy distance between the nation into which we were baptized and the nation into which we were born. The “we” of Americans must be overcome by the “we” of the “chosen people,” the “royal priesthood,” and the “holy nation” of God’s kingdom.
Although my faith was nurtured in an environment that fused patriotism to God without a second thought, the emerging global network is prompting new questions from young Christians in regards to this relationship. In referring to these questions as “new,” I do not mean to imply that these questions are new to the face of the earth. They have been asked before. There are countless theology books and articles written about them. They can be explored in graduate schools and seminaries across the world.
In stating these questions are new, however, I am asserting that they have crept out of academia and have found a new home. They have slid under the doors of professors, and poured off the pages of academic journals. Rather than dissertation topics, the “new questions” are honest and heart-felt, soul-seeking questions asked by young people whose worldviews are being formed and shaped by a variety of influences unparalleled in the history of the world. The new questions have left the academy and now sit in high school classrooms and in Facebook discussions among acquaintances.

At the core of these questions is the relationship a Christian is to have with her government, and specifically, in my context, the American government. Two episodes from my recent past illustrate the idolatrous leanings of patriotism within the American church.

Why do you guys worship your flag?

“Why do you guys worship your flag?” Marik asked as the camp director gently pulled the American flag down its old, rickety pulley from its post flying high (and proudly, I might add) above our Midwestern church camp. Awaiting the revered piece of fabric was a group of specially selected teenagers who carefully and ritualistically folded it up and ceremoniously put it away, carefully folding it to ensure not a thread touched the soil, and stored it safely until tomorrow morning’s similar flag raising ceremony would once again lift the flag high above the camp.

I had attended church camp at four different camps in four different states in my life to that point, and the flag-raising and flag-lowering ceremonies were as consistent a feature at each camp as the Sunday evening rendition of “Fruit Basket Turnover.” (The one exception to this being the camp I attended in Canada – and they didn’t raise a flag or sing “O, Canada!” – they did, however, play “Fruit Basket Turnover.”) I had attended camp with hundreds of students from all over the Midwest and the Southeast for nearly two decades . . . and I had never heard anyone ask the question that came so freely and innocently from the lips of our Christian exchange student from Paris.

This question, as you might imagine, stirred up quite an array of diverse responses. It was my first year in youth ministry and Marik quickly helped me realize that the often esoteric and abstract discussions from seminary were going to find a veritable place in conversations with teenagers. The other teenagers in the group were quick to point out to Marik that they were not in fact “worshipping” the flag – they were offering their respect. For some reason, I found myself empathizing with Marik. What must this ritual look like to outsiders? Quiet reflection. Hands over hearts. Chants of allegiance in unison. Ritualized folding of an artifact. Quite frankly, this was the “holiest” and most reverential moment of the day for this particular week of camp. Worship? I don’t think that’s as big of a jump as our American teenagers thought.

“Is it right for a Christian to join the military?”

A year later, another youth ministry student contacted me as he asked yet another challenging question with life-changing implications. “Is it right for a Christian to join the military?” This took on added significance knowing he was the hypothetical “Christian”, and that the fruits of our conversation would help impact the rest of his life. In all my pacifist leanings, I could not encourage militaristic participation by any Christian. I knew that this is a controversial issue and I did not seek to be any kind of final voice on the subject for him. I did, however, think that this alternative voice was important and deserved a place at the table of discussion as he was in the midst of making a very difficult choice.

This question provided substantial fodder for long discussions between the two of us. In the end, the voice of his army veteran-step-father and army veteran-grandfather proved to be more influential in his life, and he is currently preparing for his second militaristic tour of duty overseas. Unfortunately, our relationship has become distant and shallow as he lacks my support for that which he has given his life. While I do not believe the service he performs for his country is also on behalf of the Lord, I do pray for him every day and for his safety, and I hope that peace will ensue in spite of war.

These “new questions” that young Christians are asking threaten the very bedrock of faith for many older American Christians. That fusion between country and faith is very strong indeed. Rather than rushing to the defense of the theological status quo, perhaps it would do us some good to pause and consider the reasons that have preempted these questions. Why would a foreign Christian accuse our treatment of the flag as idolatrous? Why would a devoted Christian question the use of militaristic force and, especially, a Christian’s involvement therein? To challenge the status quo is always a lesson in humility, patience, and wisdom.

For those who have not been baptized into the blood of the lamb, it may be best to cast aside discussions of politics and religion as agreement seems all but an impossible dream. However, for those who wear the name Christian, we must consider the relationship we are to have with our government. As we become more aware of the world around us and the delicate way our lives are interlinked politically, ecologically, socially, and theologically, may we be further committed to the “we” of the kingdom of heaven and less concerned about the “we” of America. May we welcome these “new questions” of our national allegiance as necessary and important paths to a deeper relationship with the Creator of the universe.New Wineskins

Adam Metz is the Associate Minister at the Alum Creek Church in Lewis Center, OH (a suburb of Columbus). He has worked there for six years. He has an M. Div from Lipscomb University where he met his wonderful wife Mary Beth. They have three children: Clark (4) and Clementine (2) and baby Cecilia who all reveal God to them every day. He really believes that the Indians can win the World Series before he dies.

Adam is part of the blogoshere at [www.supermetz.blogspot.com] and can be reached at [ametz@alumcreek.org].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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