Patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July often pose a dilemma for pastors and worship committees as they think about what kind of recognition to include in our worship. Independence Day is an official holiday of the United States of America and not of the Christian church. Our faith is founded on the confession that Jesus is Lord — Christ is the one we serve in this place, rather than the president or the U.S. Government. In fact this congregation (First Church, Dubuque) has roots in many other nations around the world. Over the years our family has been attending, we have welcomed into this fellowship brothers and sisters from Canada, the Philippines, Great Britain, Ghana, Mexico, Korea, and a host of other places. Christ’s kingdom, of which our church is a part, is more encompassing than any set of national boundaries, thanks be to God!
It is also the case, however, that the congregation of First Church gathers in this sanctuary week in and week out enjoying the protections and freedoms secured for us by the United States. The veterans who gave their lives fighting various national enemies have done so in part to secure the peace and security and freedom to worship in this place as God calls us to do. That is no small gift, and so it seems that some thankful recognition of the role the United States plays in our being here would be in order.
However, bringing our country into the sanctuary is an ambiguous undertaking, because even the best nation-states do not always serve the purposes of God. The ancestry of some members of our congregation reminds us of some very dark and terrible episodes in this nation’s history — the enslavement of Africans, the internment of Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps, and the genocidal conquests of Native American peoples.
Our Fourth of July celebration itself reminds us how ambiguous our nation’s history is from a Christian perspective. On the one hand, Jesus tells us that greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends, which the brave soldiers who fought the British in the War of Independence surely did. On the other hand, the stark reality of that war, which saw baptized Christians lined up against each other on both sides of the battle lines, slaughtering one another with bayonets and muskets and cannon fire, is about as far as anyone could imagine from the way Jesus said his disciples should act toward one another.
This whole business of how church and state relate to one another gets tricky. Today I want to lift up three signposts, suggested by our Scripture readings this morning, which can help us keep our bearing when dealing with these issues.
Not of this world
Our first signpost is Jesus’ statement to Pontius Pilate as the Roman Ruler asks him about his kingship. Jesus says to him, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” From this we are reminded not to confuse the kingdom of Christ with the nations of the earth — they are different. The cause of Christ is not the same as the cause of the United States of America, or any other nation.
We are apt to lose sight of this difference amidst all the talk we hear about America as a Christian nation. It is of course true that some of the early European settlers of what is now the United States were devout Christians who fled to the New World to escape religious persecution.
But the deeper truth of the matter is that no nation can be Christian, in the sense of acting according Christ’s teaching. Sovereign nations by their very nature have to be selfish actors on the world stage. Christ tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and certainly as individual disciples we can grow in our ability to do so. But nations cannot follow this teaching of Jesus, because the rulers of nations are duty-bound to act selfishly in the interest of their own citizens.1
Think of our current presidential campaign. Though our major candidates all identify themselves individually as Christians, you do not hear any of them saying, “Vote for me and I will work in Christian love to make things better for the citizens of Somalia … and Mexico … and Thailand.” No, politicians promise to make things better for us, the people who elected them. If they put the interests of some other nation ahead ours, if the president said, “I’m going to sacrifice the interests of the United States out of Christian love for the people of Bangladesh,” that person would be guilty of treason! Nations of the world, including the United States, have to be motivated by their own self-interest. They are all about pursuing their own security and prosperity and glory.
So there is fundamental difference here. The Kingdom of Christ’s followers, to which you and I belong, is motivated by love of God and love of our neighbors. But the kingdoms of this world are motivated by their own self-centered interests.2 That means we can never identify the cause of Christ with the cause of any particular nation, including the United States. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world!
Our second signpost when thinking about church and state is Romans 13, where the Apostle Paul teaches that God in fact appoints rulers and nations for the ordering of human life. For that reason we ought to respect and honor them, the Apostle says.
Though the kingdoms of this world are not the same as Christ’s kingdom, they can nonetheless be the source of good gifts from God, for which we ought to give thanks. It is, in fact, a great blessing to live in a free society that allows the church to carry on its work of proclaiming the Gospel in relative peace and security.
We live in a country that, although it lives up to them very imperfectly at times, declares its loyalty to the ideals of democracy, human rights, and human freedom including freedom of religion. That fact is a significant blessing for our life as individuals and our life as the Christian community. We have all been reminded how much difference there is between relatively better and worse forms of government recently, as we witnessed the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar, where the military dictators of that country were so paranoid and so fearful of the outside world that, in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone, they stood by and let hundreds of thousands of their own citizens perish of starvation, exposure, and disease rather than open up their country enough to allow foreign aid workers to bring help. Though we should doubtless be cautious in boasting of our own country’s competence in providing disaster relief following the experience of hurricane Katrina, there is still cause for thanksgiving that we live in a free and democratic society whose rulers are accountable at the ballot box for their treatment of ordinary citizens.
We as a church properly lift up prayers of thanks for the protection and blessings of the nation in which God has placed us, and we pray for God’s blessing and guidance over our nation and its rulers. But we do not go so far as to think our work as Christ’s people is dependent on this nation and its blessings. Yes, it is a wonderful thing to worship in peace and freedom, but the church of Jesus Christ has survived and thrived throughout history under situations of hostility, persecution, or oppression as well.
For more than sixty years the officially atheist Soviet empire sought to suppress and undermine the Christianity within its borders. But after the empire crumbled and the iron curtain fell, the orthodox church emerged from hiding to reclaim its place in the nation’s life.
The church is Christ’s own possession, under his protection, and for that reason it is not ultimately dependent on the fortunes of any particular nation or form of government to sustain its life and witness — thanks be to God!
Our final signpost: We must remember where our ultimate hope lies. Do not put your trust in princes, writes the Psalmist … in mortals in whom there is no help. When their breath departs they returns to the earth; on that very day their plans perish (Psalm 146:3-4, NRSV). Our ultimate hope and our final security come not from earthly nations and rulers, but from God alone.
It is easy to lose sight of this point during an election season. Political candidates who seek our votes tend not to limit themselves to promising things government can actually deliver. “I promise that America under my administration will be a place where government workers are paid on time and the schools are kept open and the potholes in the streets are repaired.” We don’t hear too much of that this election cycle. Instead we hear much more grandiose commitments from our candidates to protect us against an uncertain future. “Elect me and America will be safe from its enemies, prosperity and happiness will blossom, government corruption will be done away with, and the hope of future generations will be secure.”
Governments are always tempted to promise a future that only God can deliver, and for that reason there is more than a little temptation to turn government into an idol. That’s one of the real dangers of bringing the United States too much into our sanctuary and our worship services, because nations and rulers are always trying to take the place of God as the source of our ultimate hope.
It’s helpful in the face of this challenge to think about where the ultimate power in the world resides. The New Testament tells us a story about a mighty earthly empire setting itself over against God and God’s purposes. The Roman empire used every means at its disposal to try to do away with Jesus. They mocked and humiliated him in public, so everyone could see who was really in charge. They tortured and killed him. And as if that weren’t enough they put this dead man in a tomb and sealed the entrance shut and posted armed guards around it to ensure he would stay safely dead and buried and out of the way.
And none of it worked! Not a single thing the mighty Roman empire could muster was enough to do away with the Son of God. Our church is here because God proved to be mightier than the strongest earthly empire, mightier even than the powers of sin, and death, and hell. So when it comes down to whom you’re going to trust for your ultimate security, where you’re going to place your final hope, where is that going to be, in an earthly power like the United States of America, or in the God who loves you and has promised you victory over death itself by raising Jesus from the dead?
The United States is a great nation, but the clear lesson of history is that nations and empires eventually fade and perish. The time will come when the United States will no longer be. When that day comes, every soul in this room will still exist, upheld by the loving hand of almighty God. That means, in a real sense, what happens week in and week out in this place is more important, more ultimately significant, than anything that happens in the corridors of power of a great nation.4
You and I give thanks for the blessings and protections of a free and democratic society, and we rightly honor the memory of those who have given their lives to secure and protect those blessing for us and for our children. But let us never forget, my brothers and sisters, that finally you and I are citizens not of an earthly, but of a heavenly kingdom, whose hope and foundation is God. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Mark Achtemeier is associate professor of theology and ethics at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.
1 This point about the essentially selfish character of social groups has its roots in Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society; (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).
2 This point is inspired by St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, trans. H. Bettenson; (New York: Penguin Classics, 1984).
3 This insight comes from Langdon Gilkey, Reaping the Whirlwind; (New York: Seabury Press, 1981).
4 The contents of this paragraph are inspired by an unpublished lecture delivered by the late John H. Leith.