Where she asked, is the loving critic of our government’s policies, one whose patriotism and love of country are not in doubt, yet whose critique of American policy and actions might be heard and heeded?
In an essay entitled “The Idolatry of America”* Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that the prophets warned Israel, lest it assume that its favored position among the nations was due to its virtue rather than the grace of God. Further, “The gospel cannot be preached with truth and power if it does not challenge the pretensions and pride … of individuals … and of nations, cultures, civilizations, economic and political systems. The good fortune of America and its power place it under the most grievous temptations to self-adulation. If there is no power and grace in the Christian Church ‘to bring down every high thing which exalteth itself against the knowledge of God’ the church becomes not merely useless but dangerous.”*
I suspect that missionary had something like that in mind. She dares to hope that the church will be prophetic rather than dangerous. After all, she has lived her whole life dependent upon and witnessing to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet she also represented a nation that had from its origins appealed to the decent opinions of mankind. When much (most of?) of the world thinks we are indecent, arrogant, uncaring and unjust towards the world’s peoples, she wants to know, with justification, where are the Reinhold Niebuhrs?
Mixing religion and politics is perilous. And what a long way we’ve come from the late sixties when conflict erupted over whether the church was to preach the gospel or to do service ministries and seek justice in the name of Jesus. We perversely saw them as opponents of each other, and that dark vision burdened the church and slowed us down, because we could not see them as the necessary components of the same vocation for Christ they surely are.
As an urban minister, I fielded such arguments year after year in Roanoke, Virginia. Jerry Falwell, an hour and a half away in Lynchburg, was just beginning the Thomas Road Baptist Church, denouncing liberals even then. He was way ahead of the national trend that made the “L word” a weapon for mockery. Now he leads seminars across the country training pastors and churches on how to get out the vote for George Bush and save America from godless Democrats. It is not an exaggeration to claim that he means his work to save America for Christ and the gospel. Is this idolatry and self-adulation? Does America represent the gospel of Christ?
I was justly called to task by a church historian and good friend for my criticism of the 216th General Assembly’s statements against the war in Iraq. I wondered who would listen. And I still wonder. Perhaps the statements were spoken, or reported, with a self-righteous certainty that made the opposition defensive. Have they opened dialogue? Have they confronted the corridors of power with the truth of Almighty God? Have they merely spoken to the converted?
It’s certainly a shame that this Presidential race has been managed (or mismanaged) so that the role of America on the world stage, other than in defending itself, is given neither careful nor credible discussion. It is claimed instead that we possess the truth, and the truth shall set others free, and their freedom will make us, and the rest of the world, safer. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the name of freedom and democracy did not make the world safer, but much more dangerous.
Every effort to suggest that we move from unilateral decision-making to a multilateral recovery of the “‘decent opinions of mankind” is mocked as a sign of weakness. And while we claim we have made no mistakes, we have encouraged the most indulgent use of natural resources; we have asked for no real sacrifices from the American people; and we have fought with an army of (sometimes coerced) volunteers.
Meanwhile the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and General William “Jerry” Boykin (who believes God has called and commissioned him to fight the Muslim foe) crusade for an America that will defeat the enemies of Jesus Christ. They challenge us. Can the Presbyterian Church, with our declared animosity to idolatry, speak a credible word that will confront national arrogance, yet not give in to a morally weak despair, or to the sentimental view that all we need to do is make peace with those who wish to annihilate us? We need a just war, not an imperialist crusade. No matter who wins the election, this will remain our challenge, to speak truth to power.
Niebuhr wrote of World War II: “If we should give ourselves to the illusion that … the victory was a simple triumph of right over wrong; if we fail to understand to what degree Nazi tyranny [read Arab terrorist hatred] grew on the soil of our general international anarchy; if we lack the spiritual humility to see these facts of history, we shall be bound to corrupt the peace by vindictiveness.”*
The nation and world need, and many of us long, for the voice of Christian realism.
*Quotations in this editorial are on pp. 94, 97, and 188 in “Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr”, ed. by D. B. Robertson, 1967.
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