On this Monday evening Angela and I – South African Canadians – will be going to stand on the Colorado Avenue bridge in Pasadena with a couple of friends – Brits – to watch the Fourth of July fireworks explode in bright color and somewhat too bright sound. All four of us are on the cusp of applying for permanent residency in the United States of America. All four of us are in this country because of a sense of God calling us here. All four of us love America. But America is not a first love for any one of us.
I want to make the case for loving America – in a well-ordered way. Not with the fervor of a first love, not as the most important thing in our lives; that love is reserved for Jesus. Not with the misguided desire for an American utopia that immigrants like us so often feel, fiercely hoping that, as Randy Newman sings in “Sail away,” in America, “everybody is as happy as a man can be.” That hope is reserved for God’s world to come. But to love America: not in a Manichean way to mistake it for Babylon the Great; not hating it as the Great Satan; not nurturing bitterness toward it like a spurned lover or a disabused child.
I want to make the case for loving America as an ordinary country. Not just-another-country: America is blessed with better-than-most laws and governments and for the time being has greater-than-most international responsibilities. But America is not a unique or even a special country with regard to its relationship with God. America is not to God as Israel was to God from Abraham to Jesus, and it is not to God as the church is to God now. I like how Jonathan Merritt caught this nuance, Friday past:
“The difference [between] believing America is exceptional and American exceptionalism is significant. Believing America is exceptional recognizes our blessings—like every good and perfect gift—come from God. It emphasizes God's grace rather than America's greatness. The latter assumes our nation has claimed favored status with God and often yields a don't-you-wish-you-were-like-us attitude.
“Why is this important? Accepting that America is exceptional due to God's unmerited favor breeds the virtues of gratitude and humility. But a belief that America is the recipient of divine favoritism, on the other hand, breeds arrogance and triumphalism …”
In a way, I am making the case that the Fourth of July must be understood in terms of Easter. The world was born anew on Easter Day, as Jesus Christ came forth from the tomb, having worked the salvation of the world. The Fourth of July celebrates the founding of America, and that is worth celebrating. The Fourth of July matters, but it does not matter more than Easter. In the deepest sense, were it not for Easter, nothing would matter; because of Easter, everything matters – and so, because of Easter, the Fourth of July matters.
Because of Easter, it is possible to insist again that neither a tree nor an art work needs justification. As Hans Rookmaaker taught us, trees and art works matter because this is a world that God created and in which God delights, in its mere createdness. Neither trees nor art deserves our worship; both trees and art demand our cultivating efforts rather than neglect or exploitation. And in the same sense that a tree or an art work needs no justification, America needs no justification. It is a political community for the common good: a republic. Not the New Jerusalem, nor the Whore Babylon. The Fourth of July is a good day to celebrate this republic, and, without too much fuss, to remind ourselves that this republic is a sphere of political vocation for its citizens, that this is a community in which many Christians are called to contribute towards public justice. It is wonderful to live in a nation under law, in which the whims of princes are replaced with the deliberations of representative assemblies, in which the liberties of personal conscience and common worship can thrive, and in which the energies of enterprise and association has been released in so many remarkable ways by a stable and enabling political order.
And so, this evening, as we enjoy the fireworks we will say a prayer of thanks to God for the good that America has done and does for its citizens and neighbors, and ask the Spirit to continue to work common grace into this nation, that it may reform its ills and understand itself ever more clearly as one nation among many … so that also this nation shall steadily incline towards the light and its citizens and governments towards the brightness of the rising of the world to come, as Isaiah promises.
- In your opinion, how ought we observe the founding of America?
- How will your community observe the holiday today in a way that signifies your allegiance to America as secondary to Jesus as King?
Kenneth Ethan Frantz
Kenneth Ethan Frantz
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