by Terrell Carter
Throughout our nation’s history, Christianity has taken the shape that most benefits those who hold the greatest power to help them move their agendas forward. It has been used as a tool to force people to adapt and align with the stories and desires which Jesus would have stood against, such as the wholesale slaughter of indigenous Native Americans, the enslavement and torture of Africans and their descendants, the second-class status of women, and the marginalization of the poor, to name only a few historic sins.
Whoever has the political and social power to control the narratives being shared within our nation inevitably attempts to publicly shape the meanings of biblical stories and influence how our nation seeks to apply those stories to our context. The lessons these leaders usually share about the Bible and Christian faith have typically been that God wants what’s best for our nation, even if the meaning of ‘best’ is defined by only a small group or if only a small percentage of people will receive the ‘best’ benefits.
The Bible’s teachings about the gospel, which has historically meant the good news of God personally working for the common good of all creation to make salvation (both spiritual and physical restoration) available to all, has been replaced by a gospel of cultural and economic power and freedom that finds its center in the United States. This nationalistic theology naturally leads to questions about who will be allowed to experience the benefits of such a salvation.
I believe this nationalistic theology of America is, first of all, based not in a desire to be faithful to God’s principles of large-scale restoration, but is, in part, based on a fear of anyone who can be categorized as ‘other’, whether due to skin color, gender identity, economic standing, or immigration status. Those who do not fit into clearly delineated boundaries set by the few in power are subject to rigorous critique to ensure they are worthy of experiencing the blessings inherent in American citizenship.
One of the ironies of this process of vetting the ‘other’ is that those who do the vetting often fail to examine their own life circumstances. They hold the ‘other’ to certain levels of moral responsibility that they do not follow themselves. They view them through the prism that if their lives have been covered in clouds of opportunity, personal and professional connections, and supportive educational and economic systems, the ‘other’ should inherently know these opportunities are available to them, as well. They forget that their lives may have been shaped by the benefits that come with being born into certain families or communities to which ‘others’ may not have had access.
Another challenge with this nationalistic theology is that it does not enable or encourage people to see the effects structural racism and classism and historic, intentional inequalities have had on participants within our economic system. How can you, if you believe that everything a person has experienced in life is based on personal action or inaction?
Because we hold others to standards of life to which we do not hold ourselves, we fail to recognize the grace and fortune that we regularly experience in life, especially the grace found in being born within a specific period of time and within family structures that may benefit us. Furthermore, we fail to see others as God sees them. These practices, whether intentional or unintentional, have helped to widen the gap between us and the people we consider unworthy of God’s love or our compassion.
To more fully change our thinking about who does or does not hold value in our society, it will require us to reimagine our relationship with the One who created all of us in the first place and reconsider how our relationship with God should influence how we view ‘others’ and live in community with them. We must remember that those in power are not the only people God loves or is concerned about. What we acquire in this world is not ours but has been given to us by God to bring salvation (both spiritual and physical restoration) to others.
God does not call us first to be successful in life, to gain property, to acquire possessions, or to align ourselves with political parties. God calls us to honor people over possessions and personal plans. When we fail to live into God’s desires for us to treat others well and honor the gifts God has entrusted to us – like opportunities and possessions that could be used for the furtherance of God’s kingdom – God’s heart is broken and ultimately, God may call us to be accountable.
Like the prophets of old, during the times that we do become aware that we have fallen short of God’s best for us, we should confess, repent, and fast (willingly sacrifice a certain level of our personal comfort) to show God that we are serious about living into the relationships God has called us to. We do this not for our own ego, to appease our conscious, or to make our nation great. We do it to be formed into the people and nation God wants us to be for God’s glory.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the eleventh in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in the blog series.
Terrell Carter, DMin, is a pastor and administrator in higher education residing in St. Louis, Missouri. His most recent book “The Only Thing that Matters is Heaven: Rethinking Sin, Death, Hell, Redemption and Salvation for All Creation” is available here.