I remember talking with two friends before the fall of the Soviet Union telling them I believed the U.S.S.R. would start to crumble and would no longer exist within five years. They thought I had lost my mind. Our country had defined the Soviet Union as totally evil and had given it an aura of invincibility.
I was informed by my religion, which assures me that evil will not be triumphant, as well as having read some historians who predicted that the provinces of the Soviet Union would begin to fall off like overripe fruit. In less than two years from that time we woke up to a world where the U.S.S.R. was no more.
One of them later asked me what I thought about America’s chances of surviving intact in the years to come. I cannot answer this question with the cold, hard logic that predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. I love my country with a depth that approaches idolatry. I have hope that we will make the necessary changes that will help us to survive.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II spoke of “Americanity”–a faith in country where the president is the pope, the national anthem takes the place of “Amazing Grace,” soldiers are saints, and God is our ally rather than a lover of all peoples. “Americanity” says if the United States does it, it is good.
Giving country the allegiance that only God should have makes it impossible for its people to make proper judgments, because government is given a moral pass, especially during times of crisis.
The Jewish people in the Old Testament believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, children of Abraham, with a promise that David’s reign would know no end and the Temple in Jerusalem would never fall. They believed their exceptionalism would protect them.
The prophet Jeremiah said to Judah, “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the LORD, even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these nations around; I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace.” (Jer 25:8-9)
Mentioning Nebuchadrezzar, Walter Brueggemann says, is like saying to the United States today, “Osama bin Laden, my servant.” Brueggemann says he could never do that, but Jeremiah does. Judah is carried away into captivity as God uses strange servants to punish Judah’s sin.
Will he do the same for us? If Judah has no claim to exceptionalism, we might need to reconsider our belief that we do.
We can quickly identify the sins of other people, while “Americanity” prevents us from recognizing our own sin. Dan Rather showed his faith in “Americanity” on “Late Night with David Letterman” on September 17, 2001. “George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions and you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where,” Rather said. President Bush was given God-like power to mobilize the media. Dan Rather has since repented of giving his allegiance too easily.
Sin is easily agreed upon in the abstract but extremely hard to recognize by its perpetrators. If you ask most murderers in prison if it is wrong to kill, they will say “yes” but will qualify by saying that the one they killed was deserving of death.
War is generally recognized as evil, except when one’s own group or nation is involved. Then it can be seen as good and even honorable. If a foreign country invaded another sovereign country and took out their leader, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing several million more, we could easily see this as a horrible thing. But when one’s own nation is involved, the only casualties counted are your country’s maimed and dead.
The United States has played a major role in the over-heating of the planet, but we have not been called to repentance. Our arrogance on this subject has caused other peoples to question our collective sanity. “Americanity” says that we have exceptional rights to the planet, and we don’t question this premise of our national religion.
“Americanity” in its present form allows unquestioned allegiance to corporations and the rich. Even the most casual reader of the New Testament and the Old Testament prophets knows that God is on the side of the “little ones,” and Jesus has nothing good to say for riches.
Today I read that the managers of the top 25 Hedge Funds earned an average of $892 million, up 68 percent since 2006, and much of the money was earned by shorting the subprime mortgage market. These people have special tax breaks so they can keep most of this cash, and the fact that they made much of it on the backs of people who will be losing their homes, makes them especially guilty in the eyes of Jesus and the Prophets.
The United States has a special kind of socialism going on today: it takes money from taxpayers and gives special breaks to Exxon Mobil, Hedge Fund managers, Halliburton, Blackwater and investment banks while the poor are without homes and healthcare.
The church that has chosen “Americanity” over the God of the Bible, who calls for justice and who acts to overcome injustice, has no power to call us to repent. To call evil “good,” when our side does it, is mocking God. We need the prophets of the church to stand and say, “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Gal 6:7)
I know that you will not get big raises when you tell the truth. You won’t get pats on the back. You could get pushed around like Jeremiah and despair that God has given you the task of speaking truth. But in the future, when lies have failed us, someone might remember that God was not without a voice while we followed the religion of “Americanity.”
Our country has a chance to survive into the future if it has people who can call it to repentance, but it has no chance if its Christian, Jewish and other religious communities fail to call it to be truthful. The United States can be a good country, but it is a very poor god.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.