To Be A Christian in Babylon

I saw a rather disturbing quote this morning from a Christian Nationalist political candidate, talking about how amazing it was that Native Americans were killed and displaced and how they were “sacrificed” so that the Europeans could take over America and worship Jesus freely.

Yes, “sacrificed.”

This line about the pilgrims worshiping freely filled my schooling, especially in light of my being raised near Yorktown, Virginia in 1976, the location of the Bicentennial Celebration of the British surrender at the end of the American Revolution. I grew up steeped in positive, optimistic American history.

And this idea of pilgrims worshiping freely is a centerpiece of Christian Nationalism.

So this morning, that quote led to a thought: when I look across world history, and even current affairs, I don’t see evidence that God does this for all Christian groups. In fact, the majority around the world are deeply oppressed and persecuted. And I wondered, if God is in the habit of liberating His people to worship Him, why does it happen so seldom?

In fact, God deliberately sent Israel, His very own people, to Babylon where they couldn’t worship “freely,” for 70 years, to correct their views and practices of HOW to worship Him. He was quite willing to NOT be worshiped according to His very explicit rules and regulations for that time, in favor of changing their behavior and their hearts.

“Therefore this is what the Lord of armies says: ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these surrounding nations; and I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and hissing, and an everlasting place of ruins. 10 Moreover, I will eliminate from them the voice of jubilation and the voice of joy, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. 11 This entire land will be a place of ruins and an object of horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.

1‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their wrongdoing, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. (Jeremiah 25:8-12, NASB)

Two Conclusions

I could draw two possible (and contradictory) conclusions from this.

On the one hand, I could believe that the early Americans were special, that God was doing something unique for America that He wasn’t in the habit of doing for most other nations or people groups. One would have to ask why this should be the case. Now, it’s not unlike what God did to nations around Israel – He commanded the Hebrews to slaughter and displace many other deeply sinful people groups in the Old Testament, to secure a righteous land for His people. So this is not entirely outside the character of God as expressed in the Bible – at least, the pre-Christ Bible. But that would require me to accept that God had very special intentions for America, just as He did for Israel.

Alternatively, I could instead believe that we are NOT in fact special, which would lead me to conclude that the events in early American history were not in fact entirely God-ordained, and the taking of Native American lands and lives was therefore not ordained by God, but instead an arrogant undertaking by European refugees.

So which was it, really?

That’s not an easy conundrum to answer. My American Christian arrogance would lead me to want to believe the first option – that we are in fact special, and that God did anoint America to shine before the world, and in fact to take up from Israel the mantle of representing Him to the world. But the idea that the Native Americans were so heathen that God would destroy them is hard to swallow. They don’t seem to have been any more warlike or sinful than most of Europe, and God seems content to let Europe alone instead of slaughtering THEM to liberate His people to worship Him.

And the idea that we Americans are all that important to the flow of God’s plan for the entire world seems fundamentally arrogant.

Swinging from History to Future

But at some level, although it certainly matters to understanding and interpreting American history, I’m not sure the distinction matters to the future. And that is perhaps a much more important consideration.

The very fact that God would frequently allow other nations to oppress His special people Israel for their correction – even after explicitly directing them to displace and slaughter other people groups – points out to me that no matter how “special” a nation may be, and no matter how amazing was His grace on their founding, one cannot assume an unbroken line of His grace to cover whatever mistaken practices and character that nation adopts in the present.

Stated rather more plainly, if America’s current practices are abhorrent to God, it’s entirely within His demonstrated character to sharply rebuke her today, even if necessary causing another nation to overrun her and take her captive, so that His people in her midst are rebuked and reproved and required to repent. And note that it’s about His people, not the entire population.

Consider God’s word to Moses at the end of his life, and ask yourself, might God do this again, even with a nation He founded on special circumstances?

16 The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the prostitute with the foreign gods of the land into the midst of which they are going, and they will abandon Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. 17 Then My anger will be kindled against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will find them; so they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is not among us that these evils have found us?’ 18 But I will assuredly hide My face on that day because of all the evil that they will have done, for they will have turned away to other gods. (Deut 31:16-18, NASB)

The Challenge

And therein lies a challenge. Which way you answer this conundrum about America’s past depends strongly on how you view America’s present.

If you believe that America is falling into moral decay with homosexuality and gender confusion and socialism and the like, you’d be strongly inclined to take the first view – that America’s founding was great and grace-filled and God-ordained. And in those circumstances, “Make America Great Again” would be the perfect slogan.

If instead you believe that America is currently steeped in moral failings from a Christian hatred of homosexuals and intersexed and queer folks, and from its abject systemic racism and social injustice, then you’d be strongly inclined to take the second view – that America’s founding was sinful and not particularly special. And in that context, “Make America Great Again” would be distasteful, if not outright offensive, since America was never particularly great to begin with.

My Conclusions

For my part, I’ve concluded that America’s past was in fact filled with sin and imperfections, even though its founders sincerely believed in its goodness and potential for greatness.

Under the framework of grace in the New Testament, not using the Old Testament to justify it, I cannot believe that the Native Americans needed to be slaughtered and displaced; God is long-suffering and is not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). And the original and deep and lasting stain of racism has clearly never been expunged from our midst, as shown by current events. The current mistreatment of “others” of all kinds – whether gay or queer or non-white or poor or undesirable – cannot be reconciled with the heart of the God that we claim to serve, or His commandments and prophecies in the Bible that we claim to honor.

So from looking at the situation from BOTH ends of America’s history, I have to conclude that the extreme nationalism I see in parts of the American Church, and the resulting idealized – even idolized – view of America’s founding cannot be either accurate or God-pleasing. As such, we would seem to owe Him a deep repentance in the Church, a turning from our ways and our past beliefs and actions, and a Holy-Spirit-led retooling of our practices.

And thus, in the course of a short couple of years, my views on this subject have been completely reframed.

My Invitation

I recognize that my change is distressing to many who have known me as a lifelong conservative evangelical Republican. But my responsibility is to my Lord and Savior, to repent when the Holy Spirit requires it of me, no matter how personally distressing I find it, or the effects it has on those who know me. When He requires repentance, I must say “yes.”

So I welcome those of you who are following this journey I’m on, and who are not scared of the changes. I’d encourage you this way: don’t be afraid to let the Holy Spirit challenge your basic assumptions. While my journey has not been fun or pleasant, it’s simultaneously been full of joy and peace, and the affirmation in my spirit that Holy Spirit is truly leading me through these changes.

On the other hand, if you are distressed by these changes in me, I invite you to look closer at our history, setting aside the gloss and shine that’s been placed on it by nationalism, and consider it dispassionately in light of what Jesus and the Old Testament prophets often had to say about how we are to treat “others” in our midst. Invite the Lord to reveal to you any areas where you’ve been inadvertently blind, and give Him permission to change your heart if necessary. Don’t shy away from things that make you uncomfortable: truth is often surprisingly disruptive. But we endeavor to know The Truth, which can set us free.

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