The Day After

I love my Bible class.

It’s called Sojourners, which obviously fits well with the theme of this blog – and of my life – and it isn’t afraid to discuss hard issues of faith and life. In fact, the very first class we attended was the second part of a series about 2 Peter, specifically how it wasn’t actually written by Peter and what that meant for traditional concepts of biblical inspiration and inerrancy.

That class changed the course of my life; it is arguably the biggest reason why I’m now studying theology in graduate school.

We’re now going through the book Reading Revelation Responsibly, by Michael J. Gorman, and yesterday also happened to be the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

I’ll be honest: I’ve been having a hard time getting into the remembrances that have probably been saturating the airwaves (they’ve certainly taken over my RSS feed) in recent days. I remember the day well; I shed my share of tears and as a student newspaper reporter spent the next week working almost nonstop covering the campus, local and national angles. But I’ve been having trouble articulating exactly why I wasn’t interested in the understandable significance of the 10th anniversary.

Then along came the class yesterday, in which we discussed the historical context of Revelation.

Revelation was written as “resistance literature,” telling its readers that God alone was worthy of worship, which in of itself was a political act because through worship we declare our allegiance.

Revelation was written in the midst of a culture that prized its civil religion. The Roman empire believed it was chosen by the gods to spread salvation to the world. Loyal citizens were considered blessed by the gods, the emperor was considered divine, and the age of the empire was considered a “golden age” of world history. Allegiance to the empire – and therefore to the gods – was encouraged through the media of the time: athletic events, parades and coinage.

Sound familiar?

The neat trick of Revelation – and the one that has caused  such a proliferation of misinterpretation – is that it never mentions Rome by name, referring instead to such euphemisms as “the Beast.” This allows for application to Christians of all eras under all forms of government. Even ours.

Because, let’s face it, America has a problem. We believe we are an exceptional nation blessed by God, chosen to spread freedom and democracy to the world. Patriotism is considered a religious virtue, and while we don’t consider the president to be god, many of us consider him to be divinely appointed – unless he isn’t Christian enough, then he might be Muslim or the Antichrist, whichever is scarier at the moment.

Those beliefs have only intensified since 9/11, and I think this is why I have a hard time commemorating the attacks. For one thing, I’ve never forgotten them – no one has – so what are we “remembering,” exactly? For another, it’s unclear whether we’ve learned anything from them.

Our foreign policy grew more bellicose and evangelistic; we tossed away our values by instituting secret prisons, rendition and torture; our brief period of national unity led to the creation of a national security bureaucracy empowered with the ability to spy on its own citizens; and we adopted a de facto policy of freaking out whenever a Muslim tries to board a plane or build a mosque.

Meanwhile, we began singing “God Bless America” at every sporting event, increased the moral polarity with which we viewed the world (we’re the “good” in the good-versus-evil construct, of course, dissenting views notwithstanding) and turned nationalism into a virtue. Many of us doubled down on the historically false notion that America was founded as a Christian nation, even as the gap increased between rich and poor and we started a needless war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, Muslim and Christian alike.

In other words, we started acting less like the Christian nation many claim we are and more like the Rome we disavow. We claim special favor from God while we neglect or, worse, kill his people. We sing, “God bless America … stand beside her and guide her,” while we imprison and torture the innocent. We claim the name of Christ, who blessed the peacemakers, while we continue prolonged wars in two countries.

Perhaps these policies are justifiable on a national-security basis. But they are not justifiable for followers of the Savior who called us to visit the prisoners, feed the poor and care for the sick – not torture them, neglect them or fight over whether to provide them health care.

To the extent that government can reasonably be used to advance Christian priorities, Christians in the past 10 years have largely moved it in the opposite direction, increasing the trappings of America’s civil religion while divorcing it from the principles of Christ himself.

As we discussed in class, all empires fall. That one rises is not a sign God loves them more, and that another falls is not a sign God loves them less. At this moment, America feels like an empire closer to her end than her beginning. If so, I will not mourn. As Revelation teaches, our citizenship is in a better nation, and we worship a deity much greater than any government.

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