The party had been going for two full days, and my hosts said we had another day. Sitting in a jungle village, surrounded by an inscrutable language, I felt lost. But it wasn’t just the foreign-to-me tongue that left me bewildered: Behind the loud music, half-drunken laughter, gambling, and endless food, I could hear loud, incessant wails. This three-day gathering was a Southeast Asian funeral, and it was unlike any memorial service I’d ever attended.
Outlandish grief mingled with a grim determination to maintain a festive atmosphere. The non-stop mourning was to show respect for a young man who had just died. The 24-hour partying was to keep the newly-disturbed evil spirits at bay until the body could be cremated. Despite the strangeness of the ritual, the swirling emotions were familiar.
Most celebrations – whether Westerners like to admit it or not – are a profound juxtaposition of contradictory feelings: A birthday recognizes the promise of another year and laments the loss of the previous. A wedding is certainly joyous as two lives become one, while a quiet sadness lurks in the corners where friends let go of friends. But when it comes to parties with mixed messages, the celebration of America’s founding takes the cake.
America: A celebration or a lament?
Followers of King Jesus have a complicated relationship with the United States. We fully embrace our citizenship in a heavenly kingdom, but still carry around blue passports. We reject idolization of the Stars and Stripes, but get a kick out of fireworks and barbecues. This ambivalence goes deeper than mere preference: Is our citizenship with the largest military superpower in the world something to celebrate or something to be ashamed of?
Of course, the answer is both.
That familiar feeling of foreignness is part of our calling – but what does that look like when a nation is in party mode? Like my friends in Asia, leaning into both celebration and sorrow, the cognitive stress of my dual citizenship should be embraced, not dismissed. Here are a few ways we can do this:
Thankfulness mixed with lament
Compared to much of the world, folks in America have it pretty good: We have money, healthcare, smartphones, and too much food. Truisms about American blessings are as ubiquitous as guns and apple pie, as is the assumption that this bounty reflects special favor from God. We are right to be skeptical of such assumptions, but thankfulness is never a bad impulse.
So, take time to thank God for the gifts you have received as an American. No one likes an ungrateful whiner. Acknowledging his goodness to you is different from wholesale acceptance of Red, White, and Blue idolatry. Express appreciation for his blessings.
But in that celebration, we should also remember the oppression – both historically and today – from which this bounty flows. From the massacre of Native Americans to Black slavery to predatory capitalism to redlining to bombing civilians and much more, there is much to lament. Citizens of another kingdom have the advantage of pointing out the evils of another kingdom, without having their patriotism questioned.
What might this tension look like lived out?
- Rejoice with those that rejoice: don’t insist on trashing the USA on its birthday.
- Listen to the voices of the oppressed: For example, read about the history of Native Americans and seek out the stories of minority groups.
- Point people to examples of non-coercive power: Patriots often celebrate military might, but non-violent protests, peacemaking diplomacy, and humanitarian outreach have effected real change.
- Avoid an attitude of American superiority: Thankfulness for fleeting blessings is not the same as blasting Lee Greenwood from your pickup truck. For me, exploring the beauty of diverse cultures in the American melting pot helps keep any latent patriotism in check.
Utilize but don’t defend
Christians living in America should lead the way in acknowledging its oppressive power, but we can do more. Many are using wealth and freedom to chase the “American Dream.” Why not instead harness the bounty to promote another Kingdom?
Our government-issued passports provide the ticket to easily spread our King’s message around the world. While religious imperialism is no better than run-of-the-mill colonialism, Kingdom-centric evangelism can be done well, with the finances and relative freedom American citizenship provides. For many, providing funds – to support refugees, equip native missionaries, provide humanitarian relief, and much more – is more practical and effective. All options should be on the table.
There are endless opportunities to subvert the system from within as well. Many American Christians clamor for border walls and restrictive immigration policies, apparently because capitalism is so fragile. Why not take the nation’s resources and welcome the refugees and immigrants already within our borders? Why not provide housing, immigration attorneys, and legal employment with generous wages?
One of the most treasured gifts Americans boast of is the freedom of speech. Many megachurches use this freedom to sing the praises of their god. But Jesus followers do what he did, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.
There’s something rather delicious about using the freedoms and bounty of an earthly kingdom to promote an eternal one. There’s also an intrinsic danger to this subversion: Far too often, Christians take these blessings as birthright, and defend them as if we have a stake in the political system. Utilizing the liberty granted to us without getting lost in protecting it is a hard but important balance. Don’t fall for the “Christian Nation” myth; instead, subvert the “rights” we have for our true King.
What might this tension look like lived out?
- Avoid using terms like “my rights.” Instead, talk about “opportunities” and “rare blessings” – because that is what they are.
- Regularly review what Scripture teaches about necessity of persecution for those who follow Jesus. Explore the rich history of persecution, to remind yourself of the strange anomaly that is a Kingdom Christian in a position of earthly privilege.
- Speak up against xenophobia and racism – in family, in church, and in society. For some reason, celebrations of America bring out tribal arrogance, even among Christians. Take that First Amendment and wield it for the oppressed.
- Take stock of your own dreams: Do they look that different from the “American Dreams” of your neighbor? If not, is it possible your Kingdom citizenship has been subverted by the culture?
Pray for leaders – with purpose
The religious right prays for its favored politicians as if Christ’s Kingdom and the GOP were the same thing. Social justice warriors often bring imprecatory laments against their political nemeses. But those who identify as Kingdom Christians? Our prayers are too often marked by perfunctory awkwardness, with little enthusiasm or thoughtfulness.
For some, praying for political leaders feels a bit like campaigning. For others, it feels pointless. But it is one of the few things we are specifically told to pray for in Scripture. And this command from Paul to Timothy is quite detailed:
I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.1 Timothy 2.1-2 (CSB)
Paul urges us to pray – for particular outcomes and in thanksgiving for those who are in authority. He also provides a specific goal for our prayers: That our lives would be peaceful, marked by godliness and dignity. Paul is painfully aware of how earthly powers can make our lives full of conflict or relatively peaceful. And so he invites us to ask the King of Kings to intervene on our behalf.
Keeping Kingdom goals in mind as I pray frees me from the extremes of the left and right, without apathy. Like the jarring mixture of the South Asian funeral, there is both thanksgiving and lament, and sometimes I get a bit imprecatory. But my prayer should center around the goal of a “tranquil and quiet life.”
Don’t miss what is not included in Paul’s admonition: He doesn’t tell us to pray for parties or political movements, but for people. Whether in prayer or in conversation with others, focusing on individuals rather than groups can clarify our calling. By refusing to stake a claim either on the side of Democrats or the side of Republicans, we show that we are not siding with power structures but with people. Regardless of the political affiliation of those in authority, we can pray for them with all our heart, free from entangling partisan allegiances.
What might this tension look like lived out?
- Get to know leaders: I get a notification every time the governor of Wisconsin tweets. This is a practical reminder to pray for them.
- Stop listening to partisan voices: Podcasters and radio personalities claim to inform, but they only feed the restlessness of hearts looking for an idol. Their language is rarely respectful and does not aid in praying for a “tranquil and quiet life.”
- Pray specifically: Rather than generic “bless-them-with-wisdom” prayers, consider the needs and opportunities around you, and ask that God would move through the hearts of politicians.
- Pray with Kingdom goals: Along with looking for peace, our prayers should reflect God’s heart for the oppressed. Centering prayer around these things helps us avoid partisanship.
- Pray consistently: I have heard campaign ads camouflaged as prayer during voting season, followed by nothing once the election was over. But if we commit to pray for leaders, regardless of what’s happening in the polls, we can avoid the trap of partisanship.
Embrace the Awkward
If the Fourth of July is awkward for you, it’s probably a good sign. We are citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom, but, at least on some level, we are also citizens of an earthly kingdom. We can argue the theological nuance of how we view that citizenship, but that tension will not be fully resolved until our King takes his place over all kingdoms.
So, embrace the awkward. Lean into the tension. The mix of joy and sorrow may confuse those around us; hold on through the cacophony. The nations around us may laugh. But he that dwells in heaven will have the last laugh.