On being strangers in a strange land

On being stripped of illusions about being at home in a good land called America.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

In my experience there are three main kinds of American Christian attitudes when it comes to our national politics.

There are those who feel quite comfortable with a Democratic president and during those times generally feel little tension between their Christian commitment and the direction of their country.

There are those who feel quite comfortable with a Republican president and during those times generally feel little tension between their Christian commitment and the direction of their country.

And there are those who feel quite comfortable with no president and at all times feel high tension between their Christian commitment and the direction of their country.

As the United States prepares to inaugurate Donald J. Trump as its 45th president, I find myself moving from the first to the third group.

That may be because I remain so astonished, appalled, and disconcerted at the character of this particular person that I have temporarily taken leave of my senses.

But, while it is true that I would rather go into Kroger and pick any random person to serve as president than accept the one we are about to get, I still think that my move from left-Christian comfort to resistant Christian discomfort goes further than that.

If I might be so bold, I would describe it as an expression of repentance.

I repent that my left-leaning politics left me too comfortable with America-when-led-by-Democrats, especially when led by Barack Obama. It is not too much to say that I “believed in” him, in the sense that I trusted his character and was reflexively inclined to support his policies. I felt “at home” in his America.

But this then made it difficult for me to muster a terribly serious critique of the many ways in which his, and his party’s, policies fell short of the Christian moral principles that I have promised my life to uphold.

More deeply, the election and re-election of Barack Obama made me feel overly complacent about the general goodness of America – and a perceived movement of our nation toward what the Rev. Martin Luther King would have called “the beloved community” and Jesus would have called “the kingdom of God.” I shared that reformist-liberal-Christian comfort that though America was flawed, the general trend line was in the direction of progress.

It feels nice to believe in the goodness of your country, the high character of your political leaders, and the congruence between your national identity and your Christian commitment.

But what if your country is not good, your political leaders do not have high character, and any congruence between your national and Christian identities is a dangerous illusion?

What if the Anabaptists and their successors were right, that the best posture of Christians toward any state is to reclaim that New Testament understanding that we are “exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), strangers in a strange land, situated in a particular earthly nation but at home nowhere on this earth?

I was struck by a comment from a Jewish colleague of mine. We were at a professional meeting talking about the election, and she said, “Why are people surprised when Chaldeans act like Chaldeans?” This was the term in the Hebrew Bible for the Babylonians who attacked, plundered, and destroyed Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C. and carted Jews off into exile.

What if, in fact, America has evolved into Babylon, the world’s reigning empire? This is not a new suggestion. And what if people of faith should retain a critical, distrusting distance toward whoever the reigning emperor of the reigning empire should be at a given time?

Perhaps Christian proximity to political power for two millennia has tempted us to forget that the rulers of this world are indeed the rulers of this world, that they are not our friends, that they are not to be trusted, and that no earthly nation, political party, or leader is ever to be believed in. Jews, who have spent most of their history as aliens and exiles, have much to teach us here.

So an inauguration will take place on Friday.

For the first time in my life, I will feel no sense of connection to or interest in the event at all. The Empire is changing leaders. I will pray, as instructed in my faith, that the new leader will rule with justice and wisdom (Psalm 72). I will pray for the well-being of my neighbors and of the world. But I will fear, and trust, and obey, God alone.

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