Sackcloth, It’s For Everyone

You need to repent. I need to repent. True, and Lent is here to emphasize the message. But do we need to repent, together? The individual necessity to recognize one’s sin and accept a personal relationship with our Savior is clear. Christianity is most basically a personal relationship of love with my Lord, unlike Judaism and Islam, which stress instead being a people abiding by the Book.

But that individual relationship is only half the story. Jesus promises to be “where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matthew 18:20). As well as personal, Christianity is also communal. We are baptized into the Body of Christ, so completely absorbed that it is like being within and part of a body, in symbiotic unity with the whole Body and its many parts (our fellow believers). The whole earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24) and within that context, we are created as a species to harmonize with, and to assist in the implementation of, the will of the Lord for his creation. We are intended to carry this out just as the parts of a body carry out thoughts directed from the head.

Alas, as often happens with our sinful nature, we frequently fail in that assignment of harmonizing and implementing. It even becomes so routine and jaded that we fail to notice the discrepancies in both our personal behavior and our corporate behavior between New Testament morality and mandates on the one hand and our own on the other. When the Old Testament nation of Israel strayed from God, prophets were periodically sent to call them to repentance. One, the prophet Joel, proclaims (2:12ff); “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly…,” (this is one of the lessons appointed for Ash Wednesday).

There are prophets among us, too. Then as now, some are false and some are authentic. When they call upon us to repent together of our national sins, there are sometimes uncertain trumpets. We were told, for instance, that events such as the “9-11” attacks and Hurricane Katrina are God’s punishment for tolerating homosexuals among us and we must repent of this to become a godly nation again.

The authenticity of prophecy can be affirmed by its agreement with Scripture and especially the teachings of Jesus, as well as the two thousand years of Tradition (valid when it is in harmony with Scripture), including the Anglican 39 Articles from the 16th. Century. Article VI of the latter document makes this point.

You will find nothing at all in Scripture or Tradition that tells you terrorist attacks or natural disasters are caused by tolerating homosexuals among us. But if the trumpets blow in Zion, and we review our national condition together as American Christians, what authentic prophecy addresses our collective mission drift, tested by the standard of “what would Jesus do?”

The first is to review the oft-repeated assertion that the U.S. is a “Christian” nation, or, a “Judeo-Christian” one. This is true in the sense that there were many Christians and some Jews in our country. There still are, although a smaller percentage than before. Today, there are also many Buddhists and Muslims, but there are also far more people who have no specific religious affiliation at all. Much more importantly, our nation from the beginning defined itself as “secular,” a category which does not exist for God, who created and owns the whole earth. God has been welcomed to visit on Sundays and has been asked to intervene during some national crises, but the nation has not felt bound otherwise by the precepts of Jesus. The American Christian thus finds herself in the same situation as Jesus, living in a political entity controlled mostly by others. As such, we “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” which if you think about it, isn’t much. But don’t call us a Christian nation.

Some among the few who know history might disagree, pointing to such things as the Founding Fathers’ incorporation of elements of Christian morality, or Manifest Destiny or Prohibition or the abolition of slavery. But all of these are flawed. The Founding Fathers legal basis used the Ten Commandments, a Jewish law code. Manifest Destiny was a violent rejection of Jesus’ teaching, instead questionably applying the genocide done by the Old Testament nation of Israel to the American conquest of the West. As for Prohibition, Jesus made gallons of really good wine (see John, chapter 2) and used wine in the central act of Christian worship, so justification for Prohibition has to come from Islam or the Latter Day Saints, not from Jesus. As for slavery, the New Testament cares mostly about being enslaved to sin. Yet , as with Roman government, it is tolerated as a reality of living in a society not controlled by Christians, and slaves are told to make the best of it.

In short, there is nothing to identify the U.S. as a Christian nation. Beyond that. we need to confront as well that war is a major factor in America’s history, and Jesus makes it extremely clear that non-violence is his mandate (see, for instance, Matthew 26:51-52, Luke 6:27-36), even though he does not condemn individuals in the military. Where is any Christian reason for wars such as the Mexican-American or Spanish-American wars or the intervention in the colossal imperial conflict of the First World War, fought mostly by Christians against each other. The Civil War, when Americans turned on each other, saw each side claiming a Christian higher ground while perpetrating intense violence. The abolition of slavery was a commendable result, even if not the main reason for the war (as often mistakenly taught), but the benefits were short-lived for African-Americans as oppression was soon re-instated. Wars of conquest against Native Americans are a hideous memory, remote from any Christian morality. In recent times, the invasion of Iraq removed a regime friendly to Christians, eventually causing the near-genocide of Christian communities which had lasted almost two thousand years. The invasion appears to have been motivated by greed and has resulted in great suffering by local Christians, among others. Where is the Christian content in this invasion?

This is but to scratch the surface of our national apostasy. Christian leaders throughout our history and also today have been at least cheerleaders in this, if not themselves perpetrators. It makes clear that American Christians, unlike those under Roman rule who simply endured what they could not change, are complicit in this history.

There have always been authentic prophets. The Quakers and Mennonites who practice non-violence; Martin Luther King, who used non-violent Christian behavior as a way to achieve moral change for the better; the few voices in all generations who have called us to humanity and Christian love in the face of the popular mood to violently conquer our neighbor. As the percentage of those who identify as Christians declines and we go the way of western Europe, some might ask if we don’t want to at least try real Christian behavior before giving up the designation.

“Blow the trumpet, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly.” Together we do need to repent, as a people. We who are the Christian leaven in the national lump have a special repentance, because we should know better and a special responsibility to get it right, because we are called to be the authentic prophets in a nation which has lost its way.