by Ron Wells.
I was raised in a patriotic American home. My immigrant parents, especially my Dad, were very grateful for the opportunity to come to America to achieve a better life for themselves and especially a better future for their children. They became naturalized American citizens as soon as was permissible. They voted in every election, even minor local ones, because their civic duty required it. My Dad put out the flag, a fairly large one, on every possible occasion to do so. The Fourth of July was a big deal in my home. When it came time for me to go to college, information came to our mailbox about ROTC. My Dad reckoned that since I would be drafted sometime, why not go as an officer? He later told me that he wasn’t sure on which day he was proudest of me – the day I graduated from college in cap and gown or the next day when in my uniform I was commissioned an officer in the US Army.
I was raised in a Christian home. I was baptized a few months after my birth, and as the liturgy says, I was marked as Christ’s own forever. In later years, when there would be baptisms in our church, my Dad occasionally would playfully comment on the way home that my brother and I were “marked men.” I have never known a day of life in which I was not aware of being part of God’s kingdom. Of course I’ve had doubts in college and beyond, but those doubts were worked out within the household of faith. In my working life I tried hard, in the contingent circumstances of academic life, to be a faithful person. So it was natural that one of my books would be titled “History Through the Eyes of Faith.” Praying the petition in the Lord’s Prayer – thy Kingdom come – was a sincere hope and expectation of what it might be like when the shalom of God came among us, both now and in the future, that is, after the trumpet blows.
Yes, American and Christian went together.
Yet, what my upbringing did not prepare me for was the ways in which being a patriotic American and a serious Christian might come into conflict. What my parents believed in, as did patriots before and after them, are the ideals for which American stands; what our iconic lady shows forth at the front door of our country, Liberty.
In 1831, at the Park Street Church on the Boston Common, a young seminarian named Samuel Smith combined with the church’s famed organist, Lowell Mason, to give words and a re-worked melody to a song that many still believe should be the national anthem, and largely functioned as such before the current less-singable song was adopted a century after “America” was first sung.
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring.
That song was later featured in one of the greatest speeches in American history, the 1963 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King – “I have a Dream” – in which he celebrated that ideal but found it wanting as applied to African Americans. It was with a sense of urgency that he called for freedom to ring from every mountainside, including mountains he named in whose shadows the reality of racist discrimination and exclusion were still being practiced.
For me, just graduating from college in that year of 1963, there was a growing recognition that my Christian values were precisely those, like Dr. King’s, that should be employed to give critique to the ways in which the American values were not being lived up to.
As I read authors like Reinhold Niebuhr and William Stringfellow, I came to see that I had to choose where my first loyalty lay – in the nation or in the kingdom. The Kingdom of God is, on earth, an international body, where my first loyalty and friendship is to those who name the Name, in whatever nation, tribe or tongue they may be found. Solidarity must be with them, in the first place, not the members of my birth nation, the USA. Further, the resources to critique my nation comes from the Bible and the traditions of Christian thinking developed by this international fraternity over two thousand years. It was hard to say it – when I first did – that I am a Christian first and an American second. That was not what I was raised to think in my patriotic home.
But that is not the end of the story. I later came to see that there was no need – as a trans-national Christian – to give up entirely on loving my birth nation. It is a contingent love, as said above, but a real love. I still agree with my Dad that “this is a greatest country on earth,” in which a nation of immigrants has made the greatest economic and political success story in world history. I am very proud of my military service in my country’s name. But, one admits that America is flawed in many ways, and has not lived up to the ideals of liberty we all hold dear. It is precisely as a Christian and as an American that I can ask the nation to live up to what Christianity calls all of us to be, especially as it bears on treating all people with the dignity, respect and justice that God intends for all.
In a recent book by the controversial author, Jim Wallis, he refers to “America’s Original Sin.” He sees racism at the beginning and in the fabric of American life. As he points out, Americans nearly exterminated the aboriginal race and then enslaved another. That is very serious, and cruelly ironic, for a nation that believes itself to be – and proclaims to the world – the “sweet land of liberty.”
I still love July Fourth, both for the nostalgia of my growing up years and especially for the ideals we sing about in church and public places: “America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” never fail to stir deep emotions of gratitude for what America has allowed for people like me and my family. But the day also gives me pause because, as a Christian, I am bound to recall that there are many for whom the promise of America life was, and is, not fulfilled. When one looks at our realities from a Kingdom perspective – how God meant it to be before sin made everything go so terribly wrong – one sees what needs to be done both for America to live up to its own proclaimed ideals and for Christians to follow in the way of the cross.
Ronald A. Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Calvin College, Michigan. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, and lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where he has part-time position directing the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College. He is a layman in the Episcopal Church, and is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville.