By Larry L. McSwain, Interim Pastor
Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, Jacksonville, FL
"Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it." (Mt. 10:42, NAS)
Paradox (a contradictory truth) is one of the most difficult aspects of the Christian faith to understand. It is paradoxical for Jesus to talk about swords in the kingdom of God. After all, peace is what Jesus was about. He taught us to love one another, to love our enemies, and to give support to both the kingdoms of the earth and the kingdom of God. In Matthew 10 he is saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Now how can Christians support peace and bear swords?
It is important first to understand who bears the swords. Jesus is not admonishing his followers to take up swords and set out to destroy their enemies. Rather, he is suggesting that when the demands of faith he makes are placed upon us, other people may react with violence. The faithful follower must be prepared to endure the sword of violence and opposition. That becomes clear in verse 38, "The one who does not take up a cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me." After all, his destiny was to become the recipient of the violence of the cross.
Second, it is clear from reading the parallel passage of this text in Luke that the focus is on the effect of devoted discipleship. Luke says, "Do you suppose I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division" (Lk. 12:51). The word refers to the cutting up into parts what once was a whole. He is saying people who follow him may experience the division of their families, their friendship networks, even their social order. Faith has a way of dividing us into followers and resisters, obedient and disobedient, lovers of peace and lovers of violence. And these distinctions may divide even those we cherish. These divisions apply also to our common life as citizens of a nation.
He made this clear when a Roman coin was presented to him and he was asked whether we should pay taxes. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt. 22:15-22).
A part of the human family to which we belong is the family of a nation. As Christians, we live in two worlds, the world of America and the world of the Kingdom of God. This Thursday, July 4, 2002, America will celebrate Independence Day with an exuberance we have not experienced together since our bicentennial as a nation in 1976. The attack upon our nation last fall has brought an expression of our patriotism as a nation that I have never seen before in my lifetime. Never have I seen so many flags, so many advertisements, and so many expressions of unity for our nation as I have seen in the last 10 months. We truly are a united people in many ways. We are united against the terror that gripped our lives on September 11. We are united in our efforts to try to prevent such an occurrence from happening again. We are united in support for our President and our national leaders. We are united in maintaining America as a free people. But there is a greater call than unity for the people of God. It is a call to stand for the things of peace, even in the face of the division that may be created by adherence to that truth. The New Testament sets forth two very clear understandings of how we are to be a nation of peaceful patriots.
We are Called to Support our Nation
The Apostle Paul set forth the first responsibility of the Christian citizen in Romans 13. Paul says the government is a creation of God. Thus, as good citizens we are to support it, pray for its leaders and live in such a way as not to become the object of its wrath, for the government has the sword. The government uses the force of the sword to maintain justice and sometimes peace. And then he added the most important support we can give is to pay our taxes.
I have long wanted to write a book on what I would call "bumper sticker theology." I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, "If 10 percent is enough for God, it ought to be enough for the government." Yet, the same people who would say this want the government to do more and more. They want our government to maintain the strongest military on the earth, to provide security for our citizens in the face of internal terror, to provide the best schools and care for the elderly. Christians are wise enough to know if you want your government to do certain things, you will also want to pay for them!
One of the great ironies in my mind is how many people who scream the loudest for America are most critical when it comes to paying taxes for her support and defending all her ideals. I do not know how many radio commentators I have heard speak loudly about the sanctity of our Constitution. They want the freedom of their speech to declare their ideas. Yet, in the same breath they criticize the speech of those with whom they disagree. If you truly want "free speech" you have to grant it to all citizens, even those most outlandish in their speech.
One of the greatest ideals we have is the separation of church and state. Yet, many of the most religious among us want the nation, the government, to be the source of faith for our nation. We rewrite history to make our founders leaders in the formation of a Christian nation. They did not form a "Christian" nation. They formed a nation in which the free expression of Christian faith would be possible. But so would the free expression of Deism, the free expression of agnosticism, the free expression of atheism, the free expression of "no faith." It is embodied in our ideals. When we try to rewrite history, we are not giving support to those ideals. What the founders most wanted was a government that was neither captive of the church nor an agent of the church.
If we are called to support the nation, and we are, we must also recognize the words of Romans 13 are addressed to Christians of every nation. Paul was writing in a context of support for the all-encompassing government of Rome in his time. We now have hundreds of nations of the world and every Christian citizen of each of those governments is given the same admonition. If I am a true follower of Jesus Christ and obey Romans 13, I would have to give support to the Chinese government if I were a citizen of that nation. Likewise, for a citizen of Sri Lanka, India, Israel, or the "not yet" state of Palestine, or any other nation of the world.
Because I am a Christian American does not mean my nation is better than someone else's nation. It means every nation, including America, stands under the judgment of God and ought to give obedience first and foremost to God's kingdom. Not to my party, not to my President, not to my nation, but to God's kingdom is the first priority.
We are Called to Criticize our Nation
We are patriotic. But we are patriotic with limits. The call of followers of the Prince of Peace is to be a people committed to being a nation that honors God. A nation that honors God is a nation committed to principles of righteousness for all people, fairness in our dealings with all citizens, and peacemakers in a world of violence. The worst fate that could befall America in a time of terror is that we ourselves would become so consumed with hostility toward those who harm us that we ourselves become terrorists. We are the mightiest military power in the world today. The easiest path we could take would be to interpret this teaching of Jesus as justification for taking a sword to the enemies of our nation in acts of retribution that would do little but bring more violence to our world.
A nation is not a person. A nation is a collection of persons who follow those chosen to lead them. Sometimes those leaders are self-appointed dictators, as was the case in the great nation of Rome in the time of the New Testament. The writer of the Book of Revelation was clear that the nation of which he was a part had become a great Beast. In the 13th chapter of Revelation, the divine Seer records a vision of a great Beast (who symbolized the Roman Empire): "And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is destined for captivity to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed" (Rev. 13:8-10).
This beast is one to which the Christian shall not bow down. What the writer is describing is an unjust government that chooses violence as its means of rule. But the author is saying those who are followers of Jesus must not become a part of this violence, for such violence will breed violence.
This is the most difficult part of "peaceful patriotism" for the true Christian. The highest patriotism is that loyalty and support which calls forth from the nation its best policies, its highest ideals, and its dedication to the kingdom principals of peace. That means the true patriot may be critical of the government he or she loves, not for the sake of criticism, but for the sake of the soul and heart of the nation itself.
Many of us are deeply concerned about two actions of our court system this week. Frankly, I disagree with the decision of the Ninth Circuit court judge to rule the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag unconstitutional on the grounds it contains the words "under God." But I have heard more false history, more craziness and stupidity in response to that decision than anything I have heard in a long time. The Pledge of Allegiance is not in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights is, but Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in August, 1892. Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister whose Baptist church dismissed him for his fiery sermons in support of Christian socialism. He wrote the pledge as chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association to be quoted by school children on Columbus Day, 1892. He even omitted the words "with equality" from the original version because of the opposition to equality for women and African Americans.[x]
I went to school for six years and recited daily the pledge without the words "under God" prior to Congressional action adding them in 1954. And our nation won World War I and World War II without those words in the pledge. Now, I am glad they are there and I am going to continue saying them. But our destiny as a nation does not depend on whether we ascribe to a civil religion such as the Pledge of Allegiance. Civil religion is so broad and so thin it encompasses everyone and offends no one. That is not Christian faith and that is not being a Christian nation. Civil religion is a unifying aspect of our life as a people, but it is not the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
There is a more critical decision made this week, the approval of school vouchers by the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision reverses decades of separation between the support for public education and support for religious education. In the Cleveland case, over 90 percent of the students are in religious schools. Over $3 ﾽ million are used to pay for taxicabs for the students to ride to school.
I believe the long-term impact of this decision will have three effects. First, it will greatly weaken public schools, including the best ones, by draining state and national resources from the public to the private arena. Either budget deficits will abound or public reaction to this decision will change. Second, it will secularize religious schools whose students participate. The government has every right to impose its policies and procedures in exchange for support. Would it not be ironic that the very schools providing distinctive education lost it for a pot of tax dollars? Finally, this decision will provide millions of tax source dollars for schools whose primary mission is to teach a particular religious perspective. We will see an explosion of all kinds of new religious schools taking advantage of this new situation.
So, I am going to celebrate this July 4. I am going to celebrate the good things about America. I am also going to recommit myself to being a citizen first of the kingdom of God and then doing what I can to make America reflect the highest values-values of a kingdom in which its citizens bring division, not by yielding the sword, but by making peace in all their relationships.
[x] Baer, John W. The Pledge of Allegiance, A Centennial History, 1892-1992 (Annapolis, Md.: Free State Press, Inc., 1992).