The year: 1777.
The pastor: Nicholas Street.
The place: East Haven, Connecticut.
The situation: The Revolutionary War.
Just months after the American colonies declared independence from England, Street preached a sermon that applied Old Testament Bible stories to Revolutionary War events. The title of the sermon: “The American States Acting over the Part of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness and Thereby Impeding Their Entrance into Canaan’s Rest.” It’s a mouthful!
Street presented the American colonists, enduring English oppression, as the children of Israel. He compared the leaders of the American Revolution to Moses and Aaron - catalysts who freed Israel from slavery. He paralleled England and Egypt, correlated the military struggles of the infant republic with the crossing of the Red Sea, and presented the colonies as the Promised Land. Street wasn’t alone. Many preachers of this time did the same.
This idea didn’t dissipate. Almost a hundred years later, Herman Melville, most well-known for authoring Moby Dick, took this idea of American being a chosen nation and pushed it farther saying, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people - the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world…God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race…Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings.” America was the Messiah.
Admittedly, God has blessed this country in ways that far exceed our merits. I’ve talked with believers all over the world who would laugh at me if I said otherwise. We should express gratitude to God for these blessings and seek to be superb stewards of them. However, I would contend this notion that America has a special relationship with God has been emblazoned in our nation’s DNA. And it’s an insidious idolatry.
Trevin Wax comments, “…no matter how much we long for the blessing of God on our nation, we must expose the lie that America has a special, privileged, relationship with God…applying Old Testament promises to our nation today is unsound scriptural interpretation. The Church is God’s shining city on the hill, not the United States.”
If it’s irresponsible to link America to Israel, should we link it to Babylon? This view is becoming increasingly popular as we see books written from an “exilic” perspective (Daniel and his friends are getting a lot of attention these days!) If one sees America as Babylon, expectations for political success will certainly moderate. But so will political involvement - perhaps to the point of political reclusiveness. I don’t think that’s a wise application of Scripture either.
Under the providential governing of God, America is still a democratic republic where the citizenry has a voice in the direction of the country and who represents us. Daniel and his friends in Babylon didn’t have that luxury and this difference is significant enough for me to conclude “America as Babylon” is also a poor parallel…at least for now.
Where does that leave us? America is neither Israel nor Babylon. Probably not the climactic end you were looking for, but hopefully the journey there was worthwhile.
“Always trust your feelings.”
This is one of the great “untruths” of our time. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt penned a book last year entitled, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Even though this book isn’t written from an explicitly Christian perspective, it’s a thought-provoking work that deserves wide circulation. They address three great “untruths” and one of them is: always trust your feelings.
I’m guessing this modern, American value isn’t surprising to you. We’ve been fed the message “indulge your emotions” for decades. It was only a matter of time before someone finally connected the dots. “If satisfying my emotions is good, then my emotions must be right.”
Lukianoff and Haidt draw on ancient classics to demonstrate how radically different the mantra “always trust your feelings” is from centuries of previous cultures. Summing up writers such as Boethius and Epictetus, they state, “Sages in many societies have converged on the insight that feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable. Often they distort reality, deprive us of insight, and needlessly damage our relationships.”
While the Bible discourages stoicism (read the Psalms!), it also raises suspicion as to the trustworthiness of our emotions. (Numbers 13-14 and is a superb case study in our emotions’ ability to distort reality.)
But perhaps the clearest way to think of this is to look at the life and ministry of Jesus. If you grant that Jesus loved all people really well, then what do you do with the hoards of people who did not like the way Jesus loved them? There were times when Jesus frustrated religious leaders and even enraged mobs - to the point of them killing him. But he loved them well. This reality confronts us with an interesting disjunction: feeling loved and being loved are not the same thing.
It is possible for you to love someone truly, but they don’t feel loved by you. (If you’re a parent, you get this!) Understand that in a society that holds to the unwritten value of “always trust your feelings” such situations will be challenging to walk through because the charge is easily made: “if I don’t feel loved by you, you are guilty of not loving me.” This “emotional blackmail,” as one pastor describes it, is an unjust device.
The conclusion of the matter is relatively straightforward: we need something outside ourselves, outside our thoughts, outside our emotions, outside our cultural values to turn to in order to understand what love is and isn’t. We need God’s Word. We need to read it frequently, thoroughly, thoughtfully, and with a posture that says, “This is the very Word of God - each syllable is authoritative.” Only then will we be able to truly love and feel like Jesus.
We are addicted to outrage! There are days when I feel like I’m living in a foreign land. I scan the comments’ section or social media feed of a news outlet (yes, even this blog) and I’m jerked awake stunned over the intensity of rage that can result from the slightest provocation. How did we become such an angry culture?
I’m not sure the name Stanley Fish will be all that familiar to you. Among other things, Stanley Fish is a literary theorist who subscribes to “literary pragmatism.” One of the primary pillars of literary pragmatism is the idea that “textual meaning is determined by the reader.” So if a reader is coming to engage with a text, how does that reader determine the meaning of the text? Fish answers, “The reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning.” In other words, “meaning” is not something I come to the text to discover, but “meaning” is something I come to the text to create. The intent of the author of that text is immaterial. The reader’s interpretation is final.
In the early 2000’s I had to spend a bit of time studying literary pragmatists like Fish. It was a very academic endeavor and I wasn’t sure how practical such study would be. After all, I didn’t actually know anyone personally who subscribed to “literary pragmatism.” But as a professor of mine once said, “Ideas are like rain - they start in the clouds invisible to the eye but finish on your front yard for all to hear, see, taste, touch, and smell.” I’m wondering if literary pragmatism’s influence has reached Main Street. How so?
Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, coined the term “microaggressions.” He and several colleagues defined the term as: “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” I’m happy to shout from the rooftops that we have historically marginalized groups who continue to face frequent acts of bias and prejudice. And this is a grave injustice. However, when Sue decided to include the term “unintentional”, he pushed over a domino that let lose a deluge of outrage addiction. Slights are now defined solely on the basis of the listener’s interpretation. “If I feel offended by you, you are guilty of offending me even if your intent was benign.” Assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible creates perfect conditions for outrage addiction.
From a theological perspective the crux of the matter lies in this: both literary pragmatism and Sue’s “microaggressions” grant sovereignty to the reader/hearer/receiver without any consideration given to the author or speaker’s intent. The reader, hearer, or receiver has become “God"...and therefore by implication, sinless.
First John 1:8 says, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." It would be unthinkable for the offended party to even consider her own personal sin playing a role in her own offendedness. But this is what Scripture teaches. The Christian community, where the full-orbed gospel is being taught, ought to be a counter-cultural outpost of "unoffendable" people.
“A person’s patience yields wisdom; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” - Proverbs 19:11