I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. -Isaiah 42:6-7 (English Standard Version)
At a Louisville, Kentucky church last week, attendees had to put a lot of thought into what they wore. But not about which
jacket and tie would look good together, or whether to wear a dress or pants. Congregants at this service had to ask other questions before they left the house. Browning, Smith and Wesson, or Colt? .45 caliber, or .380? Shoulder holster, or hip?
The event in question was the church's first annual “open-carry service.” Those who attended were invited to bring their guns along with their Bibles as “a show of support for the Second and First Amendments.” All guns were to be unloaded, of course; I mean, church is just no place for a loaded .357 Magnum.
The program revolved around three “hymns”: “America, the Beautiful,” “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” and “God Bless America.” The pastor then interspersed several videos supporting the Second Amendment with talking points: pacifism is optional for Christians, society faces more danger from texting drivers than guns, and carrying a gun isn't illegal (at least not in Louisville), unconstitutional, or immoral, so why apologize?
There was a raffle; prizes included a free NRA membership, time on a gun range, and a pistol. After a video of Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the USA,” the service ended with hot dogs and chips.
The church was careful to say that the event wasn't a worship service. Good thing, because if it was and I was a member of that church I'd have to wonder what or who we were worshipping. Even without calling it a worship service, if I were a member of that congregation I'd have had to consider what an event like that says about how we identified ourselves and where our loyalties lay. God bless America – not, “God, may America serve your purposes in the world?” God bless the USA – even if it's at the expense of other countries and other believers who live there? Carrying guns in support of the right to bear arms – among a people who claim to follow the one who said “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39) and “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) and who prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him?
I guess my problem, in twenty-five words or less, is that in this case, I think that church might have been a little too American and not quite enough church.
I know, this is the worst possible time of year for me to say something like that. Please understand, I do appreciate the freedom and the opportunity we have in America. I'm very grateful for people who have sacrificed and worked and even died for that. I take off my hat for the National Anthem and say the Pledge of Allegiance and would never, ever, burn a flag. I try not to take my country for granted, and I pray for her leaders, and I do my best to be a good citizen.
But I also belong to a church that doesn't flank the communion table with an American flag, and that's a conscious decision. See, when American Christians watch the news and cheer an American bomb falling somewhere else in the world, we're cheering the deaths of people God created and loves. Sometimes even our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we advocate closing our borders to immigration largely because we're concerned about maintaining our lifestyles, then we're turning away the “aliens and strangers” that God commanded his people Israel to care for and about – and who I'm assuming God's people are still supposed to care about. When we become citizens of God's kingdom, you see, we become citizens of the world our God made. Not just of one country on it.
At its best, America isn't about individual rights. It's about the things that God has always called his people to be about: righteousness, peace, truth, equality. As God's people living in America, we have a great responsibility to use what we've received as Americans, not primarily to ensure our own personal rights, but to bring God's righteousness, peace, truth and equality to others. The freedoms and prosperity with which God has blessed us as a nation is a calling to the task of lighting the darkness in our world. America is not God's covenant nation, but his church certainly is, and the American church in particular should take seriously our responsibility to channel his grace outward to his world. We should be about the task of opening the eyes of the blind and bringing the prisoners out of their dungeons.
We can't do that, though, if we fill our time with safeguarding our personal rights and “protecting” ourselves from the very people God would have us serve and bless.
Know how I'd love to see us – the church in America – celebrate the Fourth of July this week? By embracing the people who have come to our shores from far away. By praying for those suffering hardship and tyranny around the world and offering sight to the blind and freedom for the prisoners as God enables us. By supporting leaders who offer solutions to the world's problems formed from compassion, justice, and a desire for peace instead of partisan loyalty. And by resolving to be known among our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances as people of faith, love, grace, forgiveness, and hope. Being proud to be an American is not nearly enough for the church of Jesus Christ. We're called to be his body in the larger world around us, his presence even when being his presence might conflict with purely American interests.
May he give us the grace to be good citizens of God's kingdom first, and let that citizenship tell us what it should mean to be good American citizens. May he give us the grace to invoke him, not just to bless America, but to bless the world through America – and especially through the American church. May we be lights in our world as bright as the fireworks we'll enjoy this weekend – but may our glow last.
Let's get locked and loaded. It's time for church.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.