What does an American Christian look like? That’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately, as I attempt to parse out the ideals of American culture from the ideals of scripture. How much of the modern American Christian is actually compatible with scripture, and how much of it have we twisted to keep our lives convenient? That’s a very good question, and one that’s often applied, rightly so, to materialism and a resistance to living sacrificially for God. But another problem that’s almost as common in our culture: the American rebel.
It’d be hard for this not to be a part of American culture, to be quite frank. The nation was founded through revolutionary war, and that image has stuck with our culture through the years, regardless of the rebel’s intent. You have to look no further than the biggest pop culture hits of recent decades to see how the rebel is praised. The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and Divergent are all examples of films and books that rely heavily on the appeal of the one rising up against the establishment. We can understand and appreciate the sentiment behind fighting oppressive regimes, and why that resonates.
But here’s the problem: it’s not a very Christian thing to do.
I’m not at all saying that we can’t watch Star Wars or similar films. I am saying, however, that we need to reevaluate our cultural values when it comes to these kinds of narratives, and even more importantly, when it comes to our reaction to oppression. It was during the reign of Nero when Paul wrote in Romans 13 to be “subject to the ruling authorities.” Jesus himself told the people to pay taxes in Luke 20, and I highly doubt Rome had a particularly fiscally responsible government.
And yet, the disease of the American rebel has infiltrated the church, especially, it seems, among conservative, Bible-believing congregations. I remember clearly a conversation I had with a peer of mine, who told me with complete sincerity that the president had no authority over him because of the structure of the Constitution, and as a result, Americans were not bound to be subject to the president or laws he institutes.
What this shows is a glaring case of American exceptionalism. We have convinced ourselves that we are more special than the rest of the world, and that this special structure somehow exempts us from scriptural principles that God himself instituted. But here’s a newsflash: we aren’t in charge. We don’t run the country. You can argue all day about democracy and how great constitutional republics are, but the bottom line is that you and I are subject to the governing authorities, and that’s not us. And if there could ever be any doubt about this, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 sums it up nicely: “aspire to live quietly.”
But, you know, that’s just not the American way. So instead of living quietly and being in submission to the governing authorities except where doing so explicitly goes against the will of God, we’ll yell about our rights being violated and cheer for the guy who refuses to submit, as if it were some inherently Christian virtue.
But speaking of what’s Christian, when did Christ get upset? When his human rights were ignored and he was beaten and crucified for a crime he didn’t commit? When he was denied the right to fair trial? When he was arrested without a warrant? When people tried to kill him even before he arrived in Jerusalem?
No. When people were abusing his father’s temple in John 2, that’s when he was upset. So if we’re looking to parse out American ideals from Christian ideals, look at the way Jesus acted. Did he point out what they were doing when his rights were violated? Sure. But Jesus accepted that he was to be persecuted, and responded with grace and humility. In fact, he even told us to do the same: “”Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:11-12.
If we actually believe the Bible, then it’s time to start acting like it. Even if it means putting up with bad politics and enduring persecution.