December 10, 2015 / Kyle Johnson

Is the Idea of America At Odds With the Idea of the Kingdom?

“America is not a country, it’s an idea. And it’s still being born.” This powerful declaration came from Bono while I watched U2 perform, awestruck, in a foggy arena. Bono poignantly painted ‘America’ as the remarkable idea that people of different races, backgrounds, and creeds can live side-by-side as equals. He mourned, however, that it is an idea that has still not fully come to fruition. This image of America has haunted me ever since.

Our current global crisis, felt most horrifically through regular terrorist attacks around the world, forces us to consider with renewed gravity the viability of this idea. And for the Church in America our mission in relationship to this idea must be examined.

In his historic speech to Congress, Pope Francis made these timely remarks: “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict. . . committed even in the name of God and of religion.” He suggests that a “delicate balance is required to combat violence” while protecting freedom.

The Holy Father has identified what may truly be the central crisis of our age. We live in a time of remarkable diversity, global interdependence, and extreme levels of global violence. Determining whether we can live together is our great contemporary challenge.   

At first blush, America seems the providential hope for a time such as this.  She was founded as a unique experiment in liberty for peoples of all faiths, creeds, and cultures. Was America not created for just this moment?

But America is still not fully defined for this new world.

The American system and its goal of religious freedom has evolved within a society where the only religious diversity has primarily been a few different strands of Protestantism. As Christians, especially of Caucasian churches, we have become used to the idea that we can live and act in public within a bubble of relative monolithic comfort.

The American experiment is being stretched by thicker religious, cultural, ideological diversity. Share on X

The American experiment is now being stretched by thicker religious, cultural, and ideological diversity. We face the difficult task of figuring out how a society with religious freedom can work under present circumstances of diversity and violence.

What are we to do?

Two paths stand before us.  

One is the path of continued innovation and experimentation, to see whether we can build a society of religious diversity that really works. This path requires careful and intentional thought. How do we keep the system, and the people, safe from extremism? What are the common ideals and values that can hold in common as a society? How do we protect the religious conscience, as much as possible, of those who might find their values compromised engaging public life with those of different values?

These are hard questions. None of us should be naive about the challenge that this path poses.

There is one other option. It has been suggested by propositions that people of certain religions should not hold public office in America. It has been suggested ever more loudly as the question of Syrian refugees is on the table. That is, the option of ‘battening down the hatches.’ This is the option of deciding that thick religious diversity and equality is too risky, and too complicated. We will not admit it. We will re-cast our national narrative so that nothing seems out of place. But we will have decided that we are only a society for a certain type of religious people.

In this very moment we must decide whether we are willing to build a society in which people of different creeds and cultures can live together with respect and equal treatment or whether we will succumb to fear and seclusion. Will America find a way to make her idea truly work, or bow to the pressure of fanatics inciting division between peoples?

For the Christian, the second option cannot be ultimately satisfactory. The hope of the Gospel demands that I fight tooth and nail for and among the people who need good news. I cannot engineer a bubble from the rest of the world, and then look into the eye of the God who left all security in order to reach me in my sinful, lost place.

The Gospel demands that I fight tooth & nail for the people who need good news. Share on X

To live this way, we will likely have to give up the latent idea that has clung to us for a long time: That America is our New Israel, the City on a Hill. We must recapture the conviction that the Kingdom of God is our only New Jerusalem. This Kingdom is not built upon the safety of an engineered isolation. That is a foundation of sand, not the Rock of Jesus the Suffering Servant. It is not built by a Church closed up in on itself but by a Church, in Pope Francis’s imagery, that is bruised in the streets. We may have to devise something of a new social ethic and political theology for a multicultural age, or recover one from in which the Church has lived as one among many, such as the world from which our Syrian brothers and sisters are emerging. If we do this we can serve the common good, love our neighbor, by helping to build a just and peaceful multicultural society.

We must recapture the conviction that the Kingdom of God is our only New Jerusalem. Share on X

Whatever becomes of the idea of America, the Church is certainly made for such a time as this. The Church are peacemakers, and they are blessed by God. The Church are lovers of justice and righteousness, and they are blessed by God. This hope stretches far beyond America’s shores, and depends not upon America’s success or failure.

Even if America pulls off its initial dream brilliantly, The Church is ultimately unsatisfied with an earthly solution. Any earthly peace is a cheap comparison to the peace of Heaven. This peace is not built on bloodshed, but the shed blood of the Prince of Peace given over in loving kindness to the Holy Sovereign’s enemies.

The idea of America may or may not be able to flourish. But God’s ‘idea,’ God’s Kingdom, certainly can.  

“So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer.