The stage was decorated with red, white and blue flowers. Enormous, pristine American flags were spotlighted and draped from the ceilings. We sat in darkness on our plush movie-theater seats, heads tipped back as we watched the clips from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers on the screens. The dramatic movies gave way to a montage of fighter jets, white picket fences, clean children playing in meadows and soldiers being welcomed home to weeping families while a beautiful young woman’s voice soared in patriotic song. We clutched pamphlets with Scripture verses superimposed over the American flag.
I was at church.
And after a few years now in the USA, I had learned that this was just a bigger variation of the typical 4th of July service. The war had been declared just a few months earlier. The honor guard was escorted in, the bands played, the potato salad in the foyer waited in Tupperware containers, and the youth group organized the fireworks in the church parking lot for the picnic. The sermon that morning was a treatise on why this war in Iraq met the criteria for being a Just War. Agreeing with the President—and your pastor—was a biblical mandate. The Other was unaccountably evil, bent on destroying everything that God held dear—ideas like democracy and capitalism.
America is a Christian nation; therefore, protecting America’s interests is clearly the godly thing to do.
What about the rest of us, those of us that are not American? I wondered then.
Does God not care about me and the rest of the world because we are not American? Is America the new Chosen Nation, leaving the rest of us as the outsiders, earning a place at the table only insofar as we represent or protect the interests of the Chosen Ones?
Is America the hope of the world now?
Are they the shining city on a hill, here to school the rest of us in how God runs a country?
Is this the example that the rest of us are supposed to emulate without question or nuance?
It was in that season, those beginning moments of a new war, that the seeds of pacifism long scattered took root in my heart. My faith was leading me to abhor war and seek peace, to deeply respect and grieve for the world’s military and their families. My faith was leading me to regret the Canadian maple leaf tattooed proudly on my skin because my country was no longer my first allegiance. My faith was leading me to an allegiance in the kingdom of God only, one that I understood as based on love without borders and a pro-life ethic that included the grown-ups.
But on all sides, my beloved friends and adopted community—the ones that I loved and knew to be good people, the community that loved me in all my faults and failings—felt compelled to war precisely because of their faith.
Did their faith lead them to this nationalism? Or was it due to the centuries of complex intertwining of faith and country that my neighbors simply couldn’t engage in politics without believing in a faith-based justification? Is nationalism simply worship?
It seemed to lead them to Mosaic laws of an eye for an eye, a belief that war would somehow end terrorism and evil. Defending the American way became defending their most holy faith.
As the years went by, every political position—and person—on both sides needed to be justified or vilified by the lens of co-opted Christian faith, leaving in its wake a shattered image of this tug-a-war Christ.
The flags in the pews were waved, people wept and prayed for victory. They rose to their feet, fervor in their eyes and voices, to sing loudly in praise of their homeland that had given them so many gifts.
There wasn’t a Cross to be seen in the building.