Perhaps I am not the only one who has a visceral reaction when politicians (and I do not mean only the presidents) end their speeches with the phrase, “And God bless America.” I cringe every time I hear that, and it is not just because it seems highly hypocritical when so many of the politicians who use the phrase are later caught up in ethical scandals or involved in illicit liaisons. Nor is it because the slogan is pandering, politically tacked on the end of a message to score points with others, but used by many who have actually demonstrated little interest in the things and priorities of God.
Rather, it probably bothers me because I have spent so many years of my life living outside of our great country. In addition, my life’s work has focused on the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God.
While I understand it is OK to ask God to bless me, you, us, our country, our land, and our citizens, the very phrase seems to imply that God’s blessings are specifically for America and decidedly not for any of the other countries in the world. When every important political message is broadcast around the entire world by CNN, FOX News, and the Internet, people everywhere hear the message that God is being petitioned to bless America and not their nation. It has to grate.
In the months following the tragic events of 9/11, bumper stickers and signs along the road all proclaimed “God Bless America.” Every time I saw one of these, I wanted to shout out, “No! GOD BLESS THE ENTIRE WORLD,” because the God of the Bible is the Lord of the nations. He created all the world. He is uniquely international, not provincial. He is above all temporal powers and principalities. His kingdom knows no borders. He is in no one’s hip pocket.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I also do not relish seeing the American flag prominently displayed in our churches, especially in proximity to where the Word is preached, though I do love it when churches display flags from many nations—including our own. In some countries of the world, by law, the flag is to be shown at every place of business. We do not follow that practice in America. If we do not have flags at the grocery store or the dental office, why do we feel it necessary to have them beside or behind the pulpit? In doing so, I fear we come close to linking our faith to our country when our faith should rise above national interests.
Love . . . and a Different Light
I love the opportunity to live in this country. I do not regret paying my taxes. I love the people of this country and the churches of this country. I hold in high regard those who serve in the military so that all of us can have the freedoms we enjoy. (I’ve lived in countries where people do not have these freedoms, so my respect for this country is personally felt and profound.) But my primary loyalty is to the Lord and to his kingdom. Under that, not equal to that, is loyalty to my country. And when I am in another country, I have a measure of loyalty to that country too, as I am a guest there.
Living overseas affords the opportunity to see the United States in a different light. It is a mixed blessing. Our country’s uniqueness, freedoms, rights, bounty, and privileges are deeply appreciated. In one country where our family lived we had to leave on trumped-up charges, and I was told I would be put in prison if I reentered. (For the record, the internal politics of that country changed, and our family and Christian Missionary Fellowship have been invited and welcomed back to that country with no problem.)
At the same time, our family could see firsthand the negative effects of being an American, primarily due to some U.S. foreign policies and trade practices. Those negative effects carried over into my own ability to share the gospel, and for the message to be objectively heard since the message is always linked with the messenger.
Our family was ministering in Tanzania in 1986 when America bombed Libya. Regardless of whether it was a good or bad decision (the act was in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers), America was held in a bad light for many months in that country.
Along embassy row in Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, there were many bulletin boards showing photographs of mutilated civilians, purportedly victims of that bombing. A similar thing happened in 1998 when America bombed Sudan, unfortunately hitting (according to newspaper reports) a neutral medical warehouse.
Years ago when our family was in the United States, on furlough from Kenya, the price of gasoline jumped up. We heard quite a growling across the country. Our thoughts, unstated, were, Don’t you realize that in Kenya gasoline prices are four or five times what they are here in America, and yet the few Kenyans who can afford to drive a car earn only about one-tenth of the income of the average American? If you are feeling squeezed here, how do you think those Kenyans are feeling?
To be fair and balanced, there have been many more occasions when our status as visitors from America was viewed in a positive light in other countries. It is no fluke so many people want to immigrate to America or to pursue graduate studies here. America has a tremendous record of responding to emergency situations around the world, and this is appreciated. It is not missed that often this aid is given in the name of Christ, for many Christians and churches care deeply about the needs of others throughout the world.
From the Rest to the West
If in the past it has been assumed it was the responsibility of primarily Western nations to share the gospel around the world, that assumption is no longer true today. Not only are there more Christians from the Majority World (also called the Global South) than in Western nations, but the number of missionaries from the Majority World has far eclipsed the number of missionaries being sent from the West. The gospel is being liberated from being envisioned as something that is shared from the West to the rest. Today the evangelists are much more likely to be Koreans, Chinese, Chileans, Indians, or Nigerians.
Therefore, as a humble and modest proposal, can we begin to say, “And God bless America, and Korea, and China, and India, and Nigeria, and the rest of his wonderful creation as well”? Now, that has a good ring to it—it sounds so reflective of the Bible and the Lord of the nations.
Doug Priest, a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD, serves as an elder at Outlook Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship.