Sunday, July 6, 2014

Our American Idol

Everything about this post challenges how I was raised. I was raised to be a good, patriotic, God fearing, American, Christian. I spent lots of time with my maternal grandparents growing up. They loved America. She'd been good to them since they'd migrated to California during the Dust Bowl. They eventually settled on the Monterey Peninsula where my grandmother worked on Cannery Row while my grandfather served in WWII. Once he came home, they started their family and my grandfather began a career of driving big rigs, eventually owning his own trucks and contracting hauls for Monterey Sand Company. I imagine he hauled for other companies before that, but that was the one I remember him hauling for because when I was a little girl I'd play in the sand dunes while he finished up and prepared for the next day's run. 

They decided to build a home and I've been told, that at the time, the Monterey Herald was offering residential lots with a subscription to the newspaper. The lots were on the north side of the bay, in the City of Seaside. My grandfather took out a double subscription and obtained two plots of land on Harding Street where he built their home. I can't say for sure if he actually got the land that way, but that's how it was told to me. Eventually, he and my grandmother bought a home in the nicer Del Rey Oaks neighborhood and my parents and I lived in the Harding Street home until they divorced. My mom and I lived there until she remarried when I was 9. 

My grandfather invested and paid cash for what he bought. He worked hard and saved and he was a proud Republican. I grew up assuming all Christians were as well and that all Republicans were Christians. Only lazy minorities collected welfare and affirmative action was left winged liberalism designed to punish hardworking whites. We hated Jimmy Carter and adored Ronald Reagan. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson told us how to vote, Biblically, to preserve our heritage as a Christian nation. America was God's and a blessing to all countries, bringing justice and truth to nations and territories in need. America was in charge of saving the world. God had blessed America.

I didn't have any reason to question the patriotism and political allegiances of my family. In fact, when my mom did remarry, my stepdad seemed to disagree with every political position my grandfather held and I didn't care much for my stepdad. It was easy to continue agreeing with what I'd been taught. I didn't have any reason not to. Not until middle school, at least. In middle school I figured out that most of my teachers were (gasp) democrats. And some of those teachers had earned my trust and respect. It was confusing. So I prayed for them to find Jesus, certain that was the explanation for their "communist" tendencies. 

Honestly, my political leanings remained much like those I'd gleaned from my grandparents for many years. Out of loyalty, I guess. And nothing in my life stirred a need to reexamine. Not for a while at least. Even after my grandparents died and I began to struggle with my faith, I didn't question which candidates a Christian should vote for. Ever. 

Then my life sort of fell apart. At 19 I was pregnant and uninsured and found myself forced to apply for government health coverage to obtain prenatal care and coverage for delivery. I struggled with shame over becoming pregnant out of wedlock and for finding myself at the welfare office, with the lazy people. I consoled myself with the fact that I'd refused to abort and maybe only needing health coverage wasn't the same as ACTUAL welfare. I mean, I WAS working. Right? 

And then I got pregnant again. And needed coverage again. And for a long time I held out on applying for food stamps or cash aid because I hated what I imagined my grandad would think. But life didn't get better. Drug use, job loss and some self examination, eventually, led to my growing awareness that I needed an education. And unless I took advantage of our government's welfare programs, that was never going to happen.

So, I got on welfare: cash aid and food stamps. My youngest son's grandmother, Maria, committed to supporting my goals however I needed (Which she did, without complaint.) I went back to school, spending two years in community college and finishing my bachelors degree at California State University, Monterey Bay, what was then the newest, and likely, the most liberal campus in the CSU system. I'd reclaimed my Christian faith but had found myself outside of what I'd been taught a good, Christian, young woman should be.

Day after day, for two solid years, I spent time working on a humanities major. I was studying issues of social justice, poverty, and white privilege. To say that my paradigm was being challenged doesn't begin to describe what I was going through and how my views were changing. And for a long time, I was afraid to talk about those things with my Christian friends. When I did share the ways I struggled to hold onto my conservative, republican, religious views, I was often met with resistance, or worse, insults. Even so, I couldn't go back and found myself wondering what Jesus thought of how we voted. Over time, I grew more convinced that the ways the religious right saw and addressed certain groups in America, the marginalized, was not at all how Jesus would instruct Christians to relate to them. "The least of these" as Jesus called them, weren't just in foreign, third world, nations. They were here, in America, and for them it was a much different America than I'd grown up in. 

By the time I finished and approached graduation, the Monterey Peninsula had become the country's most expensive place to live. I was facing leaving family housing on campus to look for a home for my family in an outrageously expensive housing market. My education wasn't going to make much change for my family with rent that I still couldn't afford. After much prayer and discussion with those in my life, I made the decision to move to Houston, Texas. 

We arrived on June 30, 2003 and I attended church the following Sunday, the Sunday this particular church honored the Fourth of July. I was totally unprepared for the patriotic vigor of the South. For all the implied patriotism expected of a Christian I'd grown up understanding, there was no implication in this service that Sunday. The message was explicit and clear: good Christians are good patriots and good (true and conservative) patriots were good Christians. I wondered if moving to Houston had been a mistake.

In spite of that, the boys and I came to love Texas as our home and I grew more comfortable to ask questions and challenge assumptions when social issues came up. I was passionate that the spirit of American individualism had clouded the vision of many Christians making it difficult to see that they were using politics as a way to avoid engaging the human beings behind the stereotypes political positions often perpetuate. And it was enough for someone to even quietly say, "I'd never thought of it that way." Even if that only happened on rare occasion. And Texas was rubbing off on me. The gratitude for America and even more so, Texas, was infectious. The disenchantment for America I'd gained in college was fading and I learned to listen more to the views of those I no longer agreed with. I often reminded myself of the culture my grandfather, and many of my new Texas friends, had grown up in. I forced myself to make earnest attempts to believe the best in people, even if I didn't understand them. Texas became home and we loved being here and I wasn't ashamed of my roots anymore. I remembered the blessing and treasure it is to be born in a country that protects my right to worship and speak my mind. Yet, America had changed and it seemed to keep changing rapidly. It wasn't the country my grandparents grew up and succeeded in. I doubted, and still do, that it would ever be the same. 

I've been in Texas for 11 years now and I can say without a doubt that I so far my prediction was right. Laws and policies are changing fast and what was the norm for American culture when I was a kid, doesn't look anything like what it's been for my kids, particularly my 8 year old. I didn't even know what a homosexual was until the Aids epidemic when I was in fourth grade. My son, however, was in the same class as one of three boys adopted out of the foster system by two men. I can't say for sure he's noticed or if it's just that he didn't think much of it. The reality of our own family is that of his three siblings, no two have the same parents. American families are different now. Even in our churches. Even in Texas, which will likely be one of the last states to legalize gay marriage. But it's coming, there's no avoiding it. Just recently, the city of Houston gave up it's distinction of being one of the last major American cities left without an anti-discrimination law on the books. And people here lost it because our homosexual mayor (apparently "single handedly") included that transgender Houstonians couldn't be denied access to the bathroom they gender identified with. Eventually that language was changed to appeal to religious conservatives, but what I couldn't stop wondering was, how in the heck did America's fourth largest city slip by until 2014 without equal rights ordinances in the law books? 

It's foolish to ask that though. Just a few minutes on social media suggests why. What we might otherwise filter or keep to ourselves altogether, we post and comment freely in a new kind of public square. One that gives us a false sense of anonymity. I'm not even saying that's all bad. I enjoy having a place to hash out my thoughts and opinions, myself. And I aim to do it in ways that are respectful and understanding. That's partly because I'm a storyteller and I want to know people's stories. It's also because so many of my own opinions and positions have changed that I expect a few more may follow. Yes, on a few things I'm unwavering, but, American culture and its politics are not among them. 

I don't fault those who are steadfast politically, even fighting for a return to America's past. I understand why some of what we've lost is important. I just don't think America will turn back the clock. And as a Christian, I have to explore what that means as to how to live in the culture we have now. America may have once been a "Christian nation" (although I think we may have romanticized it some since then), but the reality is, it really isn't any longer. It's a nation that is home to people from all over the planet and we represent many cultures, and many faiths. As the influence of the religious right becomes less relevant to up and coming generations, Americans are less and less defined by Christian traditions. And many American Christians are not at all happy about it. In fact, some are downright furious. 

I have to confess, I'm not angry. I'm not even shocked. Maybe that's partly because even though I spent a lot of time with my very traditional grandparents, I actually lived in a home that often felt like it was on the verge of disaster. Even though I believed my grandparents traditional way of life was good, it wasn't my reality. I also knew there were some ideas my middle class white family held to that were already behind the times some twenty years after the Civil Rights Movement. I've already lived through watching people go to war in order to keep things the same. It didn't work then, and I don't think it will work now. 

One common thread in this current fight against the new American culture is that we have to stand up for our freedoms. We can't let them take away our religious liberties. I wrote in my last post that I can see how the changes might, in fact, affect the ways Christians in America worship and do business. At the same time, we've seen recently that some laws and protections still stand. Yes, culture is changing, but it's not turning out to be all or nothing for us. And we aren't always the group in all this that's being bullied. It seems that at times, even when we are being challenged, we'd previously set the precedent ourselves. 

For example, we insist on protecting the freedom to worship as we choose, a freedom that is worth protecting for all Americans. Yet, that seems incongruent with insisting that we include references to God in a pledge said by people of all faiths, or none. There are infinite memes online tracing our country's depravity back to the removal of prayer from schools. Some even insist kids can't pray themselves at school or bring a Bible, which isn't true at all. I've worked in public schools and seen kids pray and read Scripture with my own eyes. Maybe not at football games or graduations any longer, but I'm not certain the religious right, if you will, understand the implication of returning to those traditions. If my Christian kid can get on the public school microphone, purchased with tax dollars, to lead a prayer to Jesus Christ, that means that his Muslim friend can use the same microphone and lead a traditional Muslim prayer when it's his turn. Going back to the roots we say we've turned away from would demand so. Otherwise we'd be violating the very Bill of Rights we now insist is failing us. Is it? Or has it just begun to protect others? 

Someone told me recently that Christians have a responsibility to fight for a commitment to holding our government accountable to the Constitution. They said, "It's right to fight for the Constitution because it affirms God just as the Declaration of Independence does when it says 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'" (I do know that the Constitution doesn't mention God. I'm not sure most Americans know that, though.)

Wait, what?! Affirm God? God doesn't need to be affirmed. Not even by America. That's right, The United States of America could collapse tomorrow and it will have absolutely no bearing on God's authority. He doesn't need America to stay the same in order to protect His throne. Yet, even as those thoughts raced through my mind, I realized that many Christians in America may not believe that God's in charge because, in our lifetime, America always has been. 

Then my mind went to the phrase "certain unalienable Rights" and that, as my friend said, we must protect our rights because they were given to us by God. I'll admit that I do not have the entire cannon of Scripture memorized but I have read it all and some of it many times over. I began searching my memory for any account in Scripture that I could think of that supports the idea that God gave us "unalienable rights." I even asked other people if anything came to mind for them and went back to places in my Bible where rights of any sort are even mentioned. I could very well be completely wrong but unless I am, there isn't much in there about our "God given rights" nor any mention in the early church history of Christians promoting the Gospel by fighting for any rights at all. What did come to mind was the teachings of Jesus and of Paul that clearly require that believers LAY DOWN THEIR RIGHTS for the sake of the Gospel. 

In fact, the very essence of the Gospel is that God in the flesh denied Himself His rights, as King of all Creation, to come and die a criminal's death on behalf of human beings who didn't even want Him. Early Christians submitted to the governments that sought to murder them so that Jesus might be known. And those governments did murder them. Brutally. As many still do today. 

Not in America, though. Americans have "unalienable rights." And a very large portion of Americans who claim to follow Jesus believe that to be true. They believe the poetic words of our Declaration of Independence (which really only applied to some people when it was written) give greater weight to what we're entitled to than Scripture does. I believe it, too. Somedays I find myself insisting on my own rights at the expense of treating others with God's kindness and often it's over petty preferences that have no bearing whatsoever on my ability to worship Jesus. Like our obsession with making sure all Christians say "Merry Christmas" lest they be accused of denying Jesus and giving immigrants and atheists "their way" instead of making sure they do things our way. Does it seem to anyone but me that we've used our identity as a "Christian Nation" to enjoy living somewhere that doesn't even cost us anything to follow Jesus? How can we call that following Christ at all? Jesus told us it was going to be costly. He said it would cost us everything. 

I AM NOT saying that we should pull out and forgo our current right to participate in the political process as our conscience dictates. We should exercise the rights we do have in an effort to be His kingdom here on earth. But, when those rights trump the sacrificial servitude Christ exemplified and calls us to, we've made them an idol. It's like we've added those historical documents to the revelation of Scripture because we believe they protect us. God is our protection. Only God. Any protection we've been under as Americans has been authored by God. 

No party or president, no law or right, no traditional definition of any institution created by God can be mistaken as our protection. The book of Romans instructed believers to submit to the governing authorities as they were appointed and ordained by God. This was written to them at a time when Christians were being fed to lions by the Roman government for the entertainment of its citizens. Our brothers and sisters who died as martyrs did not put their faith in their country or its leaders. They put it in Jesus and the power of His resurrection. When Paul insisted on exercising his rights as a Roman citizen it was ONLY in an effort to have another audience to preach the Gospel to. He and the other disciples were relentlessly pursued by the authorities and time after time they were imprisoned and beaten for their refusal to deny Jesus. And the laws against preaching Christ did not keep the Gospel from spreading. In fact, it seemed to be exactly part of how God planned for it to spread. 

I hear and see every day that America has turned her back on God by the tolerance and acceptance we insist be shown to all people. I cannot agree that's how we've turned our backs on God. In fact, Jesus would have shamed us in our resistance to being tolerant, not to mention insisting that we are extended the same courtesy. He was hated and scorned and yet showed genuine love to the drunks and sinners. The religious leaders of Israel did not tolerate Him for it. They plotted His murder. It's not turning our back on God when we offer sacrificial hospitality to foreigners as Scripture dictates. It's not turning away from God when we spend time getting to know people who sin differently than we do so we might be granted the privilege to point them to the Cross. That's not denying Christ. He was discounted for hanging out with the low life's, the immoral. Tolerance is not how we deny Him.

American Christians deny Jesus when we insist that we need America to protect us in order to worship Him. When we fear being without the protection of our government, we make it our god. When we fear our way of life will be threatened if we don't get certain leaders of the "right" party into office, we make them our god. When definitions need to remain traditional to protect the sanctity of what we claim God created, those definitions are our god. When we insist that the Declaration of Independence carries more weight than Scripture in determining what we are entitled to, it is our god. And those documents are written on paper that burns and in ink that fades yet we bow down to them. Putting our hope in them is how we, the Christians in America, have turned our backs on God. 

I'm not making many friends I'm sure. My own grandparents, whom I loved and respected more than anyone, would have been indignant maybe. Quite likely, even. Unless...unless they loved Jesus more than they loved America. And I believe they did. I knew their stories and the many ways they had been changed by Him. They lived in their time and followed Jesus as He equipped them to then. 

This is our time. This new culture in America is where He's appointed us to follow Him. And we are a changed people by the power of a mighty God who raises the dead, He can be known through us no matter how America changes. Is America still the best nation to be fortunate enough to live in? I think so. But America didn't save me from the penalty of my sin against God. Jesus did and Jesus has the same power today to grow His Church in America no matter how the culture changes. I want to step into being part of that now and figure out how to be Him to a society that is offended and hostile towards Him and to me. I want to love my enemies. My "gay rights activist" enemies. My illegal immigrant enemies. I want to love my socialist agenda promoting enemies. Or how about my "fundie gay hating enemies?" Don't leave out the "right to bear arms" enemies. And even my God hating atheist enemies who want to erase any trace of Him from our history. Because He can't be erased. He doesn't change even when laws do. His ways and glory will never fade away even if America one day does. 

American Christians, let's all of us give God His throne back. Let's turn to Him again and trust the only One who can protect us because He will. We may be afraid but He isn't afraid. He's not even surprised. And He promises that no matter what, He will be victorious and the only justice that cannot fail will be served. 

We can trust Him. We've just never really had to before. Maybe it's time that we do and rest in the confidence of Who He Is instead of what we want Anerica to be. Who He is is all that matters and American culture, and the changes we're seeing, does not have any effect on that. 

I do love America and I'm so grateful to live here. It's just not my final destination and I will not accept that America is the best God has to offer. Our King is coming and bringing the fullness of His kingdom with Him. Let us eagerly await His return and serve this nation by loving like He did no matter what it costs us. 

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely spot on. Thank you for sharing this. You managed to put into words something that I have been feeling for a long time but couldn't find the right way to express.