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How the American empire worms its way into your mind
Can you be a Christian and use a credit card?
I had a great time at West Tulpehocken doing an “Ask Me Anything” the other week. One of the most interesting questions I got was from a firecracker of a guy (I knew he’d throw me a curveball) about why Circle of Hope had an option for people to share in our Common Fund using their credit card seeing as how credit cards are caught up in all sorts of predatory practices and often involved in other nefarious activity. I appreciated the moral conviction of the question-asker himself, and I found myself asking the same question to myself.
I responded firstly by saying our preference is in fact a more direct way to share money either cash or through bill-pay, or if you’re like me, your Phillies emblazoned personal check. But that really didn’t get to the heart of his question, I went a little further, and I spoke about how I don’t easily feel condemned for my actions, nor do I feel personally responsible for the entirety of the world and all of its evil. I am committed to doing my part in alleviating suffering and pain and making the world a better place, but I don’t judge how well I am doing that, but how perfectly I am. Put another way: I don’t condemn myself when I don’t act perfectly, because dabbling in some evil or violent system is inevitable if you intend on being a witness in the world.
That’s similar to how I answered another question about how I live with a commitment to peace in such a violent world. I told them I start from my own locus of control, I commit myself to living peaceably interpersonally and in community, and then I expand that to other forms. I prophesy against state violence and perpetual war, without condemning myself, if I happen to obey a violence-backed law or listen to a cop that is guiding traffic (all of which the most ardent fundamentalists might call “participating in a violent system”).
You are free, but that doesn’t entitle you to do evil
I have this posture for two reasons. The first one is that I am not a fundamentalist. My behavior doesn’t save me. The way I live my life isn’t what offers me salvation, but rather the gift of salvation, the one that Jesus won for all of us, frees me to act in just ways, not so that I get redeemed, but because I am redeemed. The cosmic battle against good and evil is won, and I am redeemed, and so is the whole world. Because of the victory in Jesus, I’m free to act without condemnation. That doesn’t give me a license to sin (see Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”), but it also doesn’t beholden me to acting perfectly in order that I might be saved.
The truth is that we can act for redemption, though, so I don’t want to discourage you. But the issue that many Christians face is that they’ve been told that they either have to work on their salvation (totally misappropriating James’ exhortation that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”), or that they are so depraved and ungodly that they can’t possibly do anything good, and God is the great equalizer who saves all of the hopelessly evil and destitute. While I actually think that is true, I think that negative anthropology makes us think we can never do good. That’s not much better than having to do good to be saved. I am sympathetic to how everyone approaches these issues because there tends to be a lack of action and self-confidence (and often, it results in toxic views of oneself, which belies the very work of Jesus’ redemption) among Christians who think they can do no good; and at the same time, people suffer with tons of insecurity about how they stand before God. John Calvin, one of the great reformers, largely wrote about the sovereignty of God, so that his followers would have no worry, whatsoever, about their standing before God. He thought our standing before God was based entirely on who God is and not on who we are.
I appreciate that faith and the fervor, but I do think it misses how we can act for redemption. It can miss the transformative work that Jesus is doing in all of us. That, yes, we can act for redemption but we aren’t responsible for the redemption of the world.
America’s power-obsession makes Americans overthink their power
I think Americans, in part, are particularly susceptible to either one of these poles because we’ve been both conditioned to believe we are helpless without the state and also entirely empowered to do anything we want. The American myth tells us that we need the state, the police, the government, the military to protect us from existential threats and we have no hope without them. And at the same time, it tells us that the United States is the greatest nation to have ever existed and all of its people are, in turn, the greatest to have ever existed and, yes, we can do anything we want. The United States is fervent in its attempt to be a world leader and influencer, so it’s not surprising that its citizens feel the same fervor and also entitlement.
Around here, sometimes we call that being “empire-minded.” We not only absorb personal responsibility to an unhealthy degree, we also have delusions about how powerful and successful we can be, and that’s all counter-balanced by a false humility that “gives glory to God.”
I think you see this all the time with the ruling classes. It was that moment when Kirsten Gillibrand says she has a unique position to influence white people because of her whiteness. I appreciated what she said, but her sense of self, rooted in her privilege, reveals something. Not only is she part of the dominating race that helped get us into this mess, she’s uniquely privileged to get us out of this mess. Thinking you are the worst and the best are two sides of the same coin. Rest assured, calling America the Greatest Evil or the Greatest Good is equally ethnocentric.
You can see how that formula makes you both responsible for the salvation of the world, but also completely unfit to do anything about it. That’s a terrible catch-22. Completely reliant on the state for your protection, but also completely responsible for your personal well-being and the whole world’s for that matter. That’s the exact same mentality that results in the most armed nation alongside of the most armed populace.
Christ’s freedom invites you and doesn’t obligate you
So I can see why someone wouldn’t want to use a credit card or emit any carbon. I can see how someone’s God-given moral convictions lead them to paralysis, because those moral convictions viewed through the lens of the American civil religion and mythology don’t work. Check out this oldie-but-a-goodie video on what a fundamentalist allegiance to moral purity can do.
It’s obviously a joke, but I don’t think it’s that far from reality. That’s the kind of attitude that can lead to compassion fatigue and burn out. You need to be perfect to live your life. That’s a huge barrier to entry to making the world a better place, but also to entering the kingdom of God. And furthermore, it’s likely to result in rebellion that just forces people to throw their hands up in the air and a buy a double Quarter Pounder while driving a Range Rover.
So can we treat each other with gentleness and grace? Can we assure one another that the work of the cross has completed us? And now we are invited into a mission of expressing that work in our own lives, in our communities, in the world. We are doing so out of the freedom in Christ, not out of pressure to be perfect. We feel urgency about doing good in the world, but not anxiety. We are free. The Lord has done the work in order to invite us into partnership with him. Rest assured in the battle won, so you can keep fighting today.