The follow post is written by my friend and local pastor, Rick Hogaboam. Rick is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Nampa, Idaho. He’s passionate about the gospel, and he’s a public advocate for the unborn. He posted something on Facebook about the gospel and nationalism that grabbed my attention, so I asked him to expand his thoughts into a blog post. Here it is:
I recently saw a combination of bumper stickers on a car. One said, “If it’s not the KJV, it’s not the Word of God,” and the other was an American flag with an often quoted verse: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14, KJV). I wondered what this combination of bumper stickers would look like in China, Rwanda, Syria, and Laos? I readily concede that this combination of touting the KJV English translation as the Word of God and conflating America as the new Israel might not be the norm, but this sentiment still finds itself within various pockets of evangelicalism. On one hand we’re confident that we’re truly subscribing to no creed but the Bible, but on the other hand we’re still clinging to nationalistic, cultural, and ethnocentric influences that function as sacraments for a civic life we assume is analogous to Israel in the Promised Land. This is an intoxicating cocktail.
When you conflate the Bible with our national identity, you will likely end up doing the same with Jesus. Jesus becomes the smooth-skinned, wavy-haired, smiling, photogenic Caucasian in the portrait that has often donned the fellowship halls and living rooms of American evangelicals. Those who are most offended at the fictional character Ricky Bobby’s (Talledaga Nights) prayer to the “Baby Jesus” just might be missing the satire, that it’s directed precisely at those who domesticate Jesus in a uniquely American context, where Jesus is rather benign, safe, and gladly serves our desires for a peaceful and painless life.
Evangelicals are right to scoff at the Jefferson Bible and echo the warnings of Scripture not to add or detract from the content entrusted to us, but the Jesus showing up in the more generic evangelical church is more a therapist than Savior, more a life coach than Lord, more a distributor of wealth and prosperity than the one who confronts our obsession with money, more a patron messiah for Americans than the one who tells us to preach the gospel to the nations, more a defender of our republic than the one who’s inaugurated his own kingdom. Some would say that these characterizations are unfair and non-existent; however, the latter examples are still very much alive, unfortunately.
We Americans tend to initially ask, “What’s best for our country?” While not minimizing our civic responsibilities, we Christians should primarily be asking, “What best honors the King of kings and Lord of Lords?” Early Christians honored Caesar, sure, but were rather consumed instead with honoring Jesus by their witness of mercy to the very people Rome couldn’t care less about. It was a subversive witness to an empire that was obsessed with power and peace. That the strong and wealthy would serve the weak and poor actually puzzled the principalities of the day. The Pax Romana didn’t define their existence, the Great Commission did, which comes to us from one possessing all authority and who paid a greater price than any empire did in order to secure peace for its people.
The temptation always exists to opt for the nicely packaged Jesus represented uniquely in the niche markets of American retail, where specialty Bibles and Jesus portraits come in all shapes, sizes, and caricatures: patriotic Jesus Bible, the life coach Jesus Bible, the Jesus as CEO leadership Bible, the not-too-far off from Ricky Bobby’s “Baby Jesus” themed Bible, which captures the precious, cute, and cuddly moments of Jesus’s ministry. Need I go on?
We should pause and ask whether this is faithfully portraying the unadulterated Jesus of the Bible. The raw, uncut version is better, more challenging, and most importantly biblical. We’re talking about the exalted Son of God who was born in a stench-filled stable, who was rushed to Egypt as a refugee/exile to avoid a blood-thirsty tyrant (and, yes, blood was spilled), who was homeless for much of his ministry, who gathered a ragtag group of disciples, and who pledged his solidarity with the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned in how we’ll be judged at his coming. And he confronts a religious terrorist in Saul, who ends up writing most of the New Testament as the transformed Paul. How does that fit the hygienic, cute, CEO, patriotic narrative that so many prefer?
While many American evangelicals rightly stress the importance of worshipping the true Jesus against false Christologies, I wonder if we sometimes get the wrong Jesus by enslaving Him to our felt needs of security, safety, and prosperity. This isn’t a call to deeds over creeds, to orthopraxy over orthodoxy, but rather to reexamine our creeds and orthodoxy, whether our identity is shaped more by the missionary God of Scripture or by the false messiahs who promise peace and safety by turning a deaf ear and blind eye to suffering humanity. Jesus speaks a better word of peace that liberates the church to not love their lives unto death. I know this sounds radical. Because it is.
Our countercultural witness in the midst of fear and loathing is to not be the people defined by exasperated desperation but to be the people who courageously and sacrificially love those who are left for dead on the side of the road: the marginalized, the outcast, the unborn, the unwed teenage mother, the prostitute, the refugee, the terrorist, the abortionist, and all those consigned as the untouchables or too difficult to reach and care for. Even if the religious and the almighty empire consider these roadside outcasts as expendable, in the name of Jesus we will not, for they bear the divine image and are the people Jesus spilled his blood for. We’ve received a kingdom that can’t be shaken, so let’s defy the narrative that seeks to shake us into bondage of fear, where national security and fear of the stranger grip our hearts more than the God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.