Global Missions or “America First”?

An abbreviated manuscript of a talk I gave at the Mission Conference of Rolling Hills Covenant Church in California titled “Global Missions in an ‘America First’ Environment”.
Watch the talk on my media page.

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In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump underscored a sub-theme he had reiterated many times as part of his campaign “Make America Great Again” slogan: “America first.”

His strong delivery – including his raised fist (reminiscent of the symbol of “Black Power” in the 1970’s) – reminded me of one of the candidates in Chris Rock’s satirical movie Head of State.  At the conclusion of each speech, the candidate would close with the phrase “God bless America – and no place else.”

“America first” has stimulated my thinking related to one of the primary commitments of my own life – namely global mission and the worldwide expansion of the Christian church.  What affect will an “America First” world-view have on our commitment to “go into all the world and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20)?

To start, a few personal remarks.  First, I travel – a lot – and listening to my brothers and sisters around the world has shaped my world view.  Second, I’m a registered “Independent” voter, but I’ve lived my entire 6+ decades in a state that is historically democratic and liberally so; I am sure that my environment has influenced some aspects of my thinking.  But third, I am consistently amazed when my fellow Christians run away from the complexities of the issues of our day and the fact that fellow Christians might think differently than they.

At a seminar in a heavily Republican area of the US, I tried challenging my listeners by telling them that many of the Christian leaders I’ve met in the Majority world would vote Democratic if they had the chance. 1   At a coffee break, a participant asked very sincerely, “Do you think those leaders were real Christians?  In her world-view, a real Christian could not possibly accommodate the ideals of the Democratic platform.

7 Questions Related to “America First” Thinking

Before getting to the Scriptures as well as the challenges we face, here are seven questions for us to wrestle with individually and in our churches.

1) Where does global missions place in our personal, family and church priorities?

When we evaluate the way we spend our financial resources, invest our most gifted people, and determine our church budgets, we might conclude that “America First” is just a statement of the way we always do things – rather than a new direction.  But with the words boldly now on the table, we’re forced to ask, “How globally concerned are we?”     

2) If we want to remain politically “neutral,” isn’t that itself a political position?

One corollary of “America First” relates to policies and executive orders related to immigrants, refugees, and visitors from specific Muslim countries.  When a Christian leader stays silent on these human rights issues that reflect Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in” – isn’t that leader’s silence in fact endorsing the political position that wants to exclude and further marginalize these people?

3) Which “side” are we listening to?

I think it was Dawson Trotman who said, “Even my worst enemy has something to teach me.”  Since all news reporting is implicitly editorial, if all I am reading or listening to is CNN or Fox or NPR or BBC, I’m often not hearing ‘the other side’ of significant arguments and issues.  As Tony Campolo once said, “I’ve heard the enemy and he’s partly right.”   

4) Are the ideas of making Jesus known in the world and “making America great again” mutually exclusive – even contradictory?

Think through that one carefully.

5) Is our first priority to the kingdom of Christ or to the kingdom of the USA?

Another way to phrase this is to ask “What is my first identity?”  Am I a Christian first who happens to be an American – so that American values and priorities and ethics are interpreted, evaluated and filtered through the lens of my Christian faith and biblical truth?   Or am I an American first who happens to be a Christian – so that my faith gets subsumed to my national identity?  (A shout-out here to Vice-President Mike Pence who clearly stated that his first commitment was to his Lord Jesus Christ.  Let us pray that he does this consistently and with courage.)

6) Whether we agree or disagree with President Trump, what do his political positions, tweets, tirades, bullying, etc. tell us about our country?

In other words, is our President a determinant of USA culture or a reflection of our country?

7) What’s the difference between patriotism & nationalism?

When I read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty (the poem entitled “Colossus”), I am filled with a Patriotic pride at the country we’ve aspired to be.  Here it is:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

When I read that, especially the appeal to the rest of the world to send us their “wretched refuse,” I am proud of the E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) vision that shaped our country, and welcomed my grandparents and great-grandparents to start afresh as they escaped European poverty.   I know that this ideal is very much a work in progress, but it still makes me feel patriotic.

On the other hand, if I find myself reflecting the attitude expressed in the “God bless America and nowhere else” slogan, I’ve become a nationalist who wants to make the world into the undesirable and inferior “other” to my nation.  God is God over our nation, but He’s not our national God as if our country is his first priority or that we somehow uniquely own him.

Biblical Foundations

As we wrestle with issues related to global missions and “America first”, keep these biblical themes in mind:

Blessing

God blesses His people so that we can be a blessing to others (see Genesis 12: 1-3 and Psalm 67).  “May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.”  I would love to hear someone say “Make America great so that the whole world might be blessed.

Global Love

God so loved “the world” – not just our country or our people.  Isaiah 49:6 reminded the people of Israel that God was bigger than just their people: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”  We dare not fall into a vision for ourselves or our churches that is simply “too small” by God’s standards.

The “ends of the earth” is both our target (see Acts 1:8) and our future vision (see Revelation 5:9 and 7:9).  As followers of Jesus, we look forward to and work for the day when people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” gather to worship Jesus.

Three Challenges We Face

1) We need to think carefully.

Concerning our view of our country: what does it mean for us to live in a country with roughly 5% of the world’s population and a disproportionately high percentage (some say 25% – 30%) of the world’s wealth?

Concerning our view of the “other:” do we see people who are different from us through the compassionate eyes of Jesus?  How do we relate to the atheist or Muslim or Hindu or secularist in our midst?

Concerning our view of our resources: do we look at ourselves and our churches with the conviction that we are blessed in order to bless others?

Concerning the complexities of our world: are we willing to wrestle with the extraordinarily tough issues surrounding everything from immigration and refugees to Israel and Palestine.  The challenges our President and other politicians face are exceptional, and they will not be solved with 140-character tweets.   By learning, listening, and seeking to understand, we can grow in our effort to navigate the complex issues of our times.

2) We need to think Christianly.

We want to ground ourselves biblically in God’s Great Commission and his Great Compassion, remembering that our call to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20) includes the demonstration of the Gospel in the way we treat the poor, the hungry, the prisoner and more (Matthew 25: 31-46).

As Christians, we want to strive to interact gracefully.  Ephesians 4:25-32 reminds us to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor” while always remembering that “we are all members of one body.   We can disagree but keep anger under control so as that we don’t “give the devil a foothold.”  And we can ask God for grace so that we do not return anger for anger and insult for insult so that we “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths” and so that we “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”  Let us be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave us.”

Thinking Christianly also affects the way that we think globally and cross-culturally because (as Peter learned in Acts 10:34-36) “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”  As we reach out to immigrants or refugees, we show God’s love when we listen to their stories, and we grow in compassion as we hear what’s being said in the political arena through the ears of the “other.”

Beyond anything else, thinking Christianly means thinking prayerfully.  1 Timothy 2:1-4 exhorts us to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Pray that our leaders surround themselves with wise advisors.  Pray for our enemies (like Isis) as Jesus commanded.  Why?  Because we bring our prayers before the God who transformed a first century zealot who thought he was serving God by killing Christians (the terrorist Saul of Tarsus) into the greatest missionary of the early church.   Let us believe God for transformational change in our country and the world.

3) We can lead by example.

As followers of Christ, we can lead by example…

  • In language: how we discuss these matters, how we refer to other people, how we avoid the profiling, stereotyping, and dehumanizing that often comes when people talk about someone who is not from “our” group.
  • In relationships with those who are “other” to us: refugees, foreigners, Muslims, non-Christians, people who identify as LGBTQ+, immigrants. Can we train ourselves to see people as precious individuals created in the image of God who need to understand and experience his love and forgiveness?  And in the case of the refugees and immigrants, let us always remember that God has brought people who cannot hear the gospel in their own countries into our country so that they might hear the good news here through us!
  • In relationship to our resources personally and in the church. If we agree that it’s not “make America great again, it’s also not “make my church great again.”   We have the opportunity to be “global investors” for the growth of God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.  Let’s think and pray and give and act as global Christians.
  • In relationship to our government, we need to be willing to exercise our rights as citizens. Many of us (myself included) should to get more involved.  We can write letters.  We can volunteer as refugee hosts.  We can be courageous and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

May God bless America and everywhere else… in Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

 

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[1] There are many reasons why this might be so – including issues related to foreign aid or military matters – but the primary issue is that these leaders are more concerned about issues of relief and development and poverty alleviation.  The issues that might drive Christians in the USA like abortion or same-sex marriage are not primary issues for them.