This is my case against you, says the Lord: The virgin has become a prostitute, lying with anyone who will pay. You lie even with Satan himself, and store your treasure in vaults of concrete and steel! You worship wealth, and the cause of the poor does not come before you. The cause of the alien does not come before you. Though you speak my name with your lips, your heart belongs to another.
This is my case against you, says the Lord: You worship idols! Idols of gold, and of steel, and of concrete. Idols of destruction and vengeance. You say “In God we trust,” but you trust no one, not even each other. Your hearts are hard, and your minds think only of comfort and pleasure.
I have spared you the rod, says the Lord, because you are my chosen people. I have called you by name, but you have not answered. You have not walked in my ways. Now I can spare the rod no longer. Indeed, you will be disciplined with a rod of iron. Your enemies will surround you, and they will bring pain to you and your children, but they will not be the cause of your destruction. No, I, the Lord, will send fire and flood upon you. Your fields will lie desolate, your cities in ruins. Then you will know that your idols cannot help you. Wealth will not save you, nor will weapons.
In that day, says the Lord, you will look to the sky and pray, but I will not answer you. In that day, you will be broken as a pot is smashed upon the ground. In that day, you will see no hope. In that day the first shall be made last, and the greatest shall become the least.
But this I promise: when you have been purged with fire and cleansed with water, when you have paid your debt and changed your ways, when your hearts once again turn to me with sincerity, then I will hear your cries.
Can the prostitute again become a virgin? Can the one who created the universe not make new what has been soiled? I tell you, in those days you will say to me, “We have sinned, have mercy!” And I will have mercy, for you will not be entirely destroyed.
There will be a new Eden, a garden I shall plant in your midst, and you shall dwell there in peace all your days. You shall dwell with my Spirit in your hearts, and your eyes will no longer lust after idols. Neither gold nor steel nor concrete will turn you from my path.
In those days, the forests shall blossom and the plains shall bear fruit, and children shall play and sing with joy, for they shall know me in their hearts. In those days, there will be no poor among you, neither shall any seek to be rich, for your hearts shall seek justice and your hands will lift up one another, and your voices will praise the Lord, and joy shall fill the land. Then you will be the light I have called you to be, a light that shines to the world, for I will illumine you with the light of my Spirit, which will shine for all to see.
For Paul and Peter, God’s covenant with Abraham continues in the New Covenant through Christ. The Abrahamic Covenant can also help guide us to respond to difficult issues in our own time, including the recent school shooting in Florida.
Sometimes fiction seems to create reality. Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie portrayed what was then a caricature of the American financial system. In it, Wall Street trader Gordon Gekko proclaims, “Greed is good!” So far as I can tell, no one had ever said that before. though clearly Stone intended to convey that some people already believed it.
In the ensuing years, the slogan has been echoed not only by Wall Street traders like Ivan Boesky, but by economists and commentators. Both Bill Maher and former [Obama] Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank have quoted this line from the movie with approval.
Our current president, Donald Trump, said, “You can’t be too greedy.”
And it is clear that acquisitiveness is what makes our economy tick. We exploit resources and cheap labor. That’s part of the fundamental philosophy underlying our economic system. We borrow money to buy more stuff. In May and June of 2015, several websites, including conservative Business Insider and more liberal CNN Money, warned that Americans are “saving too much” and (in the words of BI) “it’s killing the economy.”
Our economic system embraces this simple truth: “Greed is good.” We’ve heard it so often, most of us no longer question it.
Yet the Bible differs. “Greed is idolatry,” Paul says in Colossians.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” (Col 3:5-6)
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, promiscuous men, the lazy, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, author-modified translation)
And he’s not alone. From Jesus
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” (Luke 12:15)
“You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 16:24)
To the writer of Hebrews
“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” (Hebrews 13:5)
The message is clear: Greed and God are mutually exclusive.
We have been deceived!
But the deception doesn’t end there.
I once expressed to a dear friend, a devout Catholic, my concern about the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those of others.” At the time, I was dealing with anger issues and was plagued by unforgiveness. How could I expect forgiveness when I was unable to forgive others? He said, “That’s not what Jesus meant.” Really? Jesus spells it out pretty well!
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Another time, a Protestant reader of my blog took exception when I quoted Jesus on loving our enemies. She said that wasn’t what Jesus really intended. Really? Jesus discusses it at length (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36), and he doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity.
How is it that we, a supposedly-Christian nation, accept these deceptions without thinking?
The Bible warns in many places about the Deceiver, Satan, and those who are convinced by his lies. One site lists 35 such verses. Jesus warns that he will try to lead even “the elect” astray (Mk 13:22, Mt 24:24). The Deceiver tells us what we want to hear. He offers an easier path. He wants us to believe that we are beyond his grasp just because we go to church, though Jesus’ warning tells us otherwise. He even wants us to believe he does not exist!
How is it that, though Jesus cast out many demons and instructed his disciples to do likewise, we don’t believe in evil spirits? We have been deceived! Those very spirits are whispering to our hearts, wanting us to believe they don’t exist so they can do their work without interference.
And their work is to lead us astray.
A friend of mine just attended a funeral of a family member who ministered for over 30 years to those considering suicide. He had no history of depression himself. Yet one day, he took his own life.
A couple we know, both Christians, came to us and asked for help because they were afflicted by demons. But before they completed the deliverance process, they decided that going to church was enough and deliverance was unnecessary. The irony is, what could deliverance hurt? We don’t charge for it. All they might lose is an afternoon of their time!
These people were deceived.
I’m not saying that every mental and physical illness and every wrong belief is caused by an evil spirit. But I am saying that many mental illnesses are exacerbated by spirits, and sometimes spirits are the actual cause. Wrong belief may not be caused by spirits, but the spirits will certainly take advantage of it!
Last night, my son woke my wife up after having a dream in which he was being crushed. He complained that his hands had gone numb. It didn’t pass like a normal “hand going to sleep” sort of thing, and she considered taking him to the ER. Instead, she decided to check for spirits, and when she had cast them out, his hands returned to normal.
One might argue that the timing was coincidental. Yet I’ve seen this sort of recovery happen often enough that I am convinced that spirits do affect our lives.
Not only that, I have the gift of discernment. I can often see them.
Contrary to what the Enlightenment worldview tells us, the spirit world is real. Not all spirits are evil. I’ve seen benign spirits, which we call fairies and others call earth spirits. But I’ve also seen the dark ones– shadows, and animal forms, and humanoid shapes all lurking with the intent to do harm. They can even disguise themselves as spirits of light! (2 Cor 11:14) Test every spirit– though they lie and deceive, an evil spirit will not confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
The good news is, there are rules these spirits have to follow. Christ conquered them. The war ultimately has been won. But, in our own time and experience, the battle continues. But, with the authority given to us by Christ and some basic knowledge of the rules, we can get rid of these deceiving spirits.
But only if we don’t listen to their lies, because they are going to do their best to convince us that they don’t exist, that we don’t need deliverance, and that this blog post is the ravings of an unstable person.
It’s not often that my past career as a tax accountant intersects with my future career as a minister, but the recent 7th Circuit Court decision does exactly that. An anti-religious group challenged the minister’s housing allowance, and won. That won’t be the end of the story. The decision will be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. In the mean time, while ministers will suffer in the 7th Circuit, which covers IL, IN and WI, it’s unlikely the IRS will change the rules for the rest of the country until the matter is resolved by the courts.
The problem is, there’s a world of misunderstanding behind the suit and the decision. As one opponent of the decision said,
“This tax provision ensures that faith leaders like South Side, Chicago-based pastor Chris Butler receive the same tax treatment as other employees who must live in the communities they serve-like military service members, teachers, and overseas workers.”
And there’s the rub: secular employees who are required to be on-call, on-site are entitled to tax-free housing allowances. This includes not only teachers and emergency workers, but dairy farmers, factory specialists, and others. The key is the requirement is that they are on-call on-site, 24 hours a day.
The clergy housing allowance actually applies not only to “ministers of the Gospel,” as indicated in the original law, but to clergy of any religion. Why do they require a special law? Because their’s is a special case. Unlike most employees, IRS regulations specify that most ministers are to be paid as self-employed workers–sort of. They receive a W-2 from their church (not a 1099), but the church does not withhold taxes (including social security) from the minister’s check. The minister pays these taxes on Schedule C, just like a self-employed person. Presumably this is because IRS knows the part-time, probably volunteer church treasurer has no idea how to figure payroll taxes, and hiring a professional can be burdensome.
Like a self-employed person, a minister gets to deduct his or her business expenses. Oddly, though, if a minister makes extra money from performing weddings and funerals, for example, these must be reported on a separate Schedule C, along with their related expenses. Yet this extra income and expense is combined with their primary Schedule C to calculate the tax.
Unlike most self-employed people, but like an employee, a minister is allowed a housing allowance that is exempt from income tax (but not FICA taxes) if they are on-site on-call. And on their Schedule C, they are required to reduce their business expenses by the proportion of their income that comes from the housing allowance (so long as that housing allowance was actually used for housing)– but only for income tax purposes, since the housing allowance is taxed for social security.
For example, let’s say a minister earns $10,000 in a year, and she gets an additional $5,000 for housing. She has $750 of expenses. For self-employment (FICA) tax purposes, she earned $15,000 and gets to deduct $750. Her taxable income is $14,250. But for income tax purposes, 33.3% of her income came from housing allowance which is exempt from income tax, so she has to reduce her expenses by 33% and can only deduct $500 in expenses. Her taxable income is $9,500.
If this sounds complicated, it is. This is one of the most difficult calculations I’ve encountered in the arena of individual and small business taxes. And it gets worse once the minister is semi-retired and has pensions and other sources of income.
Moreover, it’s up to the church (or other employer) to determine whether the minister will even get a housing allowance. This differs from an employee, in which circumstances (i.e. on-call on-site) dictate whether a housing allowance is involved.
So, are ministers getting a benefit denied to secular employees–or are they burdened in a way secular employees aren’t for the same benefit? It’s hard to tell. There are some benefits to clergy, such as deducting their business expenses without having them subject to the 2% haircut on Schedule A. On the other hand, they pay both parts of their FICA (social security) taxes, twice as much as an employee. And they’re going to pay as much as 3 times more to have their tax return prepared!
The judge in this case recommended simplifying the law so that employees of any 501(c) organization are subject to the same laws. I concur. They will still have to address the status of ministers as statutory employees taxed as self-employed persons. But at least the system would be consistent.
Back to the original argument: The issue here is not that secular employees are denied this benefit–it’s that ministers by their nature are a special case.
Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come.
Before them fire devours,
behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste— nothing escapes them. (Joel 2:1a-3)
I had a vision yesterday. First, I saw a wave moving across the land, shaped like one of those tubular waves that surfers love. It was not made of water. It was made of locusts, and fire followed it. Then I saw fireworks in the sky, and the Lord said, “See, I am going to do a new thing.”
This is not the first time I’ve had a vision of locusts and fire. In the previous one, when I asked God if this could be prevented, he replied, “Look around you, it’s already burning.”
He also assured me, and instructed me to tell others, that “Those who dwell in the Kingdom will not be harmed.”
God uses two kinds of prophecy: historical prophecy and apocalyptic prophecy. Historical prophecy reveals events that will happen in the course of human history. For example, the fall of Israel and Judah, the Exile, and the return of the remnant to Israel were all predicted by the prophets and occurred in our historical timeline. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple which happened in 70 AD.
In contrast, apocalyptic prophesy predicts what will happen when God reveals and fulfills his final plan, at “the end times.” These prophesies deal not with individual nations or persons, but with the eventual form of God’s Creation, including the New Heavens and the New Earth. The nations are conquered. There is one ruler, and that is Jesus. But here’s where it gets confusing: The “end times” were inaugurated with Jesus’ resurrection. The battle against evil was won. The Kingdom was established… but not fulfilled.
For example, Joel writes,
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:28-32)
The first part has already happened at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been poured out, and that will not be undone. Prophesy and visions have returned to the people of the Lord. But the second part has not yet happened. We live in the times between the inauguration and the fulfillment.
So are my visions of locusts an indication that the end is upon us? Probably not. God still works in human history in the lives of nations and people.
It should be clear to all of us that we live in a nation that fails to live up to God’s commandments. We worship wealth (You shall worship no other Gods but me). We reward the accumulation of wealth (Ah, you who add field to field…). Our system seeks the lowest possible wages to make the products we use (Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts). We wear $200 jeans made by folks who make two dollars a day (The laborer is worthy of his wage). We use cell phones and laptops made with cobalt mined by children as young as 5 years old (Children are a heritage from the Lord). We blame the poor for being poor (Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy). We burn the earth’s resources like there’s no tomorrow (For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children), and we think nothing of it (Your wrath has come, and the time for… destroying those who destroy the earth).
In past visions, God has told me that any parent, when words fail, will find other ways to discipline their wayward children. We are his wayward children. We have failed to heed his word. We have great potential to do good in the world, but we consistently fall short.
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Mt 3:8)
Where is our fruit? We export weapons. We resist helping refugees. We resist anything that infringes on our fossil fuel addiction.
Where is our fruit? Suicides are up 200%. Overdoses are up almost 300%. Mass shootings are up. Antidepressant use is up. Does this sound like a nation that takes joy in the Lord?
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Look at your way of life. How much has it changed since you professed your faith? Does your way of living cause others to look at you strangely? If not, maybe you should look again.
It’s never too late to change. One of the consistent patterns in God’s prophecy is this: warning, punishment, forgiveness, and redemption. The sooner we repent, the less punishment we receive.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
But those who are stubborn receive the full wrath of the Lord.
Now I will shortly pour out My wrath on you and spend My anger against you; judge you according to your ways and bring on you all your abominations. (Ezekiel 7:8)
We’re stubborn. We don’t even like to admit that we have sinned. So let us contemplate John’s words:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. –Deuteronomy 6:5
“Idolatrously we turn our faith and hope toward the immanent powers of technology, medicine, economic security, powerful leaders, military might, and the global rule of our empire to bring about the new world we hope for.” (Douglas Harinck, 1 & 2 Peter, 136.)
Ever since our deliverance from unclean spirits in August , my wife and I have expressed a willingness to help others plagued by darkness. We testified at two churches, and we talked to people that seemed to be tormented (not everyone is, but there are many who are). We cast out a few demons that were causing physical ailments in people we know. There were even a few healings unrelated to spirits. And we kept our own family clean from spirits trying to return, no small accomplishment in itself. But as for freeing people the way we were freed–not yet.
(When I say “we did” and “we kept,” I’m giving ourselves credit for things that we don;t really have power to do. All deliverance and all healing comes through God and the Holy Spirit. Yes, even healing through medicine comes through the Spirit. So we didn’t exactly keep ourselves clean, but we did stay vigilant and ask the Spirit for help. When I say “we did,” what I really mean is, “We showed up and the Spirit worked through us.”)
Last month, several people began talking to us about deliverance. I told my wife, “I think our deliverance ministry is about to begin.”
And we waited.
Last week, my wife felt moved to share her experience of deliverance with a woman she had just met. The woman, whom I will call Sarah, was clearly moved and asked if we could help her family. Her husband, Bob, is a meth addict, had been up for several days, and was approaching a state of psychosis. He’d tried to stay clean before but hadn’t been successful. From what Sarah described, her family was experiencing a complex interaction of emotional wounds, addiction, and demons. Sarah called us later that night and begged for our help. We agreed to come to their home two nights later.
We had no idea what we’d be walking into. Would Bob be high? Psychotic? Violent? Could we even be of any help in this situation? My wife and I both have backgrounds in substance abuse, so we didn’t expect to be surprised, but we were very much aware of the chaos that adorns the lives of many addicts and their families. We brought with us another friend who is very strong in prayer.
We arrived to find that Bob had slept a little the night before, but had used again. He claimed the drugs were bogus, that he wasn’t really high. His twitching, constant talking, irrational trains of thought, and inability to sit still said otherwise.
We prayed, and then talked a little about deliverance. We made sure they understood that whatever we accomplished that night would be just a band-aid, a temporary reprieve to give them breathing room to work the steps, get some help, and prepare for a full deliverance. As we chatted, it became clear that both of them thought the other was the problem–not unusual in an addict-codependent relationship. Sarah’s complaint against Bob didn’t need to be spoken, it was obvious. He was paranoid and almost impossible to talk to. Bob accused Sarah of not being fully committed to the relationship, which Sarah denied. In fact, Sarah made a promise aloud to all of us that she would approach deliverance with 100% commitment and honesty.
“Well,” Bob said, “there’s no point in going forward with this right now.”
He got up and left the room, and returned with his glass pipe.
“I need to get rid of this,” he said. “What should I do? Flush it?”
“Don’t flush it,” my wife objected. “That will mess up your plumbing.”
“Put it on a plastic bag and smash it,” I suggested.
Bob headed for the kitchen, and I followed. He was so twitchy that as he fished under the counter for a plastic bag, he knocked the pipe against the counter and broke it. Glass showered over the counter and the floor. Bob swore.
“It’s no big deal,” I assured him. “Let’s just get a broom and clean it up.”
As Bob swept, I could hear my wife in the other room talking to Sarah about deliverance. Our friend stood in the space between the two rooms and prayed loudly.
Bob argued with Sarah about what dustpan to use. Then, as he emptied the shattered glass into the trash, he said to me, “You can hear Sarah telling lies about me out there, right?”
As we returned to the living room, it was clear that talking wasn’t going to get us anywhere. We began praying. Then we broke some curses, including the curse of addiction. Bob squirmed on the couch, obviously miserable. I anointed him with oil and bound the demons of methamphetamine, not knowing if it would do any good. To my surprise, he calmed down, and we proceeded with the deliverance process. Bob actually became somewhat rational by the time we finished.
But it didn’t last. Ten minutes after we left, Sarah called. Bob was preventing her from taking the car to go to her mother’s house, and she was scared. I called Bob, and he accused my wife and I of taking Sarah’s side. He couldn’t hear anything I had to say, and soon lapsed into unintelligible accusations, then he hung up.
My wife and I sat at home later, processing what we’d experienced. On the one hand, it was clear that the Spirit had worked through us. For a time, at least, the Spirit had calmed even the effects of Bob’s being high. But on the other hand, their insanity had returned almost as soon as we’d finished. We consoled ourselves in the hope that we had planted a seed that might sprout at some point in the future–if Bob lived long enough.
The next day, I reluctantly called Bob, expecting another unintelligible stream of accusations. This is what he said:
You’re not going to believe this, man! I went into my job, and they were going to fire me but instead they just gave me a few days off. So I drove home and I thought about using, but I turned on some worship music instead and I got home without using. Then I had this really powerful experience of Jesus. I went down to Sarah’s mom’s and I got my son, and I apologized to him for being such a bad dad, and I promised to do better. And he was like, “What are you talking about?” So I sat on the couch and held him. Then I got up, and something took hold of me and threw me to the ground, and I started choking. And I don’t know where the words came from, they didn’t come from me, but I said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, leave me alone!” and then it released me. And I have felt such peace ever since that moment. My son drew a picture of what he saw, and it was like a huge green cloud coming out of me. I’m telling you, man, something has changed. I’m not going to use anymore!
I was stunned and awed. I’ve had powerful spiritual experiences, but nothing like that. Here was a man who, less than 24 hours earlier, had been on the verge of psychosis. Now he was both clean and rational. I commented on the amazing experience, and reminded him that this was just a reprieve. God had given Bob grace, and now Bob needed to respond to that grace by working the steps and following through with the deliverance process. He assured me he would, but I had my doubts.
I spoke with Bob again this week. Eight days after our meeting, he’s still clean, and he’s begun making an inventory of his sins and gateways. A week clean may not seem like a lot, but when you’re an addict, it can feel like an eternity.
What will happen next? That depends on whether Bob and Sarah follow through. God gives us grace, but it’s our job to respond to that grace with fruits worthy of repentance. As Paul makes clear in Colossians 3:1-17, new life in Christ is not just a matter of professing faith, but of cleaning up our old behavior and living in love and compassion.
I voted on Tuesday, mostly because I wanted to support a local candidate for state delegate who was an unusual choice: A Democrat with an actual platform that addressed concerns I think need to be addressed, including security, health insurance, and such. As a Christian, I don’t always vote. When presented with two really bad candidates for president, for example, I’m unwilling to compromise my values. Evil is still evil, regardless of the party it represents.
The line I’m not willing to cross is not always clear, however. For example, I was pleased to see that my state’s soon-to-be-former governor lost. For one thing, he supports the repeal of Roe v. Wade. As a Christian, I’m opposed to abortion. But as an American, I recognize that there is no consensus on when life begins, and I’m not willing to impose my beliefs on others. Christianity is a choice, not a requirement. I do wish that every woman who considered an abortion would hear the baby’s heartbeat before she made her decision. I wish that birth control was universally available and free. And I wish we had structures in place to facilitate the easy adoption of babies born to parents who can’t or won’t raise them. And yes, I wish that Christian values were more widely practiced. It’s a shame that many young women these days see their value primarily in being a sex object for men (and it’s hard to place the blame for that on women). But I can’t in good conscience impose my beliefs on those who haven’t chosen them where there is no societal norm to support it.
The election has once again focused my attention on the relationship between Christian and nation.
I remember an email I received back in 1998, before Facebook, when people sent their political rants as emails rather than memes. That particular email claimed that Muslims could not be American citizens because their primary allegiance was to Allah, not country. Even then, at a time when I was not Christian, I understood the irony of that claim: a Christian is likewise called to give his or her allegiance to God and only God.
How is it that we miss this? Perhaps it’s because when we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we don’t know what a Lord is. We don’t have lords anymore, so it may be a confusing term for us. Here’s what Google Dictionary says:
“Lord (n.): someone or something having power, authority, or influence; a master or ruler.”
In other words, a lord demands our allegiance. And the Bible itself tells us we cannot serve two masters (Mt 6:24).
Put another way, if I proclaim Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I cannot also pledge allegiance to a flag or a nation– not without lying to either one or the other.
The Bible also tells me to be subject to authority (Rom 13:1. 1 Pet 2:13). That, too, can be confusing. But consider the context. In Romans, Paul has just finished arguing for a radical Christian life of feeding the poor, blessing those who persecute us, and overcoming evil with good. Likewise Peter is about to argue that we should suffer injustice at the hands who have authority over us and persecute us despite (or because of) our doing good. Clearly “be subject” is not the same as “obey.” We are to live out our values as a community, accepting the price when our values conflict with those of the State.
Yet somehow the American Christian message often holds up our nation as the spearhead of Christianity, suggesting that allegiance to the nation is equivalent to allegiance to God. This is the nation that committed atrocities in King Phillip’s War, massacred the Pequots, and used biological warfare in Pontiac’s War. It’s the nation that stands alone in having used nuclear weapons against people (and those people were civilians, not soldiers). It’s a nation that has squelched democracy in Central and South America, Iran, and many other countries. And it’s a nation that, when attacked, invaded a country that had nothing to do with that attack, beginning a war that continues to this day.
Who would Jesus bomb?
Don’t get me wrong: I know that no nation is perfect. My ancestors formed and founded this country, and I’m (mostly) proud of what they did. There’s a lot of good here, too. But to equate the United States with God… well, it makes God come up a little short. Our nation is not the ideal representative. And no other country is, either.
As a Christian, I am called to follow Christ–to the Cross if necessary. I am called to live as he lived, do what he did, and teach as he taught, regardless of what my nation’s leaders say or do, and even if they do it to me. God’s grace makes this possible. And God’s grace demands a response from me. The New Covenant, like the old, has two parties.
Yes, Paul writes,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).
Yet his next words are:
“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10).
Jesus, for his part, says,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12).
Paul tells us that the nations are part of the problem, and ranks them with evil spirits as our enemies:
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
Why? Because even in a democracy like ours, those with power seek more power. Power corrupts. By definition, our leaders are corrupted. As Christians, we seek not the ideal earthly government, but nothing less than the Kingdom of God with Jesus as its ruler.
How do we somehow think it’s enough to profess, and to live the way everyone else does? How do we ignore Jesus’ instructions to love one another, to love our enemies, to feed the poor, and to give our last copper coin? How do we put our faith in armies and police forces, in walls and in guns, and not in the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ?
It’s true that following Jesus is not easy. Neither he nor any other New Testament writer said it would be. I fall short. I’m sure almost everyone does.
But to put our allegiance in the nation rather than in Jesus is nothing short of idolatry, one of the worst sins the Bible recognizes. The prophets condemn it (e.g. Hos 2:2, 16-17). Paul identifies it as the source of all debasement (Rom 1:24-25, 28).
Let me be blunt: to be a “patriotic American” is to be an idol worshiper. Yes, I’ll vote in an election when moved to do so. I want what’s best for the people of America. I’m a Christian, how could I not? But my allegiance is not to this nation or to any other. It’s to a Kingdom that has been established here on earth, but has not yet been fulfilled.