Saturday, May 10, 2014

America is Not the New Israel

I'm reading a book for my book club this month that I wouldn't have chosen myself.  It's called The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn, and it uses a Dan Brown-style fiction approach to communicate the author's idea that certain events in American history are foretold in ancient Bible prophecy.  I'm not going to give an in-depth critique of the book at this time (partly because I haven't finished it!), but I do want to talk about its main premise, because it's a viewpoint that I've heard many times and which I think is doing more harm than good to Christianity in America.

Here it is in a nutshell, quoted directly from the book:
Israel was unique among the nations in that it was conceived and dedicated at its foundation for the purposes of God. . . But there was one other-- a civilization also conceived and dedicated to the will of God from its conception. . . America. . . Long before the Founding Fathers[,] those who laid America's foundations saw it as a new Israel, an Israel of the New World.  And as with ancient Israel, they saw it as in covenant with God. . .  
Not that [America] was ever without fault or sin, but it would aspire to fulfill its calling. . . To be a vessel of redemption, an instrument of God's purposes, a light to the world. . . No nation in the modern world has ever been given so much. None has been so blessed. . .  
[But] America began ruling God out of its life, turning, step by step, against His ways. . . In the middle of the twentieth century America began officially removing God from its national life.  It abolished prayer and Scripture in the public schools. . . removing the Ten Commandments from public view, banning it from its public squares, and taking it down, by government decree, from its walls. . . God was progressively driven out of the nation's public life. . . The standards and values it had long upheld were now abandoned. . . [what we call "tolerance" is] a tolerance that mocked, marginalized and condemned those who remained faithful to the values now being discarded.
The idea that America is the new Israel, the new chosen, covenant nation for God, does indeed go back to the Puritans and Separatists who came to the New World in the 1600s.  It has been part of our national mentality since its inception, and it is one of the main forces behind Christian engagement in the "culture wars" that seek to uphold America's symbolic civil religion as if this outward and cultural religious consciousness were the same as the actual faith that Jesus taught.  The loss of the hegemony of America's civil religion is thus held to be tantamount to the nation's "turning away from God."

But as far as I can see, the whole of the New Testament is against any idea of a new nation taking on the position or status of Israel; indeed, the New Covenant precludes any such notion.  America cannot be the new Israel, nor can it enter into a covenant with God as a nation in the way Israel did, because the New Covenant is about the kingdom of God, not about any nation on earth.

As 1 Peter 2:9-10 says:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (Emphasis added)
To come to God through faith in Christ is to become part of a new, holy nation. The New Covenant is the covenant in Christ's blood (Mark 14:24) which makes us part of this spiritual nation; it simply does not envision covenants with earthly nations.  Ephesians 2:11-21 speaks of how all who are in Christ are part of one "new humanity" and "fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household."  The covenant God has made through Christ is sufficient; additional covenants with earthly nations are not envisioned.  Everything taught in the New Testament about God's covenant in Christ denies the concept of God making a new, Israel-type covenant with any earthly nation, America included. 

And of course, there's also the problem that despite what the Pilgrims hoped for their colony, the idea of America as dedicated to God from its inception is simply not true.  The first American settlement, Jamestown, was a secular colony established for profit and for the expansion of England's power.  The Dutch settlements in what would become northern New England tended towards religious pluralism and tolerance, and since the Dutch were eventually assimilated into the English colonial framework, their ideas became interwoven with the emerging nation's self-understanding:
By their actions, the Founding Fathers made clear that their primary concern was religious freedom, not the advancement of a state religion. Individuals, not the government, would define religious faith and practice in the United States. Thus the Founders ensured that in no official sense would America be a Christian Republic. Ten years after the Constitutional Convention ended its work, the country assured the world that the United States was a secular state, and that its negotiations would adhere to the rule of law, not the dictates of the Christian faith. The assurances were contained in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 and were intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced.John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers. (Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion, summarized by Princeton University Press.  Emphasis added.)
The idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and is viewed by God as the new Israel leads to a number of practical problems.

1.  It distracts us from seeking first the kingdom of God.

Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33)."  When we focus on how America is supposedly falling away from its great destiny as God's chosen nation-- when we spend our energy on trying to restore the hegemony of American civil religion-- we can't pay much attention to building oneness as Christians, centered around love and service and the kingdom of God. And yet Jesus never prayed, "That they may all maintain Your Ten Commandments in public places and uphold traditional values throughout the land."  He prayed, "That they all may be one, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me (John 17:21)."

2.  It leads to spiritual pride.

Romans 12:3 says, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you."  To think of America as a chosen, covenant nation leads to thinking of ourselves as American Christians (intentionally or not) as somehow more chosen and in a better covenant relationship with God than other Christians.  And when the American civil religion begins to lose its former powerful monopolization of the public square, we begin to think of ourselves as virtuous victims of evil religious persecution-- whether that image is truly accurate or not.

3.  It focuses our attention on minor issues and passes over our nation's greatest sins.

This is the crux of the matter, I think.  When we get distracted by whether Christian "traditional values" have supremacy in the land, and when we decide that making room in the public square for other faiths means America has "abandoned God," we are actually majoring on the minors.  To Israel God once said that far more important than their sacrificial system was "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)."  But throughout its history, these things are exactly what America has failed to do, over and over again.  From the treaty-breaking appropriation of Native American lands and the genocide of Native peoples, to the enslaving of African captives and the disenfranchisement of their descendants, to the internment of Japanese Americans, to the strong-arming of American interests over weaker countries of the world, America has continually shown that it is not truly following Christ and His law of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

In fact, the "chosen nation" mentality can act as a justification for this very behavior. As Betty Wood said in The Origins of American Slavery,
In New England, Puritan settlers used slavery to reinforce their image of themselves as religious refugees. Those that could not enter into the covenant and be saved were subject to servitude as approved by Scripture.
And according to this Excerpt from "Joshua and the Promised Land" by Roy H. May, Jr. (on the Joshua Website of the United Methodist Church, Global Ministries):
The sense of divine election and the identification of the Americas with ancient Canaan were used to justify expelling America's Indigenous Peoples from their land. The colonists saw themselves as confronting "satanic forces" in the Native Americans. They were Canaanites to be destroyed or thrown out. . .

Land rights of Native Americans were never taken seriously. Rather, they were seen as obstacles to the colonists' need for land. The Puritans did not respect the farms of Native Americans. They sought "legal" ways to get their land. If a Native American broke one of the rigid Puritan religious laws, the fine was paid by giving up land. In this manner, some Puritans were able to amass large landholdings through the Massachusetts courts. John Winthrop, for example
[the same man who preached that the colony was to be God's "city on hill"!], obtained some 1,260 acres along the Concord River.
If we truly face ourselves, we have to admit that these are America's besetting sins from the time of its inception, and that we ourselves often still participate in systems that harm whole groups of people while even blaming them for what happens to them.  Whether or not children are praying a government-sponsored prayer in school, or whether a copy of the Ten Commandments hangs in our public buildings-- these are really beside the point, aren't they?

To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.  To trust, believe in and follow Jesus, to love as He loved, to serve as He served.  This is what we are meant to be doing.

Not to be struggling and striving to keep America from "falling away" from something it never was in the first place.

America is not the new Israel.  No nation is, or should be.  This would be a good time to let go of the myth.

1 comment:

heather said...

Good points!