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Turns Out, G.I. Jesus is a Fraud

Written by: on September 2, 2020

I grew up in a white, conservative, Christian military town among the cornfields and dairy farms of western Wisconsin. We celebrated our veterans, waved American flags whenever we could, preferred white folk over people of color, were pro-life, and spoke frequently about God’s special blessing on the U.S.A.

In 1991, I viewed Operation Desert Storm through the lenses of seemingly trustworthy news sources. It was in the perspectives of news anchors and the politicians and pastors that they interviewed that I learned of the fusion of God and Country. Each seemed to celebrate our military might as they pointed to decisive and destructive victories as clear evidence of God’s special, preferential favor of America. Surely the American military was a messianic servant sent by God into the nations to rid them of evil and to point the way to democracy and, ultimately, to eternity.

I saved my allowance in order to purchase the complete set of Desert Storm trading cards. With camouflage borders, the cards portrayed Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell as international saviors who wielded the finest in military technology over Saddam Hussein and his seemingly inferior and very evil entourage.

The cosmic battle of good versus evil was being fought in Iraq and, thanks be to God and American G.I. Jesus, my team was winning.

I stood with tears in my eyes as the plane carrying our local soldiers broke through the clouds and landed on our local airstrip. My chest burst with pride when the plane doors opened and soldiers with familiar faces and names descended the stairs. Goosebumps the size of mountains formed on the skin of the welcoming community as “God Bless the USA” rang out over the loudspeakers.

God and Country. I didn’t know where one ended and the other began. While I thought I was Christian, I had, in fact, been discipled into what Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry refer to as Christian nationalism in their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.

 While the authors do well to illustrate Christian nationalism in all of its various iterations, they define it succinctly as “a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”[1] Not synonymous with evangelicalism, white evangelicalism, conservatism, nor racism,[2] Christian nationalism is a fierce fidelity to the nation-state that is baptized as Christian faithfulness. Or, as aptly stated by sociologist Philip Gorksi, “[Christian nationalism] is political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy.”[3]

Far from suggesting that every citizen of the United States adheres to Christian nationalism, the authors lift up for categories of US Americans who differ in their proximity and affection for its ideals.  The four categories are Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, and Rejecters.  Rejectors “believe that there should be no connection between Christianity and politics”[4] and utterly “repudiate the notion that the United States is a Christian nation.”[5] Resisters are a bit less decisive than Rejecters. They lean toward opposing the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation[6] and are uncertain about “allowing the display of religious symbols in public places.”[7]Accommodators are very similar to Resisters with the exception that they lean toward accepting the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and that this reality should, in some ways, shape our national ethic and politic.[8] Lastly, Ambassadors wholeheartedly support Christian nationalism, believing without doubt that the United States “was founded upon Christian principles.”[9]

Instead of lingering further on these four categories that are expertly woven together in Whitehead and Sperry’s research and writing, I want to explore in a bit more detail the very idea of Christian nationalism for, in the fusion of the two words, I suggest that we find a dangerous conflict.

Simply put, the two words do not belong together.

To be Christian, in the very simplest of definitions, is to be an imitator of Christ.[10] To imitate Christ is to embody the posture of the cross on behalf of another. It’s a power-under approach to life, love, and leadership that ever sees and elevates the humanity, dignity, and image of God in another. It is a way of life marked by selfless sacrifice for the sake of another’s liberation, restoration, and transformation. This is a kingdom of God orientation.

Nationalism, in the very simplest of definitions, is one’s unquestioning allegiance to the values and ideals of the nation-state at the expense of others. The very idea of nationalism suggests a scarcity mentality and supports the accumulation and protection of power, abundance, and safety. It’s a power-over approach to life, love, and leadership that ever diminishes the humanity, dignity, and image of God in the self and the other.  It is a way of life marked by greed, self-preservation, and violence for the sake of one’s own sense of well-being. This is a kingdom of this world orientation.

Understood as such, the two words, Christian and nationalism, do not belong together. The Kingdom of God orientation operates in a radically different way than that of the kingdom of this world.  Take, for example, the moment in Gethsemane when pawns of the religious and political system come to arrest Jesus in Matthew 26:51-53. Likely influenced by upbringing and the intensity of the moment, Peter defaulted to a kingdom of this world strategy when we unsheathed a sword and swung it at his perceived enemy in an attempt to separate the man’s head from his body. In response, Jesus rebuked Peter and healed the severed ear of a beloved image-bearer. In so doing, Jesus exposed the illegitimacy of the power-over approach and revealed that the power-under approach rejects violence while prioritizing holistic healing, even of one’s enemy.

In these tumultuous times I find it troubling that Christian and nationalism are being fused together. The two words simply represent diametrically opposite kingdoms. I argue that no nation-state can be fundamentally Christian nor can a Christian identify as a nationalist.  Thus, it seems important that we recognize that Jesus did not come to improve or tweak the kingdom of this world.  He didn’t even come to offer a perfected vision of the kingdom of this world.  Instead, those of Christian conscious would do well to recognize that Jesus came to offer an alternative kingdom.  As Dr. Greg Boyd so aptly stated, “Jesus entered a power-over zone to plant a power-under Kingdom.”[11]

The adventure that we’ve been saved into is to navigate the former with our allegiance to the latter.

~~

[1] Whitehead & Perry. Taking American Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. 10.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Ibid., 29.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] See Ephesians 5:1-2.

[11] Boyd, Greg. Taking America Back for God? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyxmD3lCN8Q

 

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

10 responses to “Turns Out, G.I. Jesus is a Fraud”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, your story at the beginning reminded me of all the patriotic church services I was part of growing up. Like a lot of churches, Veteran’s Day and Independence day meant that small American flags were taped to the ends of pews, that we would honor the families of soldiers past and present, and that our worship was done to the glory of America. Every year, there was someone who would sing “God Bless the USA” and everyone would “gladly stand up” at the appropriate time.

    I wonder if the power in these moments lies in that, for the 3:08 of that song, we’ve stepped out of our individualistic lives and have joined a collective, common identity with others. We look to one another and say, “The person next to me is an American, just like me. I’m not alone.”

    But what’s so interesting to me is that I’ve only seen that within the American church on those days. Every other Sunday, there was no looking at our brothers and sisters and thinking, “The person next to me is a Christian, just like me.” There was no joining of the collective soul, but rather the consumeristic “What am I getting out of this?” mentality.

    Two kingdoms and many more identities are vying for that central position of who we see ourselves as. One of the bigger questions is which one is going to win out in the end.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Wow. That moment in that song is truly riveting and exposing of where many of us place our true allegiance. Thanks for lifting that up. It draws to my mind a city-wide prayer breakfast that I attended that began with the pledge of allegiance, the star-spangled banner, God Bless America, and God Bless the USA BEFORE we got to the actual praying. It was a nationalist worship service and helped me begin to understand how dark and deep this deception truly is.

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Thanks for sharing from you family past. We are deeply influenced by the cultural area in which we were raised. I grew up in a patriotic University town in Montana but don’t ever remember my family saying anything about that being an American is being a Christian. They promoted our responsibility to live out our faith in the public forum and promoted ethical governmental policies. My dad fought in World War 2 and was proud to serve but never once did I hear him correlate that with being a Christian responsibility. Nor did I hear him as I grew up during the Vietnam War encourage people to join the military. My first experience with Christian Nationalism was as a bio-vocational youth pastor in Wyoming during the early 1980’s. I presented the gospel to a group of young people and they stated they were already Christians because they were Americans. It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now.

    You bring to mind a valid concern based on the location and culture you in which you were raised. I would have liked to have seen a deeper look in the book into the cultural demographics by geographical area and population density. I would also like to see the results of a study in those areas predominantly oriented around military bases. The greater Seattle area has a huge military presence throughout the Puget Sound and I don’t see a heavy influence of Christian Nationalistic thought here. I don’t doubt it is here I just don’t see it as openly presented. I wonder if the more culturally diverse an area is more resistant they are to Christian Nationalism?

  3. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Excellent idea. The voting maps that emerged out of the 2016 election have caused me to ask different sets of questions of people who live in different parts of our country. I was recently visiting with friends in Wyoming who would identify as Resistors while pastoring in a community of Ambassadors. The code-switching necessary in order for them to pastor in that context is such a remarkable undertaking…and because they’re doing it so well, they’re not converting folks into a different grouping, but into a more faithful, contextualized followership of Jesus.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Jer,
      I’m going to hop in here, because this term is new to me. What is code-switching and how is this Wyoming community doing it well? What does that look like on a practical and discipleship level, especially when leadership and congregants are on opposite ends of the Christian nationalism spectrum?

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        Hey D.

        Sorry for the later reply.

        Code-Switching is the practice of constantly moving in and out of different languages in the same conversation. Folks of color, because they’ve had to learn how to function in a world made by and for whiteness, are remarkable at this skill. There’s the native soul language that they speak but know that they have to say things differently when they are in predominantly white spaces. I’m finding that this is also the case within American Christian settings that those that I wrote of where a follower of Jesus who is awakening to a more authentic Jesus and faith that’s worth their lives has to find ways to communicate to others of the beauty and liberation being experienced within the hopeful alternative. Does that make sense?

        Regaridng your second question, on the one hand, I think that pastors & leaders try to universalize everything and lose everyone. On the other hand, they simply shape a community of people who tend to believe, live, and sound like them. A third way requires a leader to understand their audience very well and communicate in a way that pushes every person to the edge of their comfort level without trying to convert them of a particular idea. I think that John McLarty might have some helpful insight for us on this issue.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    The Jer you describe is so drastically different than the Jer I experience today. Brother, what was the catalyzing event(s) that catapulted you on a different path? I imagine your story here continually provides motivation in your current ministry endeavors.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Time spent within a country that was consistently being bombed by US drones and taking refuge with the “enemy” had a way of awakening me to a alternative narrative. So many more than that, but that one was a very significant crucible.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    In your story, I see a flesh and blood example of just how easily, conveniently, and necessarily the narratives of US America and Christianity have been woven together. I confess it’s taken me a very long time to even begin to question what and who might be behind all of this and what their reasons for doing so might be.

    I remember being a gung-ho young pastor in my first “senior” appointment and quietly hiding the American flag which had been at the front of the sanctuary. It took weeks for anyone to notice and even longer for anyone to say anything, even in a small, very conservative community. This church was accustomed to young “up and comers” so they barked a little, but didn’t give me too much static about it. Until 9/11 hit. After that, the flag came back to stay and I didn’t say a word about it.

    Even though we might faithfully kneel before the cross, there’s something about US Christianity now that is so intertwined with our American identity, that “fixing our eyes on Old Glory” as one politician recently said, seems as natural and normal as Jesus, apple pie, and AR-15s.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Spot on, John.

      One of the many dangers of Christian Nationalism, in my opinion, is how stealth the “Nationalism” has usurped the “Christian.” Thus the need for folks from the underside of power to audit our life and leadership. We cannot see what we’ve been trained not to see.

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