The events of Sept. 11, 2001, affected the American psyche. There was a sudden upsurge in patriotism, and a willingness to allow God in the public sphere. When people feel helpless, it is natural for them to seek supernatural help.
Few of us will quickly forget the images of planes striking buildings, of the huge fireball, of the dramatic collapse of buildings and the enormous rubble pile that killed thousands of people from scores of nations. Those horrors have left an indelible impression on the American and the Free World psyche.
Though the most visible and greatest tragedy was in New York, we do not forget the crimes that killed hundreds in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. We do not have a convenient symbol or label for these multiple acts of terrorism; we are left with the ungainly expression “the events of Sept. 11.” We are left with a dispersed enemy — criminals scattered in any number of remote nations.
And people are left with mixed feelings about some Free World values, such as respect for individual rights. They’ve been taught to treat everyone equally, and yet now they find themselves fearing some people more than others. They want certain people to be given a more thorough security check than others. Their values are being tested.
Church and state
Another area of mixed feelings is the separation of church and state. Many Christians mix their religion with their patriotism, and I suppose that this is to some extent unavoidable. Nations have done that for millennia. Armies going to war always have religious leaders to assure the troops that their god(s) are on their side.
But it seems to me that Jesus and Paul don’t give any support to a blend of faith and politics. The goals of the gospel are quite different from the goals of a nation. One stresses justice, the other stresses grace and mercy. One stresses material prosperity, the other focuses on spiritual reality.
Governments try to make this world better, and indeed it is their God-given responsibility to do that. But when they succeed, people often begin to trust in the government instead of in God. In times of prosperity, people tend to focus on material blessings instead of their spiritual needs. And sometimes churches get distracted by dreams of national greatness (Nazi Germany is one example, but we must not forget that religion was also used to justify slavery, colonial expansion and American massacres of Indian tribes).
Christianity tells us that this world is fallen and sinful, and it won’t be fixed by better laws, better armies or religious wars. We are not going to usher in the fullness of the kingdom of God through human effort. We need the return of Christ, and until then, the Bible tells us, we live as aliens and strangers on earth (Hebrews 11:13). We are looking for a nation with foundations laid by God himself (verse 10). Our primarily allegiance, our primary citizenship, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Nevertheless, we are also citizens of earthly nations, and we have responsibilities in and for these nations. At a minimum, it means that we pray for our nation’s leaders so that we might have peace and freedom to worship (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We pray that God would give these leaders wisdom in the way they seek justice for criminal acts. This is by no means easy — that is why we pray for supernatural guidance.
But we need to distinguish between religion and government. The bullets flying in various wars are not Christian or Kingdom of Christ bullets — they are bullets and bombs of individual nations, and there will always be a difference between the kingdom of God and national governments. Nations have the God-given responsibility to punish evil-doers (Romans 13:4), but they remain nations as they do it; they do not become the kingdom of God. When Paul wrote, Rome spoke and acted for Rome, not for God, even though God often used what Rome did in its own interests for his purposes.
Of course, terrorists often mix religion with military action. They may portray their conflict as a holy war between their faith and others, and that is another reason why we need to keep our faith and our patriotism clearly distinct. America is not representing a religion — it is fighting for national interests. As Americans, we support those legitimate national interests. As Christians, we trust in God for mercy, safety and courage.
As Christians, we want God to bless Muslims, too. Those people also need the gospel. But bombs and bullets are not the best way to preach Christ. They might be the best way for America to seek justice, to try to bring order to a chaotic world, but they are not a means of spreading the gospel. We have mixed feelings. We pray for justice, and we pray for grace.
There are no simple answers to the problems we face. In this fallen world, we will always have problems that can’t be solved. There will be troubles if we act, and troubles if we don’t. One problem will lead to another, and another, and yet another, until Christ returns.
But let me leave you with some good news: Our hope in is Christ, and in him we are secure. “We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). Our future cannot be threatened by bombs, bullets or chemical weapons. Even if we die, we win.
Christ has shown us how to conquer adversity: through faith in God. When we trust in him, we win. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).
Even if in some way-out scenario, religious fanatics take over our nation, the gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Even if they declare Christianity illegal, we win. That is because we do not measure success by political power, but by faith.
The gospel gives us the most secure platform possible. Not even death can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38-39). The really good news is that God wants everyone to hear the gospel and to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) — and it is for that reason that we pray for our national leaders (verses 1-2). We pray for peace, not merely for our own benefit, but especially for conditions that help spread the gospel.
Friends, pray for your nation — not because it is a better nation than others, but because it needs the gospel. All nations are sinful, and the citizens of all nations need repentance, humility and forgiveness. Pray that in one way or another, people might see the gospel as what they really need.
As Christians, we are free in Christ to support our nation in all its legitimate endeavors. As Americans, we are free in the Constitution to worship and believe as we see fit. That is, I think, the greatest blessing God has given America, and as loyal Americans, I believe it is our worthy duty to support that freedom.
How Does God Bless America?
Many have sung “God Bless America.” But have they stopped to consider how God blesses America? What are the truly good things that God has given America? Does God bless America by giving us more money and goods, so that we can trust in money and goods? Does he bless us with luxuries that distract us from thinking about the purpose of life?
In the old covenant, God promised to give Israel national blessings for obedience, and national curses for disobedience. Israel broke her covenant with God, and the land was taken over by outsiders. But in the new covenant, God takes away our sins and gives us his righteousness through faith in Immanuel, God with us — Jesus Christ, the perfect human. Our inheritance is not land and it is not a great nation — it is eternal life.
Perhaps what Americans need is the courage, integrity and unity to defend its Constitution, which guarantees our freedom to worship and believe as we see fit. And perhaps what we need is faith — faith that God loves us even when we hurt, even when death is at the door. And maybe what America needs is the gospel — good news that in the midst of human sin and pain, God holds out the gift of pardon and new life in Jesus Christ.
Indeed, God bless America!