In Celebration of True Liberty
I served for ten years on active duty in the United States Navy; and I supported myself through seminary as an engineering analyst for the defense industry. I have found that people serve in the military and government for a variety of reasons: security, travel, and of course, out of patriotism. Every year July 4th celebrations highlight our nation’s independence. To be proud of one’s country is understandable and admirable. But like any good thing it must be tempered with a healthy dose of moderation and common sense.
When the loyalty for one’s country replaces or exceeds a loyalty to God and neighbor the result is both idolatrous and disastrous. This misplaced loyalty is often referred to as “civil religion” or “nationalism.” Nationalism is generally used to describe two phenomena: (1) the attitude that citizens of a particular nation have when they care about their national identity and (2) the actions that the citizens of a nation take when seeking to achieve or sustain self-determination.
Meet Bob. I’ve worked with Bob on and off for nearly twelve years. Bob is a retired Navy commander and a die hard political conservative. I like Bob; he is smart, hard working, and a loving husband and father. Bob is Roman Catholic. If you ask him about his Catholic faith, Jesus, or the Bible, the conversation will be a very short one. Inevitably, what began as a discussion on the faith will quickly turn to one of a political nature.
For Bob the church’s mission is to be the world’s morality police. He may not be familiar with the basic tenets of the faith, but he can recite verbatim the latest O’Reilly talking points, give you the highlights of Meet the Press from last Sunday, has already read Glenn Beck’s latest book, and can talk ad nauseum about First or Second Amendment rights.
Bob finds his identity in being Republican and all things that fall under the banner of conservatism. In his opinion, the reason the U.S. is blessed by God is that we are essentially a “good” nation. And this is the root of Bob’s problem (and that of all civil religion).
The great enemy of Bob’s world is not sin, death, and the devil. It is a big government that seeks to deprive us of our God-given freedoms, pushing unethical social and economic policies. If the church is going to be of any use to Bob, it is not in preaching Christ crucified for sinners. Rather, pulpits would be put to better use by rallying against gay marriage propositions and mid-term abortions.
How does the weight of the law bear down upon nationalists like my friend Bob?
First, the underlying premise that we are essentially a “good” people and a “good” nation is flat out wrong (i.e. Eph 2:1–2). There are no black hats and white hats in the world according to God, just black hearts apart from Jesus Christ. Second, as one who is politically conservative, I realize that my preference for a small, limited government utilizing Austrian economic principles can offer its citizens and the world a limited good; it will never offer hope to lawbreakers in the life to come.
Two Kingdoms for a Better Country
The bridge for bringing the Gospel to people like Bob is built by defining and distinguishing the two kingdoms which are ruled by the one true King. Many Christian nationalists confuse or conflate what Lutherans call the “Left-hand Kingdom” (civil realm) and the “Right-hand Kingdom” (spiritual realm). Christ is Lord of both, but the two kingdoms operate with different purposes and objectives.
The civil realm is governed through kings, princes, and presidents using the rule of law. Governments care for its citizens not by forgiving sins through Word and Sacrament, but by administering justice. The spiritual realm of the Church, however, operates on the basis of grace and forgiveness found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and administered through the Word and Sacraments.
Scripture acknowledges that no person is good, or can be made good, except that he be born again by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). And even then, he will continue to struggle with the old Adam until glory. Ultimately, you cannot legislate good behavior because mankind’s nature will continue to resist due to its own corruption. There was only one “good” man, the God-man Jesus Christ, and His love was most fully displayed upon a Roman cross when He gave His life as a ransom for many. As St. Paul declared:
For as by one man’s [Adam] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s [Jesus] obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ (Rom 5:19-21).
Christ alone bore the punishment I deserved, and I have received the righteousness that He alone can give as a free and unconditional gift.
And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)
This is true liberty—for when it comes to forgiveness, our Lord can properly be labeled a “liberal.”
While Christians may lean toward political conservatism as a reflection of the law, which is good and holy, we must remember that the law cannot produce that which it demands, namely holiness. For that, we must trust in Christ alone by faith alone recognizing that one day we shall inherit a perfect kingdom, whose designer and builder is God Himself (Heb 11:10). As we in the United States celebrate our independence, let us also give thanks for the greater liberty our Lord has provided.
Brian William Thomas is a writer-in-residence and pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA. His writing focuses on confessional Lutheranism in a post-Christian culture and reclaiming ancient pastoral practices for present day service.
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