Theology & Mercy: Separate yet inseparable

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Last week I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a “culture panel” hosted by my friend Rebecca who teaches foreign engineers & businesspeople upper-level conversational English. For example, all of the 7 students in the class speak German & work for BMW.  Coart & I joined to help answer questions (and pontificate) about American culture in general, including “taboo” topics like religion and politics. Our discussion ranged from international affairs to the health care debate and American church/social history.

The experience was stimulating, refreshing … yet humbling. Question #2 from the students came from a lady who asked why America, being a Christian nation, seemed to have little problem with war. The issue of how much our popular media loves violence came up repeatedly. (One dear soul confessed that, thanks to her view of America’s love for its guns, if she were ever stranded somewhere and approached a nearby house for help, she’d get shot! We quickly assured her that’s not usually how we roll!)

A bit later, someone asked why America, being a Christian nation, cares so little for its poor. We tried to explain that Americans value having the opportunity to be charitable with our own money, rather than hand it over to the government to distribute.

In the second hour, one man (wisely) commented that Americans confuse nudity with sexuality. The Germans can’t comprehend why we care so little for human life and so much about body parts.

All but one of them are non-Christians. Many might be non-theist. Yet they attribute many aspects of American culture to Christian culture, and sharply note the discrepancies when they see them.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have understood these issues the same way. It’s taken the loving rebuke of Christian scholars and careful reading of the Word to change my myopic view of the Gospel. I read a Psalm a day to my homeroom class (this year, I have 7th graders) and daily the psalmists smack me in the face with the obvious connection between claiming to serve a God Who is Just and the necessity to see His justice expressed in human institutions. It’s an imperfect, difficult, frustrating, and sometimes impossible work (perhaps in my lifetime, anyway) but I cannot escape it.

Whether we Christians want it or not, the mantle of responsibility for the religious welfare of America’s citizens falls about our shoulders. The Gospel cannot be a merely individual proposition. Even the most hearty dispensationalist cannot scrub away the descriptions time and again in Acts: “And so ______ was saved, and his {her] household.” The Psalms (especially those of David in the first half) set up a vision of a Good King for the land of Israel:  a man who fears the Lord, who speaks up for the weak who are easy targets for oppression; who makes sure the poor in his kingdom are cared for.

America is the richest nation ever to exist in the history of the world. We celebrate our extreme good fortune by sipping $4 lattes and complaining when gasoline for our inefficient cars rises above $3/gallon.  Our population, 5% of the world as a whole, consumes 25% of the world’s resources. 

We revel in “the good life”:
Our cars are big.
Our houses are huge (by even European standards).
Our food is rich and fatty and caloric when 1 billion of the world’s population faces malnourishment this year due to the rapid rise in food prices the world over.
To Americans, our democratic political system is messy and inefficient; to the rest of the world, our openness, freedoms, and lack of corruption in government processes (comparatively) provoke green streaks of envy.
We hoard our riches, close our borders, and pretend none of us had to get off the boat in the loins of our grandfathers who fled the sickness of Europe (or Asia) for a better life.  Or maybe our ancestors were dragged here in chains. Either way, we’re faring better than the descendents of the native Americans we found here.

Last Monday’s German class humbled me.  It called me back to a “cruciform life” … no corner of my life can be left unturned by the Gospel.  When America speaks, thanks to the millions of Christians residing here in peace and prosperity, it speaks (and acts) with the stamp of the Church’s approval.  In a rare fit of agreement with Doug Wilson, I say our first duty must be to repent for not doing a very good job sometimes.

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