Friday, July 1, 2011

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Image taken from Cover Browser
It's no secret that the "evangelical voter" is a big ticket in American elections. I have no idea how much money is spent trying to win them over, but I'd bet quite a bit that it's a large sum. A large part of the rhetoric employed in this campaign involves the notion that America is, or was, a Christian nation. Of course, lots of ink has been spilled arguing that this neither is nor ever was the case (the founding fathers were deists, America was founded to be a secular nation inspired by the writings of Locke and Montesquieu, etc.) In many ways, Greg Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation is yet another text of this sort. However, Boyd is not only arguing that America is not and has never been a Christian nation, he is arguing that it can never be a Christian nation.

The center of Boyd's argument is that Christianity is centered around living the example of Christ. Christ did not conquer through power or force, but instead overcame through the crazy, irrational act of submitting himself to death on a cross. Christians, Boyd argues, are to follow in his footsteps, changing others lives through the "power under" force of sacrificial love, instead of the "power over" force of the sword.

Boyd's argument here is strong. It is certainly true that all governments are held up by the sword, even those governments that use it sparingly necessarily have it. It also seems equally true that Christ commanded us not to resist evil, to love our enemies, etc.

It is important to note that Boyd doesn't think we, as members of a democratic nation, to refrain from participating (except in wars it seems), but that we should clearly understand the difference between the good work our government does, and the work of the kingdom. This is, perhaps, were things become less clear. I'm simply not sure how one is supposed to play both involve oneself in government, and yet treat it as something totally different than one's Kingdom calling. Ultimately, the Kingdom of God is supposed to be a redeeming power, making everything new, including, I would think, nations.

There are a few other places where I find his arguments to be problematic, if for no other reason than the tactics he takes. For example, he falls into the obnoxious tendency of seeing the pre-Constantinian church as some sort of idyllic model of what he thinks Christians should be - ignoring both its flaws and the possibility that the Church is a maturing entity.2

It is important not to conflate what Boyd is arguing for here with a simple notion of "separation of church and state." Yes, in the end, that seems to the practical import of it, but what drives it is quite a different matter. This is not about political or religious freedom, but about the nature of God's Kingdom.

In the end, I think much of what Boyd draws out here is true, and should be taken seriously. Governments are violent, nations are tribal. However, in the end, we think we should interact with them, we should never conflate them with the mission of God in this world. Doing so leads to the commitment of all kinds of atrocities. The job of the Church is not to preserve the moral fiber of an immoral world, but instead to love directly. And that, in the end, is I think the most important lesson of this book. It's far to easy to judge from a distance, to do "moral work" through the proxy of government. Of course, governments are moral agents, since laws are inevitably moral in nature, but our job as Christians isn't necessarily to police that agent. Instead, our job as Christians is to get into the trenches, to be there with the sick, the dying, the prisoners, the widows, the prostitutes and the tax collectors in face to face relationship. It is only when you know people face to face that you can even begin to know how to act.

So, I recommend picking up this book, if for no other reason that to shake up some of your perceptions of the world. It's certainly not timeless, and should be read with a critical eye, but it has some good lessons to teach.
1. While this is generally seen as a conservative problem, it can just as much be a problem for liberal Christians who seek to make the world more "Kingdom-like" through, say, wielding the power of government to crush corporations.
2. Which it quite clearly is, if you pay any attention to the development of things like the scriptural canon, or orthodoxy theology (Christology, Trinitarianism, etc).