Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Does God judge the United States?
Vail, CO, Colorado
Scoring badly on an advanced physics test in high school, I met an academic Waterloo. However, my teacher disregarded this low test score because it wasn’t representative of my prior high grades in the class.
Similarly, does God give the U.S. a pass? When our nation stumbles in its foreign policy, whitewashes its mistakes and pleads innocent, does God look the other way?
Every nation is under God’s judgment. The Christian faith teaches that God judges within history before his final judgment at history’s climax. Though the U.S. isn’t ancient Israel in exile, what happens in our country’s history is similar. Mistakes find us out. “Shall I not punish Israel for these things?” says the Lord, “and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (Jeremiah 5:29).
When President Barack Obama travels overseas, he’s candid about the U.S. not always being right. We shouldn’t assume superior status based on God’s favor for our nation. That every nation falls under divine judgment is a fact of existence. And it’s the height of conceit for the U.S. to trumpet its American exceptionalism in order to separate us from judgment.
Who taught President Obama this biblical, realistic way of assessing our national character?
Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, who died in 1971 at 78, taught in the early mid-20th century at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary. He influenced presidents as well as Supreme Court justices, social activists and historians. When Martin Luther King Jr. penned his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” he thanked Niebuhr for profoundly shaping the tactic of using non-violent protests to battle injustice.
Niebuhr rebutted national leaders who assumed God plays favorites. History shows, he declared, that goodness doesn’t align itself with certain nations and badness with the rest. History’s more complicated. There’s a tug-of-war between virtue and vice. Niebuhr corrected a popular way of reading history that makes the U.S. come out ahead. A mixture of good and evil taints all nations.
President Obama’s overseas addresses serve as updated commentaries on what Niebuhr declared in 1952 when he wrote “The Irony of American History.” In this book Niebuhr indicts nations for claiming unachieved ethical heights to justify their policies.
“If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would only be the secondary cause of the disaster,” writes Niebuhr at the end of his book. “The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”
The worst vanity is to crow that the U.S. is always on the better side of international arguments, furnishes the best answers, and instinctively moves with holy boldness to do the right.
That President Obama, reflecting Niebuhr’s convictions, sometimes questions American exceptionalism irks rightwing critics. They wrongly accuse him of spreading his father’s alleged political radicalism, rooted in hatred against Western colonialism.
Or, pundits err, condemning Obama for not outgrowing anti-1960s-everything. This decade exposed many of our flagrant hypocrisies. Our nation begrudging admitted “segregation of blacks, suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the ‘imperialism’ of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on” as Shelby Steele describes the negatives Obama was supposedly taught in the ’60s. (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 28, 2010, p. A17).
These critics are either religiously naive or theologically inept. They’ve flunked their homework on Niebuhr.
Our president is a Christian. Christianity teaches that God judges and redeems nations, condemns and forgives them, and confounds sinful countries that assume their salvation.
Advent season in the Christian year falls on four Sundays prior to Christmas. Believers are urged to prepare themselves for Christ’s coming –his advent. In the Middle Ages, preachers spoke on four Advent Sunday themes: heaven, hell, the final judgment and Christ’s second coming at the end of the ages.
Today’s preachers avoid these themes. Heaven’s too flighty, hell’s too gruesome, the second coming too fantastical and the final judgment too dour. Our nation desperately needs to hear preacher Obama’s reminder of divine judgment, lest we blithely assume the U.S. needs scant correction.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.
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