Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Different Kind of Beast: Evaluating America in View of the Kingdom of God

September 11 happened for me on September 12, 2001. I had taken a year off from college to serve as a volunteer youth pastor in Melbourne, Australia, so, in my time zone, the attacks occurred during the late-night hours of Tuesday, the 11th, and the early morning of Wednesday, the 12th. Instead of letting me sleep in (as youth pastors are wont to do), the father of my host family knocked on my door sometime before 6:00 a.m. As I opened my bedroom door, he told me, “They brought down the Twin Towers!”

All my sleep-deprived brain could muster was: “They finally did it.”

I was a relatively well-informed young adult, and my mind immediately went to the previous attempt on the Twin Towers and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the event shook me emotionally. I spent the day watching the replays of events resembling the fantastic climax to Tom Clancy’s thriller, Debt of Honor, which I had read as a teenager. I have never been so grateful to turn off the TV and go to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

A Mixed Record

Many of the youth I served were the children of Central and South Americans who were forced to relocate to Australia due to the political instability and human rights abuses of the Cold War. Some apparently had socialist associations and had to flee right-wing governments that would ‘disappear’ such people. Others may have had connections to rural land ownership that made them a target of communist guerillas.

As it became clear the United States would invade Afghanistan, the reactions of my Latin American co-religionists to me as a young Anglo-American abroad who shared their passion for discussing current events shifted from sympathy to concern bordering on outrage. To them, the United States was not the country I grew up in that had brought religious freedom to Eastern Europe without firing a shot and ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait. It was the United States that trained the death squads of right-wing dictators but nevertheless was unable to end the communist insurgencies that terrorized the countryside.

It would be easy to attribute their skepticism of the ability of American power to remake Afghanistan to having observed failures of the same in its own hemisphere. The US military’s botched withdrawal from Kabul weeks before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 can be taken as a vindication of those predictions that my country’s valor was about to exceed its discretion. But that was not the only perspective informing their reluctance to welcome, in the words of President George W. Bush, “this crusade, this war on terrorism.”

A Prophetic Perspective

I remember one older gentleman, who had likely come to Australia when his country was ruled by a ruthless, CIA-installed dictator. He asked me how American Adventists could justify serving their country’s armed forces, given the Seventh-day Adventist historic teaching that the United States would become an eschatological enemy of God’s people. I told him about the conscientious cooperation of men like my grandfather and Desmond Doss. I explained that American Adventists had come to see that the US military could do some good in the world and had left the matter of killing in war to conscience. But he wasn’t convinced. To him, the United States was still the land beast of Revelation 13. “What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14).

Despite the rise of China, the United States of America remains the pre-eminent geopolitical power on earth. Like the Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων; lit., “Kingdom of the Romans”) in the time of Christ, it competes for our affections and threatens to eclipse our quest for the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33; Greek: βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ; also, “empire of God”). And like the Roman Empire, it can distract us by seeming to be a powerful enemy we must overthrow to prepare the way for the kingdom of God (John 6:15, compare with 18:36 and 19:15).

I submit that the identification of the United States of America as the beast of Revelation 13:11 that “had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon” can give us a prophetic perspective that we need to arrive at an evaluation of America in the twenty-first century that is consistent with full commitment to the kingdom of God. I will do so by explaining how that interpretation allowed Ellen G. White, the spiritual founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to arrive at such an evaluation in the nineteenth century. (I will not address the exegetical and historical basis for this interpretation.) For the political challenges of that time were not qualitatively different than those we face today.

Ellen G. White’s Evaluation of America

Ellen White believed that the United States is a blessed nation because God had raised it up to provide and protect religious liberty as expressed in the democratic-republican and dissenting Protestant ideals written into the US Constitution. The freedom of the believer’s conscience before God taught by (1) Protestantism and the protection of civil liberties afforded by the limited government of (2) republicanism were the two horns that constituted the lamb-like nature of the United States: the political upshot of the self-sacrificing lamb of God, whose kingdom is not of this world, who draws with love rather than coercing by force (John 18:36). Ellen White believed that God had granted the US its material advantages because it had realized more religious freedom than any other nation.

She also believed that the US had not been faithful to God's purposes from its inception when the Puritans, who came to America seeking religious freedom, enforced worship and doctrinal conformity in Plymouth colony. She believed that the Civil War was God's judgment on America for denying liberty to African-Americans. These are the dragon-speech: the legislative expressions that “give the lie to those liberal and peaceful principles which it has put forth as the foundation of its policy” (Great Controversy, 442)

This seems to me to be a clear-eyed view of the character of the United States that holds up in broad-strokes and even seems prescient today. America is a different kind of beast. No other power represented in Revelation combines the character of the lamb, Christ, with that of the dragon, Satan. As the largest of the world's wealthy, free nations and the guarantor of their security, it is a nation of extremes: at once extremely good and extremely bad. Its boosters and its critics are both generally correct, and many of the best and the worst things that people believe about the United States are true at the same time. But it takes a theological perspective that regards America in light of a broader divine purpose to see that one doesn't have to take a side on the question of American greatness to evaluate its contradictory character.

Evaluating America on September 12, 2021

On September 12, 2001, members of the US Congress stood on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” The following Sunday, the future President Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright recited a litany of American atrocities and declared that “America's chickens are coming home to roost. On April 13, 2003, he preached a sermon with a similar point in which he proclaimed, “Not God Bless America. God damn America.”

Ellen White's evaluation of the United States can be appealed to in half by both ‘God-bless-‘ and ‘God-damn-America’ Christians to support their views on how to maintain/attain God's blessing on the nation. This divide has been exacerbated by the first US president to practice the politics of demagoguery that the founders and framers feared would come and past presidents have sought to avoid because of what they read in the histories of the classical and medieval European republics. I have observed that this kind of politics drives Christians to seek shelter in their cultural identity group by sending increasingly extreme signals of ideological loyalty. For the God-bless-America Christians, this escalating loyalty signaling fosters hyper-patriotism—American traditions, in general, are necessary to achieve the highest human goods—and Christian nationalism—what is good for America brings about God's good purposes for the world. And among the God-damn-America Christians there are corresponding extremes of anti-Americanism—American traditions, in general, must be overturned to achieve the highest human goods—and cosmopolitan internationalism—an open-border federation of the nations is necessary to bring about economic justice.

Apart from more specific critiques, what Ellen White might have to teach both groups is that their contest over the meaning of America is not the quest for the kingdom of God. Contrary to prevailing opinion in nineteenth-century American Protestantism, Ellen White believed that the United States was not God's agent to usher in the millennium of worldwide peace and prosperity, according to their interpretation of Revelation. Rather, America would finally succumb to its hypocritical nature, revoke religious liberty in favor of an explicitly Christian national identity, and provoke an end-time crisis over the Sabbath that would result in a thousand years of worldwide desolation before the re-creation of the New Earth. In Ellen White's telling, America's continued probation as a recipient of God's blessings was dependent on a national willingness to humbly bracket questions of ultimate human destiny relative to human governance in favor of working for social reforms (abolition and later temperance) that would allow individuals and groups freedom to pursue those questions for themselves without being burdened by various forms of coercion, exploitation, sickness, and death.

Again, it seems to me that this is a prudent interpretation of prophecy and politics. The American experiment with liberty is not so exceptional that it will not fail, like all human attempts at government before it. Therefore, in the way we evaluate the United States, Christians should seek to center the meaning of the Kingdom of God as something qualitatively beyond what we achieve in this age.

God is not waiting for us to bring about the reign of America over the earth or the reformation America from all its sins before he can usher in everlasting righteousness. The United States is a different kind of beast, but it is still a beast, a man-made geopolitical power. It is a steward that will turn usurper and be put to death at the return of the King. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the blessings we receive through it while working to reform it where we can, for both point us and others to the realities that will be fully manifest in the eternal kingdom of God.

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