God Bless America
The 4th of July is an interesting American holiday; one celebrating both legal separation from Great Britain and the approval of the Declaration of Independence. American yards and beaches transform into gathering places for smoking grills, waving flags, and smiling faces. The night’s sky glistens amongst stunning aerial displays of light and color—symbolizing the hard-fought victories of our forefathers.
Yet one particular—seemingly innate—aspect of the July 4th holiday has, for me, become problematic: The phrase, “God bless America.”
Hear me out.
For some, “God bless America” is used as little more than a benign greeting; one that both recognizes and participates in societal norms and expectations (perhaps a problem in itself). But for many, I fear “God bless America” is used as a political statement of moral superiority; a signifier of the country’s right-standing before God.
Yet how, in a country that historically and systematically disenfranchises both the denizens of war-torn countries and its own citizens, does one come to such a position? Are we to assume God has given carte blanche approval to the pursuit of our national interests? If Jesus returned today, would he cheer the state of our prison systems, our economic and educational priorities, and—most importantly—our government’s treatment of the poor, sick, and destitute?
Would Jesus give the United States of America his blessing?
If so, what would this blessing look like? Would Jesus’ blessing consist of a republican president and a bustling economy? Perhaps universal healthcare or a simple, “Well done.” And after such a blessing, how ought we respond? Should we give ourselves a proverbial pat-on the-back? Should we point to ourselves as an example for the world?
To those considering the question(s), I invite you to read a section from the Book of Luke:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that (Luke 6:27-33).
Assuming God does bless the United States of America, divine blessing—in and of itself—does not necessarily imply right-standing before God. Indeed, passages like Luke 6:28 and Matt 5:45 suggest that God blesses all, including those whom curse and mistreat others.
What does this mean for the United States?
First, it means we cannot point to our nation’s prosperity as a sign of right-standing before God. It also means not allowing this country’s broad stripes and bright stars to blind us to our collective shortcomings. And it conveys the very real possibility of God’s blessing on the United States as cause not for immediate celebration, but rather, as God blessed Judah and Jerusalem with the discovery of the Book of the Law, for the tearing of clothes in despair.
As I see it, “God bless America,” if it is to ever be uttered, must invoke heartfelt desire for God to open this country’s collective sight to the reality of rampant suffering. Not unlike Josiah’s response to the discovery of the Book of the Law, receiving God’s blessing may very well mean recognizing, repenting, and reforming.
We may not have access to Josiah’s rediscovered scroll, but we do have the faces of helpless, suffering children, which ought to have infinitely greater call on us than any institution or heavenly decree; it is in these faces that the ethical demand of Love is written. Not a love that loves only those who love back but rather a love that embraces the stranger, the enemy, and the outsider.
And with that in mind, I say, with fear and trembling, “God bless America.”