As our country prepares for another transition at the top, what does it mean to be a Christian in America? How do we access our rights and responsibilities as followers of Jesus in the United States?
A good, basic principle is found in a helpful quote from the late Richard John Neuhaus. He reminded us that “Christians are called to walk not the road to political victory, but the way of the cross.”
I think Neuhaus is right. But what does that mean in practice?
I have recently been reading the New Testament Book of Acts, and I think we see, in two back-to-back episodes from the life of the Apostle Paul, a guide for how we put that principle into practice.
In Acts 16, Paul and his companions have come to the Macedonian city of Philippi. As was Paul’s custom, they seek out Jewish believers to share with them the good news of Jesus. Because Philippi had no synagogue, they find a group of Jewish women praying outside the city. Paul shares the gospel, and a prominent woman named Lydia answers the call to follow Jesus.
Paul continues on in Philippi, and continues to teach and preach. While there, he encounters a woman with a “spirit of divination,” whom he heals. This leads to anger on the part of her masters, and leads to Paul and his colleague, Silas, being thrown into jail. When an earthquake rattles them free (literally), they have an encounter with the jailer – and they lead him and his family to Christ.
The next day, Paul is told he is free. Great! Take your tunic and run, Paul.
But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he tells the police, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now cast us out secretly?” (Acts 16.37, RSV).
In other words: You guys can’t get off that easily. We’re not leaving quietly when you took away our rights. Paul claims his Roman citizenship, without apology, using it to stand up for his rights and their responsibilities. He is not ashamed to say: I am a Roman citizen; give me my due.
The leaders apologize to Paul, and he heads to Thessalonica, where there is a synagogue. Paul goes in and starts teaching. Many listen and believe. But still others hear and get upset – upset enough to start what is essentially a riot. And the mob goes looking for Paul at a house owned by a man named Jason. They can’t find Paul, so they drag Jason before the authorities. And notice what they say: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also … and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).
Notice what got them so upset: Paul was proclaiming another king beside Caesar. Let’s be clear: Them’s fightin’ words. To say that, openly, in a Roman city is to invite yourself back into another Roman prison cell.
In Philippi, Paul is not afraid to claim his rights as a Roman citizen. In Thessalonica, Paul is not afraid to speak truth to the leader of the Roman empire. In one, Paul claims what is rightfully his. In another, Paul speaks clearly what is rightfully not Caesar’s. In both cases, Paul uses his voice to speak truth as a Roman citizen, in Roman cities. All while staying true to his calling to walk in the way of the cross.
It seems to me that there’s a message for those of us trying to navigate as Christians in America:
- As Americans, we shouldn’t be ashamed to claim that reality. When our country’s pledge is “liberty and justice for all” – we should seek that, for others, and for ourselves.
- But we must also remember that we are not first Christian Americans, or even American Christians. We are Christians who happen to live in America. As such, we must never be afraid to remind Caesar that he is not god. Lovingly, faithfully, and humbly, we must continue to pledge allegiance first to Jesus – and lift him up as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Like Paul, we who are Americans are citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. With that, come privileges – and responsibilities. Let’s wisely continue to use both, as we choose to bow to no other god but the One who showed us that the path of life goes straight through a cross.