The Mennonite professor stood in front of his Christian Ethics class at a local seminary. It was the first day of class. “Take out a sheet of paper and answer the following question: What should we have done after 9/11? Quickly write down what you think we should have done.”
Students scribbled furiously for a couple minutes before the teacher interrupted and declared, “I don’t want to know what you wrote. But I do want to know one thing. Who is your we? When you started to answer, tell me which we came to mind when I asked what ‘should we have done’ after 9/11.”
The point was simple yet profound. The students’ we was “we Americans.” For most people in the class at this seminary, their first impulse was to answer for the United States of America. They wrote down what their country should have done after 9/11.
Some had no doubt assumed this would be a discussion about the merits of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars or the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and all the changes that came with it. But the professor needed to deal with a more profound issue. Even these seminary students were thinking as Americans first and Christians second. Their we was the American nation-state.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking as Americans. If you’re a fellow American, then we share a common identity as Americans. We live in a great country. Citizenship provides us with real advantages that we can enjoy.
As Christians, however, our first we isn’t supposed to be our national identity. The we of the Christian faith has nothing to do with birth certificates, passports, skin color, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth or even geography. For followers of Jesus, our we is all those who belong Jesus. Our primary identity is the Kingdom of Heaven. We are children of God, fellow heirs with all who claim allegiance to Jesus.
Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Or elsewhere, “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15). And again, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of on Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
If you want to belong to Jesus, you must also accept that you belong to his people. Your primary identity is in Christ and in the fellowship of faith. Will your country save you before God? Will your ethnicity remove your sins? Will your passport form you into the image of Jesus? Only your identity as a follower of Jesus can do these things, and Christians ought to think as Christians first. Everything else should lie in submission to the we of faith.
I am deeply troubled at what I see in the American church today. It’s sad and disheartening to see what so many people think. Their posts and their comments reveal a primary loyalty to something other than the community of faith.
In one sense, I’m grateful that the truth is coming out. We’re seeing things as they really are. We’re discovering that the we for many of our fellow Christians in the US is not the biblical we but rather an ethnocentric we. Instead of sharing primary allegiance with believers across the world from among people of every nation, language, race and ethnicity, they only feel solidarity with those who salute their flag.
These Christians would have been right at home in Rwanda where ethnicity trumped God’s Kingdom. It has been widely noted that Rwanda was the most Christianized nation-state on the African continent at the time of the genocide. Bowing to incitement and fear-mongering, Christian Hutus massacred Christian Tutsis in barbaric ways. Loyalty to a race was more important than loyalty to Jesus. (I wonder who taught them this version of Christianity?)
It’s bad enough that too many American Christians have fellow Americans as their we rather than fellow believers. Still worse is the fact that some Christians sort themselves out in even narrower terms. Their we is Americans who share the leanings of their political party—either Republican or Democratic. And some go even further by saying that their we is only those who support Trump or Hillary or their particular wing of their party. That’s the we they think of above all else.
Have Christians really fallen this far from Paul’s vision of the people of God? Sadly yes, they have. Of course, we ought to admit that first-century Christians struggled with this as well. Early Jewish Christians struggled to accept believers who weren’t Jewish. And within a century the tables had turned to the point that Gentile Christians had difficulty accepting Jewish Christians who didn’t give up all Jewish practices. But that reality doesn’t lessen the target at which we are to aim.
As Christians we are habitually tempted to focus on the wrong we or to simply make our version of we far too small. In this day of political rancor and hatred, however, can some of us agree to redefine our we in terms keeping with Paul’s vision for the people of God? Let’s be clear that it’s not just Paul’s vision; this is the biblical vision: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:10). Thanks be to God for those who have the vision and the courage to define their we in keeping with our spiritual reality in Christ Jesus. Are we in this together?