Christian Americans or American Christians — who are we?

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As our religious convictions become increasingly filtered through blue- or red-colored glasses, Christians in the United States seem to be more of a force for division than unity.

The problem isn’t the disagreement. The letters of the New Testament reflect that the church has been rife with disagreement since the ascension of Jesus. Paul and Priscilla, James and Junia — the early church leaders in the Roman Empire grappled with issues just as contentious and diverse as the questions with which Christians in the United States struggle today.

Taking our cue from the early church leaders, we should definitely care about how theologically sound orthodoxy reflects justice, righteousness, and mercy in our personal actions and in our national legislation.

But as we consider how to move forward as a politically divided body of Christ, we shouldn’t start with specific legislative or ethical questions about abortion, the death penalty, gun ownership, climate change, the wall, or whatever else. Starting here will only lead to more resentment and disunity.

First, we need to answer a more fundamental question about identity: Are we American Christians or Christian Americans?

The question may seem semantic, but it is fundamental to everything we believe, especially when we make those beliefs law. Are we Christians who happen to be American, or are we Americans who happen to be Christian? Which do we value more: our citizenship in the United States or our citizenship in heaven? What is more important to us: the blood we share with fellow Americans because of a shared ethnicity and history, or the blood we share with humanity because Jesus Christ died for all?

What is it: America first or kingdom first?

Paul certainly asked himself and the church in Philippi the same questions. False teachers had told the Gentile Philippians that they needed to become like Jews to inherit the kingdom of God. Paul clarified that these false teachers had it backward: They saw themselves foremost as Jews who happened to believe in the saving power of Jesus.

Instead, Paul says, when you make following Jesus the core of your identity, your earthly citizenships — the circumstances and affiliations into which you were born by chance — are of secondary importance:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Philippians 3:17-21 (NRSV)

“What is it?” Paul is asking. “Where is your citizenship?”

Sure, your earthly citizenship might be in Rome (or the United States). It might be in a specific denomination or biological family.

But your heavenly citizenship — if you take the call of Jesus seriously — is in God’s kingdom. Not just in the future, but right now. Both are important. But which one is the core of your identity?

There are Christians of all political persuasions who place their political, ethnic, denominational, or other “citizenships” over their kingdom citizenship; people who identify more closely with non-Christian Americans than with Christians of other nationalities; people who relate more to non-Christians who also happen to be fellow Republicans or fellow Democrats than Christians of a different political party.

So next time we see a news story or enter a debate about legislation, let us remove the plank from our own eye: Let us examine how we are placing our earthly affiliations over our heavenly identity.

Only then will the name “Christian” in the United States become less associated with political affiliations and legislative preferences and begin to reflect the radical choice that is following the ultimate citizen of God’s kingdom, Jesus Christ.

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