What do I love about America? I love the land, one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the world (and I’ve visited many of them). I love walking our long stretches of beaches, hiking our majestic mountains, seeing the desert skies, walking beside the rivers, sailing along the coasts, and visiting hundreds of lakes in my home state of Michigan, where I camped as a kid. I even love some of our big cities! “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.” I love our many diverse cultures, including their music, their food, their art, their sports, and their particular stories and histories.
I especially love our best national values: freedom, opportunity, community, justice, human rights, and equality under the law for all of our citizens of every race, creed, culture, and gender, not just for the rich and powerful. In particular, I love our tradition and history of democracy, its steady expansion here, and how it has inspired the same all over the world. We take legitimate pride in seeing how our founding documents have been the models for many new nations.
For me, a very vivid personal experience of that history comes from South Africa, ten years before their first free elections, which put Nelson Mandela in office. I had literally been sneaked into the country to support their persecuted faith leaders and help develop new strategies and partnerships between the South African and American churches. One night, I was staying in the Soweto Township home of Frank Chicane, the head of the South African Council of Churches. Late that evening, Frank wanted to show me something and spread some papers out on his kitchen table. He confided in me that Nelson Mandela, even while still in prison, had asked a few people to begin the drafting of a new South African constitution. And Frank was one of them.
As he began to show me the work, I noticed two other documents on the table: the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Ironically, at that very moment there were two South African military vehicles outside Frank’s house: the one that always parked there to monitor Frank and one to monitor me, because the government had discovered I was in the country. The South African regime of apartheid was being supported at the time by the American government’s “constructive engagement” policy, but inside a little house in a black township, a dissident clergyman was drafting a new constitution based on the documents that announced American freedom. Despite the contradictions in all that, I loved that exceptional contribution from my country.
What I don’t love is when my country violates its values and ideals and behaves badly, as when we supported the white South African government for far too long, as well as too many other terrible dictatorships around the world. I don’t love when my country acts out of greed and only for power, or with blatant hypocrisy, or like an empire. The gospel has never lived easily with empire. Christians have a prophetic vocation, in whatever nation they live, to lift up the values of the kingdom of God and call nations to honor their best values in light of those principles.
Martin Luther King, Jr., did that the best. America was wrong about race—just wrong. My little church in Michigan was wrong about race. King held his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. And he challenged the nation to change. King’s critique was based on the American values we were violating as well as the biblical values we were betraying as Christians and Jews. Likewise, the Arab Spring of 2011 saw youthful protesters force the United States to remember and restate its democratic values, which it had ignored for decades through- out the region of the Middle East. Why? Because of oil. We forgot our values, and a new generation of Middle Eastern activists is making us remember them again. I also love our American social movements: abolitionists who fought to end slavery, civil rights activists, suffragettes, labor organizers, human rights campaigners—these are my heroes.
But ultimately, I love the Jesus movement: the kingdom of God, which knows no nation-state and is God’s plan for the world.
The previous is an excerpt from the book by Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2013. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.
Image: Constitution with American flag and Statue of Liberty, Margaret M Stewart / Shutterstock.com