Behind The Song: “Jesus Was Not An American”

Fully Alive cover

The song “Jesus Was Not An American” from my new album “Fully Alive” (listen to a clip of this song on i-tunes) starts out with an apology I’ve wanted to make for a long time…

Let me start with an overdue apology/  to some veterans of foreign wars I’ve known/  In my attempts to be a man who stands for peace/  I regret some of the arrogance I’ve shown/   Looking back sometimes I wish I’d kept my mouth shut/ and met you in some human place beyond who’s right or wrong/ and listened to you speak of what can still bring you to tears/  and honored what you’ve lived with all these years

 When I was a pastor in a small northern Wisconsin town in the mid 1980’s, I sometimes preached some controversial and hard-hitting sermons against war in general and against some of what the U.S. was doing militarily during the Reagan years. I had no ideological axe to grind and no agenda other than to try to be a faithful preacher. And though I was just 25 when I started that pastorate in 1984, chances are I would still agree with the overall content of whatever I said in those sermons. I’m no more in favor of war as a way of resolving differences now than I was then. In fact I’m probably more anti-war now than ever.

But what I regret was the extent to which I was flat out “clueless” when it came to how those sermons probably sounded and felt to some of the vets in my congregation. Most of them were WWII vets. Some served in Korea or Viet Nam. Many of them went through absolute hell when they were in combat. Some of them held their friends as they breathed their last breath. Many of them still struggle to live with the things they had to see and do and experience when they were soldiers.   A lot of them still can’t really even talk about it.

Over the years, as I’ve been privileged to just sit and listen to what some of my veteran friends have been through in various theatres of combat, I’ve come to a place where just about any soldier gets a pass in my book. Most of my opinions feel trite or somehow beside the point. My heart simply breaks for what these men and women had to go through and what they have had to try to live with.

Very few of them asked or chose to be in the battlefields. They all did their best under incredible pressure. They tasted fear and horror of a magnitude that few of us will ever know. Beyond the policies and reasons for the wars, they “did their duty.” And I’ve never been in their shoes. So a huge part of me just feels as though I should shut up and simply honor what soldiers have been through—not because I agree with war under any circumstances—but because these men and women were simply doing their best to serve with honor. Most of them truly believed they were fighting “for freedom” in one way or another. I’m not going to argue that point with any soldier or with the families of soldiers. I just want to honor their intentions, even if I don’t always agree with their perspectives.

But this “God and country” stuff—the sentimental synthesis of biblical faith and patriotism—wrapping ANY nation’s flag around the cross of Christ and claiming that “God is on our side” or that God favors our cause over that of an enemy—is dangerous in the least, and at worst, flat out idolatrous.  And to somehow suggest that the God of Jesus cares less about the death of so-called “enemies of our state,” civilian or otherwise, than God does about citizens and soldiers of the U.S., is to at best ignore and at worst to make a mockery out of so many of Jesus’ teachings—most specifically his mandate to “love our enemies” and to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated.

Precisely because the heart strings connected to the “land of our birth” run so deeply within us, we need sometimes to simply and bluntly remind ourselves that God—the Source—the Creator of All that Is—The One whose Essence is Unconditional Love–is not the tribal deity of any one nation or group of people. For those of us whose spirituality is grounded in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, every human on the planet is created in the image of the Creator and is a child of God. The Divine will not be reduced to the mascot, cheerleader, or chaplain of any one country. If we are going to pray that God will bless our nation, we need to also pray that God will bless the people of every nation. As I say in the bridge of “Jesus Was Not An American”…

 I’m glad to pray that God will bless our troops/  But the Love of Christ crosses all borders and boundary lines/  So I’ll pray for troops of every land and I’ll pray most fervently/  For the innocent defenseless whose lives are torn apart/  When policies are reckless, and so-called “smart bombs” are not so smart

 I love the U.S. and believe that at our best we stand for some very noble ideals (though it should be acknowledged that our founding fathers also had some serious blind spots when it came to the rights of indigenous peoples, people of color, and women).  One of the principles I value most deeply (and I do so as one who is motivated by the respect and love I find grounded in biblical teachings) is the separation of Church (i.e. religion) and State.  Out of respect and love for those of my “neighbors” who do not believe in God at all, I don’t want anyone’s take on religious matters to be imposed on others, and I certainly don’t want a theocracy.  What a disaster that would be.  As another presidential electoral cycle is already kicking into gear, I think we need to make this point as clearly and strongly as possible.  Because as a follower of Jesus I am called to treat others as I myself would want to be treated, I don’t want Jesus or Christianity or ANY religious perspective forced on others.  I wouldn’t want someone else’s religion forced on me, and that’s why I won’t force mine on others.  And I don’t want religious Truth–beyond a general sense that virtually ALL religions value and stand for Love at their core (despite the extent to which most all religions have been distorted and misappropriated by violent and hateful subgroups)– to be forced into the discussions at the heart of electoral politics.

Yes, we have a beautiful Constitution and Bill of Rights, and when we act according to those principles we are often among the best that nation statehood can offer this world.  Sometimes we even line up beautifully with biblical values and Sacred Scriptures of many different religious traditions.

But the United States is not God’s “chosen nation.” God does not love or favor the U.S. over and against other nations.  Yes, I hope and pray that we as a nation state will choose to stand for biblical concepts and Truths such as justice, kindness, compassion, earth-keeping, love, mercy, freedom, respect, and the well-being particularly of the most vulnerable folks among us. I will work hard in respectful community with others in our pluralistic culture to see these concepts and Truths realized in our common life and in our nation’s policies.  But I will pray and work to see these things realized for the peoples of all other nations as well.  Yes…

 I know this is hard for some to hear/  But Jesus was not an American/  And when the nations rage, and the gears of warfare grind/  Jesus weeps for the victims on every side.

Note:  “Jesus Was Not An American” is available for download on i-tunes on Bryan’s new release “Fully Alive.”  You can also purchase the physical CD have have it shipped to you immediately by clicking here.