By Matt Reffie
You have heard it said that a Good Christian is a Good American... but I suggest to you that a Good Christian is a Kingdom Citizen, one whose fellow citizens are sprinkled throughout many nations.
Growing up, I had the somewhat unique experience of being both a white male and an outcast. When I was seven years old my family moved into a small rural town where, because we were not born there, we were labeled and treated as outsiders. On top of this, we were a mixed Anglo family with no strong ethnic or cultural ties otherwise. We were distinctly American, yet not embraced in the overwhelmingly white American community we grew up in. One positive result of this is that I’ve never really felt an overly close fidelity or allegiance to any particular culture. When topics like celebrating U.S. military victories where blood had been shed or reciting the pledge of allegiance in school came up, they never sat very well with me. How could I celebrate violent deaths, even if the bigger picture had improved? And why would I pledge my allegiance to anyone but God? While it might not always seem like it at the time, there are lots of circumstances where we unwittingly identify with our earthly culture over and above our Kingdom culture.
Culture isn’t a bad thing. There are lots of deeply rich traditions and expressions we gain from our own cultures and the cultures of others. The remnants of my father’s Italian culture that remain in my family today include a penchant for hospitality and a strong fidelity to immediate family, similar to many other cultures. Christianity itself was born out of Jewish culture and very quickly adopted in Hellenist Greek culture and beyond. Culture in itself isn’t the problem. However, we run into trouble when our identity is too closely tied into one particular earthly culture over another. I often wonder if it is wise to even compare one culture as being somehow more Christian than another.
There was this popular saying in the town I grew up in, which was predominantly ‘Pennsylvania German’ or ‘Pennsylvania Deutsch,’ that illustrates the danger of tying ourselves too closely to one culture. The saying was, “If you ain’t Deutsch, you ain’t much” (Deutsch is pronounced Dutch, so it rhymes) It is a prime example of what it looks like to embrace our own culture at the expense of others. It was a saying that was used to exclude newcomers like myself from full fellowship and acceptance in the local community. Most of us have been left out at some point in time. For any who haven’t, I can attest that it doesn’t feel very loving. Though I’m sure cultural slogans also have the intended positive effect of preserving pride in cultural heritage, there are certainly less divisive ways to go about it. Preserving local culture in this way is in direct opposition to the Kingdom culture that Jesus taught. The Jewish culture of Jesus’ time held a similar prejudice against Samaritans, but Jesus went out of his way to teach against this kind of thinking. Kingdom culture tends toward inclusion and embrace of the other. The pride of Kingdom culture is in service to others, not at the expense of others. We have missed the mark when preservation or proliferation of our culture is placed above that of the Kingdom.
The truth is, much of our cultural teaching can be wrong. Just think about a culture other than your own for a minute and you can probably quickly come up with a list of things that you think are wrong and even un-Christian. If you take a few more minutes to do the same for your own culture you may begin to see the problem in identifying with your earthly culture too closely. American Christianity tends to present the notion that the American expression of Christianity is inherently more advanced than any other culture’s expressions of The Faith. American Christianity also promotes the idea that to be a good Christian is to be a good American. American cultural ideals are presumed to be Christian ideals. American interests are presumed to be Christian interests. While it may often be the case that our earthly cultural ideals and Kingdom ideals are in line, there are still plenty of detrimental instances where they are not. We have to find ways to benefit from and celebrate our local cultures without diminishing or excluding others. To do this we have to be honest and aware of the shortcomings in our cultural heritage. The best way to do this is to make sure we’re putting our Kingdom culture first. When our Kingdom culture comes first, we’re better able to recognize when something in our local culture seems out of place. For example, Kingdom culture doesn’t celebrate the other’s death, no matter how deserved a punishment it may seem to be.
There is an important distinction between cultural pride and cultural superiority. We can be proud of the fact that our cultural heritage has enriched our lives, but it doesn’t make sense to withhold that enrichment from others based on birth or bloodline which we have no control over. The reality is, when Christ came into my life he gave me a new identity that should always trump my old identity when ideals conflict. In Ephesians 2:19 we are similarly told, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (ESV). Kingdom identity doesn’t necessarily completely negate our earthly culture, but it does become our primary identity, and it is an identity we share with people scattered throughout all cultures and nations. In my hometown there are Pennsylvania Deutsch Christians, some who have been welcoming and some who have not, but some day we will all come to recognize each other as brothers and sisters of the Kingdom first and maybe even enjoy our cultural differences second. Until then, as Kingdom citizens now, we should always do our best to let our Citizenship show, through our attitudes and actions, so that we might enjoy each other all the sooner.
You have heard it said that a Good Christian is a Good [Insert Cultural Ideal Here], but Christ says to us ‘a Good Christian is a Kingdom Citizen.’