Chances are, you might be ticked off at roughly half of America right now. Whichever way you voted on Election Tuesday, you are probably asking—when thinking about the other candidate—”How in the world could that many millions of Americans have voted for that guy?!”
Polarization is nothing new for the United States. Remember the Federalists VS the anti-Federalists? The Whigs VS Democrats? Even today’s divide between Democrats and Republicans goes all the way back to 1854. In fact, today’s divide is relatively calm compared to 1854, the year when anti-slavery northerners founded the Republican Party 7 years before the American Civil War.
In other words, there have always been competing visions for the United States. Ever since the nation’s birth, Americans have typically aligned with one side or the other. Both sides believed that their side was the best vision for their country.
There’s a difference, however, between visions for America and views of America.
Extended family get-togethers have always featured political arguments. I’m certain there were plenty of parent-child spats between whether Nixon or Kennedy had a better vision for the country.
But it’s not uncommon for today’s family get-togethers to add another layer of lighter fluid onto the political conversations around the grill. This added layer has to do, not just with competing visions for America, but with very divergent views of America itself.
Imagine a grandfather who served overseas arguing politics with a grandson who doesn’t even like America. The grandson just completed year one at the university, and he’s rattling off red-meat provocations to red-state people like his granddad. The grandson reiterates phrases he learned that year, such as “Native American genocide,” “Capitalism reinforces white privilege,” and “America is the real terrorist nation.”
Meanwhile, the veteran wonders just how clueless this kid is; would he rather the Nazis had won, and Americans be speaking German? And, if he likes socialism so much, why doesn’t he move down to Venezuela?
These are no longer just competing visions for America. We have become a nation divided between people who love America and those who see it as irredeemably evil until it is fundamentally overhauled. And with Tuesday’s swing back in a more leftward direction, there will be conservatives who see a leftist America as increasingly something to hate. It’s tempting for one half of America to hate the other half and wish it would somehow just go away.
The good news in all this is that the gospel has a way of reconciling people who disagree bitterly.
Remember how Jesus’ twelve disciples included a freedom-loving zealot (Simon) and a former Roman tax collector (Matthew)? If Christ is the center, then peace is possible, even if political disagreements are inevitable.
They were able to unite because they all learned to surrender to King Jesus and His teachings. Their common foundation in Christ gave them a new way to interpret their political disagreements as secondary. In the same way, Jesus Christ is our center today. All our viewpoints are subject to Him.
Under King Jesus, we want to carefully and critically evaluate everything. What does He teach us about life, government, and public policy? We want to be immersed in His kingdom.
As citizens of His kingdom, we learn a 4-word solution for reaching a divided nation. This solution helps us keep the main thing the main thing, as we avoid defensiveness and steer clear of fruitless, flammable fights. If, on the one hand, you are somebody who can’t think of a positive thing to say about America’s past, then you need these 4 words. If, on the other hand, you are somebody who can’t really think of any major sins committed by our American forefathers (slavery? segregation? hello?), then you clearly need these 4 words too.
Here is the 4-word solution: Think like a missionary.
I want you to imagine that you are a missionary of King Jesus to another nation. You are trying to tell them about the good news about Him.
The nation you’ve moved to will no doubt have skeletons in its closet (as all nations do). There will be all sorts of problems past and present which you could rail against. Yet the national culture will also have features which can be appreciated. As a missionary, which would you focus on?
The great missionary Paul found things in Athens which irked him; we are told that “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Yet did he go around talking about how evil Athens was? No. Paul found the good in the culture and complimented them for it:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).
As a missionary, you would strive to love the people as they are, rather than constantly criticizing their country.
And you would try to keep the main thing the main thing. One thing disciples of Jesus should all agree on is that Jesus focused on internal transformation (see the Sermon on the Mount), not on governmental policy reform. It is true that following Jesus transforms civilizations (for example, see the effect Christian missionaries had on the Chinese practice of foot binding). But you can guess just how effective a missionary with blatant bitterness toward the nation is going to be.
As a missionary, you are going to need to remind yourself that the nation you’re moving to isn’t irredeemably wicked. At the same time, you’re going to need to remind yourself that the nation you’re moving from isn’t God’s favorite spot on the globe. The “holy nation, a people for his own possession” Peter speaks of (1 Peter 2:9) is the church, not America.
By the way, this is an important reminder for everybody.
Obviously, it’s helpful for those who idolize America to be reminded that America isn’t God’s favorite nation. But it’s also important for those Christians who criticize America most strongly. Often, they hold America to really high moral standards which they don’t hold other nations too. Why? Don’t they know that America isn’t God’s favorite nation?
Missionaries are often the best positioned to realize that God loves all people.
When God sent Peter to a Roman centurion’s house to tell him about Jesus, Peter said,
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
One of the most missions-minded churches I am aware of (giving over 50% of their income to missions) has their atrium decorated with flags from nations all around the world. They’re decorating it to look like heaven, where we will be among “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
To summarize, as a missionary, you would try to find things you could appreciate about the national culture, even if it was difficult. You would remind yourself that God loves all people—and that the nation you’re moving to is just as important to God as the nation you’re moving from.
Were you able to imagine yourself as a missionary to another nation? Good. Then give your imagination one more challenge: imagine yourself as a missionary here.
As a missionary in America, you would try to love the people as they are. You would find things in the national culture to compliment, even as you noticed things that irked you. You would find bridges to point people to Jesus, who transforms civilizations by starting with the inner life of regular people. You would resist any urge to demonize (Beelzebub, Lucifer, Thomas Jefferson, etc.) or to canonize (Saint Washington, Saint Lincoln, etc.).
Whichever political side you aligned with on Tuesday, as a missionary, you need to find things in the “other” America which you can value. You need to discern the hopes and dreams of the other side which you can use to build bridges to the gospel. This means that, as a missionary to America, if you wanted Trump to win, you don’t joke about hoping California falls into the sea. Or, as a missionary to America, if you were glad that Biden won, it’s nonetheless off limits to denigrate the red states as ignorant hicks. It’s unchristian to hate America—even the half you have the most trouble understanding.
After all, we have one King and He teaches us to love all people of all nations, even our own.
Thinking like a missionary will help you guard against the extremes of unfair anti-Americanism as well as unquestioning nationalism. And what’s more is that it will bring more graciousness to family get-togethers. But most importantly, it will very likely mean more people in heaven.