Jesus or John Wayne?

Jesus, or John Wayne?

What should we make of the Christian Nationalism that we see in some parts of the Church?  How does the desire for John Wayne-type heroes conflict with the way of Jesus and the identity and calling of the Church?

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Mark 6:1-6, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10


Hija Yu shared her sermon from last week with me, and in her message she spoke about how a woman’s faith led her to be healed by Jesus.  I love how Hija unpacked this woman’s faith and examined it from different angles:

First, the angle of having the faith that by touching Jesus’ garment, she could actually be healed.  Then, by looking at the eastern understanding of faith as “energy”, the energy, the power, that flowed from Jesus to her.

And then, this linking of faith in Jesus with faith in herself; how she had enough self-love to want to be healed and how she had enough belief in herself that she could do something that would bring about healing in her body and in her life.

Thank you, Hija, for that wonderful message about the power of faith.

Today’s scripture picks up after that story of healing and finds Jesus entering into his hometown of Nazareth.  And in this scene we see a stark contrast to the previous scenes regarding faith and belief.

Here we see that Jesus’ hometown crowd is full of confusion and skepticism about who he was, what he was teaching and the healings that he was performing.

“Where did he get all these ideas and this wisdom?”, they asked.   “What are these miracles that he is doing?” they wondered.  Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy, you know, that carpenter’s son?”

And to all these questions, Jesus made this statement that has been quoted over and over again when people are rejected by their own people: “prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and by their own kin”.

And the scripture says that Jesus’ people took offense at him, other versions say that they were very unhappy with him, repulsed by him, deeply offended by him, The Message version asks the question “Who does he think he is?”  The bottom line is that Jesus’hometown and relations refused to put their faith and trust in him.

This is not the prophet, the Messiah, the Savior that the people of Nazareth were waiting for and hoping for.  We looked at Luke’s version of this scene in the synagogue a while back and it gave us some more details about why they were upset with Jesus.

He had told a couple of stories of foreigners, outsiders, people of other faiths who were used by God and held up as greater examples of faith than his own Jewish people.

You see, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, their criteria of the kind of Savior they wanted.  They were looking for someone who better represented them and their agenda, someone who favored them over others, someone who would fight for their rights and status in society.

Maybe we could say that Jesus’ hometown people, like many others in his religious community, were hoping for more of a John Wayne type of Jesus, a strongman, a powerful stick-it-to-‘em leader, rather than the historical, biblical, Sermon-on-the-Mount “blessed are the poor”, show-love-to-all-people kind of Jesus.

Two thousand years later, a similar kind of scene is playing out right here on our shores, in these United States of America.

Today, on this 4th of July, scores of churches across the country are holding “Freedom Sundays” to celebrate God and country.  Their sanctuaries are filled with American flags, and the sound of patriotic hymns fills the air.

If you came here hoping for this kind of service, I’m sorry, but you came to the wrong place. No flags, no pledge of allegiance, no Battle Hymn of the Republic,.

These churches put God and country together because they believe that the United States was founded as a Christian country and needs to stay that way.  Churches that hold “Freedom Sundays” in conjunction with the 4th of July often believe in    a version of Christianity that’s called Christian Nationalism.

You may have heard that phrase quite a bit in the news and on social media in recent months.  There’s been a lot of talk lately about forming a commission to examine more closely what happened at the Capitol Insurrection on January 6,

And a case could be made that many of the professing Christians who were at that rally could be classified as Christian Nationalists.

They were at the rally to protest their misguided belief that the election was stolen from their candidate, the former president who they saw as someone who helped protect and defend their view that Christianity in the U.S. is under attack.

He is seen as a modern-day John Wayne, as put forth by Kristen du Mez in her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne.

Du Mez says that these contemporary John Waynes are seen as saviors by Christian Nationalists, who are concerned about the Church losing power in a society that is increasingly becoming more diverse, less white and less Christian,

So they believe that Christianity must be restored to having favored status and more influence and power in the public sphere, like they believe it used to have.

In fact, some people who study this trend believe that calls to “take America back for God” are not primarily about mobilizing Christians to become more spiritual or pious in the way they live, but rather it’s about regaining political power. (153)

That’s the point of view in a book that I read around the time of the election, called Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

This book helped me get a better grasp on some trends that have been taking place in the Church in the past few year years, specifically, the resurgence of Christian Nationalism.

The book has a lot of data based on surveys that were conducted with Christians, and they found that 78%, over ¾ of those who call themselves “evangelicals” would fit the criteria of being Christian Nationalists.

The authors say that those who embrace Christian Nationalism insist that the Christian God was at the center of the founding of our country, and that God favors the United States over and above the other nations of the world.  They proclaim that the U.S. plays a central role in God’s plan for the world.  (p. 164)

Taken to the extremes, this viewpoint believes that in order to be truly American one must be Christian, and in order to be truly Christian one has to be American.

Americans who aren’t Christian are viewed as deficient.  They can never be truly American.  Therefore, the authors argue that strong support for Christian nationalism is a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society.  P.161

Then Whitehead and Perry ask a very hard-hitting question:

So if the Christian God has truly “always been on our side”, then on whose side are Christians from Iraq, Vietnam, China, England, Afghanistan, or any other country?  Like Korea, Venezuela, or Congo.  Are they 2nd class Christians at best?

If Christians buy into the “America First” mentality, if Christian citizens in one specific country are more important, more favored, and on a higher level than Christians in other countries,

Then what do we make of Paul’s words to the Philippians, where he said “our true citizenship as Christians is in heaven”?  (Phil. 3:21)

Or what do we make of Paul’s words to the Galatians, where he proclaims that  “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

And most importantly, how does this narrow, privileged, U.S.-centered view of Christianity square with who Jesus is and what he taught?

The Jesus I learn about in the Bible is a far cry from a John Wayne prototype.  And the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and established is a far cry from being a prototype of the United States.

Jesus led by servanthood and humility, not domination.  Jesus’ power and authority was centered in love and forgiveness, not a tough guy image whose authority comes from political power and the kind of weapon that is tucked in a holster around the waist, or slung around the shoulder.

I like how Whitehead and Perry describe the concerns of Christians who reject Christian Nationalism.

They talk about how it contradicts so many characteristics of Jesus—his self-sacrificial love and his welcoming of “the least of these”, and how the quest for worldly power inherent in Christian Nationalism is contrary to Jesus’ message.

They also say that “The Kingdom of God, is broader, more diverse, and will long outlast the kingdoms of this world, including the United States.  To fuse national identity with Christianity destroys the witness of the kingdom of God.”

To sum it up, Whitehead and Perry say, “At its core, Christian Nationalism is a hollow and deceptive philosophy that depends on human tradition and the basic principles of the world, rather than on Christ.”  (P. 163)

So how can we as the church of Jesus Christ safeguard ourselves from going down the path toward Christian Nationalism?

First, I believe that it’s OK to be grateful to live in the United States and for the freedoms that we have.  But we always need to remember that our ultimate allegiance is to God and Jesus’ Kingdom, not our country, and that the freedom we have in Christ is not dependent upon any laws that are made by human governments.

Next, I believe that it’s good to promote and work for basic Christian values to be practiced more in society, particularly values that benefit the common good, like caring for the poor and combatting racial injustice and other injustices, because our God is a God of justice and a compassionate God.   

Since moving to Virginia last year, I’ve heard it referred to as “The Commonwealth of Virginia”, and I learned that there are four states that call themselves commonwealths.  This is a British term that basically means that the states exist to promote the common good of all of its residents. I like this emphasis.

Third, one thing that we must do to prevent seeing the world only through our own narrow perspective is be connected with Christians and churches outside of the United States.

Getting to know churches and Christians from other cultures and countries helps us to realize that we are part of a global Church, a Church that transcends nationalities,

a Church that is not held captive by wealth or privilege or worldly power like the American Church can be, a Church whose primary residence is God’s Kingdom, a Church that as theologian Stanley Hauerwas would say, is made up of resident aliens on this earth.

It’s important to have global connections so we can call upon the Holy Spirit to help us break down all kinds of walls that exist between people, and unite us all in Christ, no matter what national boundaries and political barriers exist between our countries.

Here at Daniels Run Peace Church we have people from so many different cultures and countries, and churches in those countries.  I love the diversity here; it’s a microcosm of the global church and a gives us a glimpse of what heaven will be like.   And I can’t wait until we start having potluck meals again with all the different ethnic foods!

Along with connecting with people and churches from other countries, we need to adopt a posture of humility and curiosity to learn from each other and receive the gifts others have to offer us.

For a long time of the American church’s past, we Americans played the role of missionaries, where we went, and we evangelized, and we planted churches, and we led ministries in other parts of the world.  We called the shots and we were the givers, and the people in host countries were the receivers.

Well that mentality and approach is changing; frankly, it should have started changing sooner than it did.  Now more than ever American Christians and churches need to listen to what the Church and Christians in other parts of the world can teach us, what we can learn from them.

We came back from our assignment as mission workers in Bolivia almost exactly 30 years ago, and in the past 30 years I have continued to reflect on what I learned from my Bolivian brothers and sisters in Christ about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the world today.

One family that I learned so much from and continue to be inspired by is the Masavi family.  I shared a while back about Juana, the oldest daughter of that family who overcame so many obstacles to become a leader in the Mennonite Church in Bolivia.

Well this past week, Juana’s father, Juan, passed away.  Juan was the patriarch of that family and also one of the founding leaders of the church that we helped give birth to during our years in Bolivia.

Juan was a humble carpenter, kind of like how I imagine Jesus’ father Joseph to be and Jesus in his year before he began his ministry.

Life wasn’t easy for Juan, he and his wife Edit trying to raise 10 children—8 girls and two boys– with only the income from his small carpentry business.  They all lived under the same roof in a one room rickety wooden house.

Juan and the family seemed to face crisis after crisis: financial, personal, medical, you name it.  I remember Juan quoting more than once the passage from 2 Corinthians that we heard today, where Paul has this thorn in his flesh that would never go away, that kept tormenting him.

But despite Juan and his family’s setbacks and sufferings, they persevered through them, learned from them, grew through them, and found strength in their faith and in the support of their church family.

Juan and his family have taught me so much about faith and about depending upon God when there’s nothing left to cling to.  They have taught me about God’s faithfulness in the good times and especially in the tough times.

They have taught me about hope in the midst of despair, and about God’s power to bring healing to bodies, souls and relationships.

They have been model to me of sacrificial love and joyful service to those who are in need, even when they had so many unmet needs of their own.

Juan and his family have been an example to me of Paul’s attitude in the midst of that thorn in his side, where he heard God say, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. 

These are words that would never come out of the mouth of a proud, rugged, self-made individualist like John Wayne, or any of his recent incarnations, but these words were embodied in the life of my friend Juan, who faithfully followed a Jesus who showed us a different way to live than the John Waynes of the world.

So on this day when our country celebrates its independence, let’s commit ourselves to being interdependent with each other and with our brothers and sisters around the world, knowing that together we are ALL part of God’s work of blessing and redeeming the world.

And together, let’s humble ourselves and seek the kind of faith we need to be dependent upon God, trusting in the God who invites us to be citizens of His Kingdom, the God who is the source of true freedom which we experience as He freely pours his love and grace upon us. AMEN.