For this month’s Book of the Month, we are recommending The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church by Gregory Boyd. We wanted to do something different this month, so we are going to host a live book discussion webinar. We want to actually speak with you and hear what you think about this book. Below, I have written a review of the book to get you started and peak your interest. I hope you guys will considering reading this book as I know it will challenge you as it has challenged me.
I used to believe, like many American Christians still do, that the United States is a “Christian nation.” This is due partly because of the many Judeo-Christian principles which our country was founded upon. They can be seen in the founding documents, many of the earlier (and still some contemporary) laws, as well as the notion of religious freedom that America’s forefathers sought to ensure. This thought process has led many evangelicals to believe America was founded as a Christian nation, but has fallen out of favor due to moral and political failings. They want to see the country taken “back” for God.
The Myth of a Christian Nation
However, Gregory Boyd believes this to be an idolatrous sentiment for Christians to hold. In his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, Boyd seeks to debunk this notion and realign the Church’s understanding of the Kingdom of God with the person of Jesus Christ. He wants to “cast a broad vision of the kingdom of God and show its stark contrast to the kingdom of the world” (15). This is best seen when he states, “I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry” (11). He argues this by discussing how “fusing together the kingdom of God with this or any other version of the kingdom of the world is idolatrous and that this fusion is having serious negative consequences for Christ’s church and for the advancement of God’s kingdom” (11).
The World Uses Power Over Others
Boyd does an excellent job organizing the chapters of his book to logically carry his readers through the difficult issues he discusses. He first presents his biblical theology of the kingdom of the world, demonstrating its insufficient answers and flaws. He then contrasts it with the kingdom of God. He illustrates how different they are beginning with their foundations through the way they operate in the world. Boyd says,
“The Kingdom Jesus came to establish is ‘not from this world’ (John 18:36), for it operates differently than the governments of the world do. While all the versions of the kingdom of the world acquire and exercise power over others, the kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances only by exercising power under others. It expands by manifesting the power of self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love (14).”
This contrast between “power over” and “power under” is a key concept for Boyd. Anything which exercises “power over” is of the kingdom of world, meaning it cannot be of the kingdom of God. Boyd refers to this “power over” idea as “wielding the sword” in order to force others to conform to a particular way of thinking (18).
Boyd does state, however, that every time a nation wields the sword, it is not evil or necessarily in vain. He recognizes the necessity of the authority given to them from the sovereign God. He says, “Were the world not fallen, the threat of the sword would be unnecessary. The sword is part of our common curse, yet God uses it to keep law and order in the world” (19). This means Christians should obey the governmental systems they find themselves under as Paul instructs in Romans 13. They are God’s instruments of keeping (at least some measure of) peace in the world.
The Kingdom of God Looks Like Jesus
Boyd develops his understanding of the kingdom of God by looking at the person and teachings of Jesus. He says, “The cross is the ultimate symbol of the kingdom of God, for it defines what that kingdom always looks like. It looks like Christ––self-sacrificial and loving. It looks like grace” (33). Love is at the center of everything the Kingdom of God does.
Boyd does not avoid tough issues. He acknowledges the problems we find our world in. But he deals with them by keeping the person of Christ at the center of his kingdom theology.
His critique of the current system illustrates the inadequacies of both the secularists who would try to propagate their version of good in the world and the many american, evangelical Christians who think they are working to expand the kingdom of God. For instance, when he discusses “the temptation to do ‘good,’” he uses Jesus’ temptation in the desert to illustrate the insufficient argument that doing “good” is a justifiable end in itself.
He points out how Jesus could have done a lot of “good” if he would have simply participated in the “system of domination” by worshiping Satan and becoming the ruler of the world: “He could have immediately alleviated much if not all suffering and created a kingdom of the world that enacted perfect law, order, and justice” (73). However, Jesus refused this because he “didn’t come to make the kingdom-of-the-world a new and improved version of itself, let alone a Christian version of it. Instead, he came to transform ‘the kingdom of the world’ into ‘the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah’ and thereby establish the rule of God, in place of the devil, ‘forever and ever’ (Rev. 11:15)” (74).
The Church Serves the World by Being Different
This helps establish parameters for our social and political involvement in the world. Boyd says, “Our central job is not to solve the world’s problems. Our job is to draw our entire life from Christ and manifest that life to others” (64). This life is a life of compassion and service to others: the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the poor, and the hurting.
The Church, therefore, should not try to raise itself to the status of the “moral guardian” of society, like so many evangelicals in America believe they should. They believe America needs to get “back” to the way things used to be, when the country exemplified more Christian values. However, Boyd asks the question, to what time should the country revert? There has never been a time in America’s history when it was not committing moral atrocities (112).
The result of this thinking ultimately harms the mission of the kingdom of God, because it connects everything the nation does––through its “power over” paradigm––which only reinforces the stigma many in the world have about America being a Christian nation. The church and Christianity gets labeled as evil (109).
Instead, the Church is to exercise “power under” by being involved in people’s lives and through social action. Boyd points out that “Jesus never assumed the position of moral guardian over any individual, let alone over the culture at large” (128). Jesus simply demonstrated the kingdom through His loving service to those in need (which actually brought condemnation on the religious of his day). “His beautiful service to lepers, the blind, the demonized, the poor, prostitutes, and tax collectors screamed volumes about the inhumanity of various social taboos and laws” (121).
Of all the people who would have been justified in pointing out the sin of others, Jesus chose to serve them rather than condemn them. This means the Church’s primary task should not be concerned with behavior modification through legislation or condemnation, but service to the world so the kingdom of God may break into the world, slowly, changing the hearts and lives of people (121).
The Dangers of Mixing the Two Kingdoms
Boyd is not an isolationist. He actually wants the church to serve the world. This cannot happen if the kingdom of God cannot preach the gospel because it looks too much like the world. Associating America, or any nation, with the kingdom of God damages both kingdoms.
- It damages the kingdom of the world by giving it justification to commit atrocities in the name of God. Many secular humanists have pointed out how religion is dangerous because it makes people do insane things. When divine right is wielded by the power of the state, anything the state desires becomes the “will of God.”
- It damages the kingdom the God by detouring it from its mission and establishing a religious version of the kingdom of the world (73). Boyd says it best, saying, “The Kingdom of God is not an ideal version of the kingdom of the world; it’s not something that any version of the kingdom of the world can aspire toward or be measured against. The kingdom of God is a completely distinct, alternative way of doing life” (55).
If you guys liked this review or want to know more, please check out a copy of Gregory Boyd’s book here.
Whether you agree or disagree with Boyd’s position, I hope you will join us for the webinar to talk about it. We want genuine honest conversation no matter what view you hold. The webinar will be held on Thursday, March 17 at 7:00pm CST.