The Mennonite Church USA convention opened last week, on the 4th of July, in Pittsburgh, PA. We arrived early in order to meet with the board of Mennonite Mission Network, and so also were given the gift of a free afternoon in the city before the convention began. So we took in that day’s baseball game between the Pirates and the Astros at PNC Park.
It seemed to take forever for the game to begin because—predictably on an independence day at the ballpark—we stood through several displays of American civil religion: a short address on the video board from “old glory”, the flag, reminding us all of how she was there with us throughout our nation’s history; “God Bless America” sung—beautifully—by a woman in the military; finally, the national anthem itself, sung by the choir of an evangelical megachurch.
Even after the game began, we were exposed, between innings, to introductions of soldiers and a video presentation in which the Pirates’ players, one by one, responded that the “best thing about America” was “freedom”—seemingly an American invention. That tandem—soldiers and freedom—reinforced the message that the one was dependent on the other, that soldiers, by their service to America, give freedom to the rest of its citizens.
As an American citizen living abroad and a Christian, I find that message wanting. First, though living outside of its borders has caused me to appreciate the United States in ways inaccessible to me before, it is false that people in other countries are not free. There are certain ways in which I feel more free over there than over here. Second, and most importantly, as a Christian I have been taught that freedom is not a thing contained within borders; it is the gift of God whose “the earth is and the fullness thereof, the world and those who live in it” (Ps 24:1). That confession, made by the Psalmist, was over against the Canaanite religions of ancient Israel’s day, religions whose God was the God of borders. Israel’s God, by contrast, was a God within as well as without, a God who traveled with his people from slavery to freedom, from geography to geography, from Egypt to Canaan. It was by God’s “presence going with [them]” that Moses declared that the people “would be distinct from every people on the face of the earth” (Ex 33:14-16).
Exception-uniqueness-distinction—that which American religion claims is its freedom—is, in biblical religion, an experience of God’s presence rather than a possession of human might. The Christian’s freedom is given by the “God who will fight for us” independently of the soldiers who guard America’s, or any other’s, borders (Ex 14:14). Freedom is by the grace of God’s love and forgiveness and “not by works—so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9).
Judging by the ease in which “the great congregation” of PNC Park assented to the narrative of American freedom, America has yet to hear “the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).