When I was in junior high I had a t-shirt with a picture of Uncle Sam on it, on his knees praying. It said, "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray..." (2 Chronicles 7:14). The verse goes on: "humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land."
This is a verse that you hear often among Christians in America (especially around election time), and you can see why: people are hoping that the nation will pray, seek God, repent ("turn"), and find forgiveness and the healing our land so obviously needs. It's a powerful verse.
But there's a problem here. There's some confusion. It was right there on my t-shirt, in vibrant red, white, and blue: Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is a symbol of the United States of America. The message of the shirt, then, with him there on his knees in prayer, was: if my people, the United States of America, will humble themselves and pray...
But the United States of America are not "my people, who are called by my name." That's Israel. The only nation the Lord ever singled out to be 'God's people' is Israel. It began way back in Genesis with the Lord's covenant with Abraham, and we see it continuing on in God's covenants with Moses and David, the Lord's warnings and promises to Hosea, and over and over in the Old Testament. Israel is God's people. When 2 Chronicles talks about people 'called by God's name', that's Israel (see Deut 28:9-10).
Of course, Christians believe that things have changed a bit since the days of 2 Chronicles. The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 goes into excruciating and tongue-tying detail to make it clear that the people who have seen God in Jesus Christ, the people who are bound to God and bound to each other by the Holy Spirit, they come from all nations. From then on there would never again be any one nation that was 'God's people'. Wherever the Church is found, there you have God's people, living as "strangers and foreigners on earth" (Heb 11:13).
So what does 2 Chronicles 7:14 mean for Christians living in the US today? It's not a call for the people of the United States in general (Uncle Sam) to humble themselves and pray. It's a call for God's people in America, the Church in America, to pray and seek God and repent. This is a call for revival among God's people.
I think the confusion here can sometimes distract Christians from our real business. Instead of waiting for a nation of Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, Scientologists, and so many others to turn to God, the Church needs to get busy committing our own lives to the Lord. Then, once the Church started looking more like Jesus—reaching out in love to those in need, sharing about the good news of the kingdom of God—then we would start to see some healing in this land.
OK, so if it's the Church in America that needs to turn to God... well, what does that look like? What do we need to do? I have a few suggestions for Christians during this election year:
- We need to repent of letting fear drive us. Political campaigns almost always stoke people's fears, using a mixture of truths and half-truths and falsehoods to do so. Mr. Trump's acceptance speech from the Republican National Convention two weeks ago makes a classic example, constantly appealing to fear of terrorists, fear of immigrants, fear of crime. On the left, the appeals are a little different. There it's fear of 'assault weapons' or the fear of Mr. Trump himself, among other things. Fear can exercise great power over the voting public, and the campaigns know this well. But Christians cannot let fear drive them, because it is not of God. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1:7). We are people who can "say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Heb 13:6/Ps 118:6-7) We see the mess in the world and in this country, but we see it through the eyes of hope: hope in the one who has conquered death. If we're to be faithful, fear cannot guide our decisions and our relationships.
- We need to repent of the misinformation. My Facebook newsfeed is regularly packed with political posts, many of which are misleading, and some of which are simply lies. Some are about Trump (such as his supposedly telling People magazine in 1998 that Republicans are "the dumbest group of voters"), and others are about Hillary (for instance, her telling the Des Moines Register that she would shut down the NRA and ban handguns)—to say nothing of the ones about the President and other sitting politicians—and I've seen them circulated by faithful churchgoers, deacons, and even pastors. Five minutes on Google can verify that many of these are false, but apparently people will not take the time to check. Obviously there's a problem here of people simply believing everything they see on the internet (and of people being so taken in by partisan propaganda that they can't even recognize when a claim or a "quotation" is clearly false). However, my concern is that Christians are blithely participating in this misinformation. We must be committed to the truth (Eph 4:25), and if that means we need to research something for two minutes before we "Like" it or pass it along, well, I don't think that's much to ask. Christians have to do better.
- We need to repent of grasping at Messiahs. They pop up on the left and the right: in 2008 Barack Obama was clearly the messiah figure in the race (HOPE, anyone?); this year, with the primary defeat of Bernie Sanders, it's clearly Donald Trump ("I alone can fix it"). If we place our hope in political leaders, we've misplaced it. "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God" (Ps 20:7). And yet, here we go trusting in horses and chariots again—only this time they're called things like "law and order." Of course a nation-state needs its military and its police force and so many other practical components which benefit our lives in more ways that we know. That's not where the issue lies. It's the trust, the hope, the expectations, the rhetoric, and the wild ecstasy in the eyes of the supporters when their candidate takes the stage. Christians must remember that any savior who isn't Jesus can't really save us.
- We need to repent of our divisions. Rev. James Howell, in a recent blog post, challenged the widening rifts within my own United Methodist Church, saying
Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place. Black are divided against whites. Police are divided against some of our citizens. Republicans are divided against Democrats. Republicans are divided against themselves. If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, "We are just like you. We have no alternative to offer you."When we fail to offer the world an alternative, we are failing to be the church of Jesus Christ. We must, like Paul, show the world a "more excellent way" (1 Cor 12:31). And when it comes to divisions and disputes, our calling is clear. Paul numbers "rivalries, dissensions, divisions" among the works of the flesh (in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5:19-23). God's desire is that there be no divisions in the Body. And people can disagree without being divided. It's called marriage. We need to stop speaking (on Facebook, in the fellowship hall, wherever) as Republicans and Democrats and start speaking as Christians who prayerfully decide to support this or that candidate or platform. We are brothers and sisters first, voters...fifth? Eighth? Twenty-second?
But as long as we seek the same things as everyone else, by the same means as everyone else, for the same reasons as everyone else, I can tell you what will happen.