Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard, and Matt Skinner. Article written by Matt Skinner.
It’s fine for Americans to express pride in America, to pray for America, and -- especially -- to work to make it a better, more just society. But no one should presume that God holds America in special regard, or that God plays favorites when it comes to the nations of the world.
Wherever they come from, assumptions about America enjoying a privileged place in God’s purposes have embedded themselves throughout American culture. Many Puritan pilgrims imagined themselves as reliving ancient Israel’s experience, led by God from oppression to settle a new land brimming with plenty and righteousness. Shortly before the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe crowed that “the whole world looks hopefully toward America as a nation especially raised by God to advance the cause of human liberty and religion.” Today, “God bless America!” often sounds more like a patriotic boast or rallying cry than a prayer.
Some popular expectations about God’s intentions for America come from a shallow, simplistic reading of the Bible. To correct this, we need to consider what it means for God to “bless.”
God Bless You
The Bible, especially the Old Testament, contains numerous requests to God, and promises from God, recognizing God as a giver of gifts, favor, or “blessings.” Likewise, those who enjoy God’s benevolence regularly get called “blessed.” A theological conviction, an assertion about God, informs those passages: God is the source of everything that contributes to humanity’s flourishing -- our health, security, and material or agricultural abundance. Read Deuteronomy 7:12-16 for a grandiose expression of the ways God can bless people.
By this logic, then, we can say God routinely blesses America. More accurately, God blesses Americans. Likewise, God blesses North Koreans, Australians, Venezuelans, and Egyptians. Our interpersonal relationships, our vitality, our pleasures -- the things that make life worth living and that point to God’s desire for our well-being (not necessarily our “comfort”) -- all these bear witness to God’s presence among us. To be blessed does not always mean to avoid suffering; it means to experience palpable signs of God’s care, even when hardship batters our lives.
Language of “blessing” isn’t necessarily about causality. I’m not convinced God’s hand actively guided a pint of raspberries from a farm to my breakfast table. Acknowledging these berries as God’s “blessing” makes a statement, rather, about who God is. The sheer fact that those raspberries made it to me and sustain me gives me a tangible reminder of God’s will for the world to be fed. Experiencing this “blessing” orients me to God’s goodness. It might prompt me to work harder to make sure other people enjoy similar blessings.
God Bless Everyone
Blessings from God, therefore, are not necessarily about God causing good things to land in my lap, or about God showing favoritism. But then why does much of the Old Testament speak of “blessing” in connection to the people of Israel and how they live? Go back to Deuteronomy 7:12-16, which at first glance may suggest a merit system promising Israelites material blessings as rewards for obeying God’s commands. A more accurate reading of the passage, however, understands God’s “ordinances” less as stipulations to meet and more as guidance for right living, the kind of living that, for the most part, contributes to a virtuous society and promotes human flourishing. (I say “for the most part” because, let’s face it, some of the laws we find in the Bible are horrific, reflecting some of the worst kinds of fears and prejudices.)
God promises to “bless” the Israelites, then, not at the expense of all the other nations, but so Israel might itself exist as a blessing, a tangible reminder to all the world of what God’s concern looks like, embodied in a society’s pursuit of righteousness and compassion.
The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”
Another common misunderstanding of blessing arises from assuming that passages like Deuteronomy 7:12-16 were written directly to us. Or, worse, that they apply specially to us as Americans.
Of course, God has not appointed America as a replacement for ancient Israel. God has never made exclusive promises to America as an “exceptional” nation. I do not mean that America in its history has not done great things, both for its own people and on behalf of others. Nor am I saying the Bible has nothing to say today to anyone who lives in America. Rather, my point is this: to take promises given to the ancient Israelites and apply them to contemporary America, or to imagine America as God’s “new Israel,” smacks of arrogance at best. At worst, it reawakens the poisons of supersessionism that have haunted Christianity’s history. (Supersessionism is a position, standing in bald contradiction to many biblical statements, that treats God’s promises to ancient Israel as if they have been effectively reassigned to Christians as God’s “true” or “new” Israel.) To claim that God thus blesses America in a unique way is nationalism in theological clothing.
Furthermore, excessive focus on America as “blessed” can blind us to ways our society perpetuates injustice. Remember my raspberries? It becomes harder for me to call them a blessing if farmworkers get exploited so I can eat them.
From the Bible, I have a difficult time believing that geographical borders and national allegiances matter to God. The Apostle Paul told Christians in Philippi (a prominent and proud Roman colony) that their true “citizenship [literally, the ‘commonwealth’ or ‘state’ to which they belong] is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Political identity stands secondary to a Christian’s primary identity as a child of God. Similarly, 1 Peter 2:9 told its readers they were “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” This verse takes language about fundamental social distinctions (race, status, nationality) and applies it to our core identity as God’s people. The political realities in which we live, our nation and its values, do not define us; the gospel of Jesus Christ does.
Maybe that is the greatest blessing we receive from God.
Matt Skinner is associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.