Christians Follow Jesus First, Not the USA

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Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of Family Ministries and Mission at First Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

If you struggle with the concept of someone kneeling during the national anthem then you are really going to have a hard time with the coming eschaton. Jesus didn't come to unilaterally support the United States of America — he came to save and redeem humanity and the world. Christians are supposed to follow Jesus first, not the United States of America.

Now, before you object, please don't try and bait me with tired excuses because:

A) I love our country.

I am proud to be an American citizen. I grew up with an American flag on the wall of my bedroom. Growing up in a low-income trailer park in northeast Ohio where folks lived pretty simple, that American flag hung on my wall as a constant reminder that I live in a land of opportunity.

When I grew older, I was the first student in my high school to have a United States flag sewn on my letterman's jacket. Many of my classmates would soon follow suit. With every accolade that was added to my jacket the flag was there as a constant reminder that I had a responsibility to strive to be better because others had earned those opportunities for me — some with their lives. Even back then I was committed to speaking passionately about this fact. Even to the point where I won awards for doing so through our local Veterans of Foreign Wars - Voice of Democracy contests.

As a matter of fact, I was so enamored with our country that when I graduated from High School I enrolled at Hiram College, where a fellow Ohioan and 20th President of the United States James A Garfield once served as president. I went to Hiram to study political science and history to learn about the founders of our great nation. I wrote my final collegiate history project on James Madison whose personal story and tremendous affinity for Princeton provided great inspiration for me to go on to study at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Our country afforded me the opportunity to become the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. There are many places in the world where I simply wouldn't have had those opportunities but where I would have instead been subjected to maintaining the status quo. Because I know this reality, I am indebted to the brave men and women who have gone before us seeking to establish, protect and defend the liberty that we all cherish.

B) I have always honored and will continue to honor our veterans.

I fully recognize that the opportunities that I've benefited from are a result of the sacrifices of others. My grandfathers served in World War II and I grew up hearing stories about the horrors of war. One of my grandfathers was awarded a silver star and a purple heart for his valiant service in the war. The other of my grandfathers enlisted before he even graduated from High School, forfeiting his education, because he believed so strongly that our country needed to help others.

I will never forget the day as a child when, in the middle of one of his stories about the war, my Grandmother said something to the effect of: "If there is ever another draft I'll sneak you across the lake (Lake Erie) to Canada. I just couldn't bear to let you go to war." And holding back tears and with a stern yet cracking voice my grandfather, who I knew loved me dearly, replied: "No… he'd go."

I will never forget the mixture of love, fear, and courage in his voice.

C) I'm not a Donald Trump hater.

Actually, I wrote an article Challenging Christian Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Supporters prior to the election.

As a matter of fact I don't hate anyone. I don't hate people who disagree with me. I don't hate people who are different than me. I don't hate people who vote different than me. I don't hate people who have more money than me or who are successful at what they do. I don't hate people from other countries.

D) And I don't believe that Colin Kaepernick is entitled to an NFL quarterback job.

Years ago I wrote an article entitled: Play Tim Tebow or Trade Tim Tebow wherein I accused the NY Jets of mistreating Tim Tebow when they claimed that his "terrible" play was the reason that he wasn't field time. I still don't buy their excuse.

The problem then was the same problem that Colin Kaepernick is facing now. Keeping Tim Tebow on your team meant hosting a media circus. And a media circus has proven disruptive to effectively running a professional sports team. When every question is about your backup quarterback and not about moving your team forward then your team is prevented from moving forward.

I enjoyed listening to Skip Bayless' Tebow rants as much as anyone and I regularly listen to the manimals on the The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz but, let's face it — they aren't helping Colin Kaepernick to get hired, they are just fueling the circus fire. And that is OK — they are just doing their job. And we sure seem to love the circus.

But Colin Kaepernick, not dissimilar to Tim Tebow, has chosen to leverage the media circus to forward his personal beliefs. That is his right, but it doesn't entitle him to be hired to a job that pays millions of dollars. There are plenty of quarterbacks out there who want to play that don't have the distraction of the media circus circling around them. And I think that it is an NFL owner's prerogative to choose not to entertain the circus with their organization.

BUT for Christians:

Jesus Calls his followers to follow him first.

Jesus calls Christians to follow him before everything else — family, friends, our favorite sports team, money, power, political allegiance, and yes, even nationalism. Let's also not forget that it was overly ardent nationalism that spurred on the World Wars. We must be careful to not forsake the liberty that others died for by replacing it with one view of nationalistic fervor. God and God alone is worthy of the Christian's worship and praise. We can be respectful towards others without forfeiting our true fidelity to Christ.

It should also be acknowledged that it is possible to express one's loyalty to our nation differently and with integrity. The general story of the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge depicts the valor and benefit that can come with such respectful differences in conscience. Christians are not called to forsake the image in which we are created in order to support nationalism, we are called to live more fully into our responsibilities as God's image bearers so that we can help shape a better version of the world.

And to do that…

I do not need to stand to honor our flag or our country.

Standing with one's hand over their heart is a human-made tradition. Christians are called to follow the living God alone. If one is permitted to pray to the God of all creation standing, kneeling, or lying down — why can one not show their respect for their country by doing the same?

I don't regularly stand in my living room with my hand over my heart when the national anthem comes on my TV. Most people don't. They might observe a moment of silence out of respect but most people stay seated. Many elderly and disabled individuals don't stand because they are unable to. It isn't the position of our body that exemplifies our respect or allegiances — it is the intentions of our heart.

The next time you hear the anthem or you see the flag — consider carefully: What are the first priorities of your heart?

And along those lines…

Acting like our country currently honors our veterans is a poor political ruse.

After seminary I elected use my Clinical Pastoral Education to serve our country's veterans at the VA Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. There I saw the lasting effects of what war really does to a human being. It was there that I saw the chronic suffering that plagues our brave men and women.

If Americans really want to honor their veterans then let's stop acting like saluting the flag is the only way that that can happen. Every single day in this country our veterans are denied the adequate healthcare that they need. The yearly suicide rate for veterans in our country (18%) is simply unacceptable. Adequate PTSD care for veterans continues goes unaddressed. Thousands of veterans end up homeless without the skills they need to flourish.

It is time to call expletive on our politicians and one another. If we really care so much about veterans then let's demand policy change that exemplifies it.

Furthermore…

Jesus commands Christians to love everyone.

Jesus clearly tells his followers to love our enemies. It isn't a suggestion it is a command. Jesus clearly commands his followers to love their neighbor. This means that we are to love everyone, without exception. If you aren't loving people you aren't following Jesus.

So in that vein, for the Christ follower, there is no excuse for endorsing any form of racism. All racism is unacceptable. We know that racism exists in the United States of America. We see examples of it all the time. We need to stop acting like it doesn't.

Every Christian is called by Christ to love their neighbor and to seek the justice that represents that love. The Christian is not to be satisfied with the way the world is — but instead we are to participate in Christ's redemptive purposes in the world to help transform the world into a new, better, creation.

God's grace is humanity's long-term future, not any nation.

The next time someone chooses to kneel during the anthem I think that all Christians would be well served to remember that fact.

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Benek is internationally recognized as an expert regarding emerging technology and theology. He is a Presbyterian pastor in South Florida and is widely recognized for his religious and social commentary. Learn more at christopherbenek.com.