So Whose America is it Anyway?

When my son was young, my wife had an awakening experience as she waited to pick him up from school and realized that she didn’t understand the conversations going on around her because of the different languages being spoken. Growing up, he interacted with students from every continent and most of the major faiths. Similarly, one of the things I love about our church is that we don’t worship God in just one language. And in the community choir I sing in, we are currently rehearsing music in four different languages (English, Hebrew, German and Spanish). I look forward to the day in the new heaven and earth when we will sing in all the languages of all the nations the praise of our one God. (Maybe I’ll be able to sing better in other languages then!)

So I have to admit to really being baffled by the reaction to Coke’s “America the Beautiful” commercial during an otherwise ho-hum SuperBowl. Singers in multiple languages sang this song while we saw images both of the beauty of our country and the incredible mosaic of peoples that make up our nation. The reaction wasn’t to marketing a soft drink with no health benefits but to the portrayal of who we’ve become as a country. And what surprised me most is that people seemed to overlook the clearly sung, “God shed his grace on thee”.

What troubles me in the reactions to this song are several things:

1. The song acknowledges that our land and our richly diverse nation is a gift of God. That may offend atheists, although I haven’t seen protests from them. We don’t own this country–we all are blessed by God to live here.

2. There are people who are citizens of this country from all the nations represented in the piece. If they have immigrated and naturalized, they have sworn an oath of allegiance to this country, something I never did other than the pledge of allegiance. They pay taxes, serve in our military, and enrich our economy. Just because their first language isn’t English (and most do, or their children do learn English) doesn’t make them any less Americans. Unless our own family line has only English speaking people it is likely that we had forebears whose first language wasn’t English either.

3. Some don’t like the idea of certain peoples singing a song with both Christian overtones and that is a stirring American anthem. Apart from the issues of “civil religion” which could be a post all its own, the critics ignore the fact that we often begin to aspire to the things we sing. Isn’t singing our songs part of how “us” and “them” become “we”?

4. Perhaps most important both as a national value, and a deeply held Christian principle is the call to welcome the immigrant and stranger. This poem, “The New Colossus”. by Emma Lazarus is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The statue with its uplifted torch, along with the words of this poem, have represented generations of immigrants. Equally for Christians, passages like these have inspired past and present efforts to welcome and care for immigrants:

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, ESV)

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew 25:35, ESV).

Our attitude to the immigrant is to be shaped by the fact that our spiritual story is an immigrant story. We remember Israel, once strangers in Egypt, and also remember that all of us were strangers to God apart from Christ’s reconciling work. Moreover, when we welcome the stranger, Jesus tells us that we welcome him. In fact the Matthew 25 passage warns of judgment for those who don’t welcome the stranger–that in our refusal to do so, we may be refusing to welcome Jesus.

I totally get that we have a broken immigration system and hard, substantive work needs to be done on this. I totally get that being a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-faith nation has its challenges. I am encouraged that the early church thrived, even in persecution, in such an environment. And I also realize that to some degree, this has always been the American experience. E pluribus unum means “out of the many, one”. Perhaps the recognition of these challenges and opportunities should cause us to cry afresh with the song, “God shed your grace on us.”


4 thoughts on “So Whose America is it Anyway?

  1. Good thoughts here. I saw your response to another similar post on facebook where you said “recognizing the kingdom opportunity that is before us in the culturally diverse nation we’ve become.” – Amen! I have a life-long ministry working with international students of various types (foreign exchange, ESL students, university students) who are here temporarily (although it can on occasion become permanent). It is a way to be a missionary without leaving home. Yet, we have never been able to get any else to catch the wave for this type of ministry. People go on short-term mission trips, support overseas missionaries, yet seem completely oblivious to the field that is RIGHT HERE – whether immigrants or internationals temporarily here for school or employment. I find this very frustrating. Here is one post I wrote which highlights some interesting research:


    • Oops! I just realized you are already aware of my article as you previously commented on it. And you work with students at Ohio State. To continue the conversation – do you have any practical ideas for promoting this type of ministry? We have worked with international students since 1997, and have had over 20 live with us in our home, yet we have never been able to “convince” even one person we know to try it – not even to try it once. I don’t want to come across as “my ministry is best” as it is not, and there are many worthwhile and needed ministries. Yet I do see working with the international people right here as an undervalued and overlooked opportunity.


      • I take it that you’ve not been able to convince others to join you in international student ministry. That’s surprising. We have a sister ministry in Columbus with hundreds of volunteers involved in everything from airport pickups to language partners to hospitality to Bible studies with interested students. As far as promoting this in your circles, I wonder if starting by taking people along with you–having them to dinner with students in your home, asking them to help with a specific need, might be a way to start. You might also see if there are international student ministries at any nearby universities that may be able to help you with this.


  2. Pingback: Bob on Books Top Ten Posts of 2014! « Bob on Books

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