If any one dares to suggest that God’s great love and graciousness extends to anyone beyond true believers, a great number of those true believers raise a howl of protest, calling it a cheapening of God’s grace. Apparently they believe that a grace which comes without their personal accomplishment in believing the right doctrines and practicing the right rituals makes any such grace worthless. It’s as if they say- there is no free lunch religiously. If it’s free it has to be worthless.
It’s really a position or understanding of grace which denies the very definition of the word. “Not of works lest any man should boast” was the Apostle Paul’s description of God’s grace. Salvation by personal involvement, commitment, and accomplishment is the basis of a lot of boasting about one’s superiority to others, religiously, politically, and otherwise. The price of this evangelical type of grace is conflict and partisanship, the inevitable fruits of the Tree of Knowledge.
Concurrent with the above observation we also hear that the vast majority of these same evangelical Christians enthusiastically support a prevailing definition of what makes us a great nation- a sense of economic entitlement, a strict segregation from outside influences, and a comfortable sense of personal security. It is a greatness measured by comfort and safety, which honors economic prosperity, law enforcement, and military might above all else.
This definition of American greatness is not new by any stretch; it is in fact the sense of greatness to which we have been attuned from the very beginning. It is a concept of comfortable greatness, an individually isolated greatness, a greatness which involves no sacrifice; in other words, a greatness which costs the prosperous and secure very little.
We like to view ourselves as a nation of great principles and great aspirations but more readily we rejoice in our standard of living and our ability to isolate ourselves from outside threats. Great abundance of natural resources and great oceans served to insure those elements for centuries. Today is a new day.
I, for one, view this cultural view of American greatness as a direct contradiction of the meaning of greatness. Great must mean exceptional, extraordinary, exhibiting the highest ideals and operating by the loftiest of principles. There is nothing of that sort in materialism, isolationism, and militarism. Those same characteristics attached to any number of nations throughout human history. Greece, Rome, Carthage, Egypt- all these powerful, economically successful nations of the ancient past- exhibited this form of “greatness” but then passed away. If we aspire to a lasting sense of greatness, of “exceptionalism”, we won’t find it measured by the same things.
No, meaningful national greatness, is founded in righteousness. By righteousness I don’t mean religious homogeneity and attachment to some kind of proper doctrine and religious practice. I am referring to operating collectively in accordance with the ethical principles which we all can recognize intuitively without reference to holy books or religious dogmas. The transformative power of love as opposed to coercion. The call to treat others as we would wish to be treated in all circumstances. The avoidance of the tendency to judge others by our standards while ignoring their personal history and circumstances. These define a great nation.
This definition is not comfortable; it often defies our visceral sense of personal security. It embraces risk as a necessary element of righteous living. It sacrifices the unbridled pursuit of self interest for the sake of others. It is a majestic and truly magnificent state for any nation, but no one can call it cheap.