Two hundred and thirty years ago this next week the American Revolution began, so Monday is Patriots' Day in Massachusetts and Maine-but after the Terri Schiavo tragedy many Christians are not thinking particularly patriotic thoughts. "I'm so ashamed of our country," one reader wrote.
We should be ashamed. We should pray and work hard, hoping that Terri Schiavo's death is not in vain. But we shouldn't be surprised when bad things happen, and we shouldn't think of the United States as a holy land suddenly blemished. America is not the new Israel and it never was.
This country is an arena in which Christians can stand for Christ while others stand for ungodly philosophies. Some of those philosophies have gained greater traction recently, but they've been here in some form since colonial days, and it's not the Christian task to ban them in the way that ancient Israel (according to chapter 18 of Deuteronomy) was to banish fortune tellers, omen interpreters, and sorcerers.
Lest we feel totally downcast and God-abandoned, we should remember that the Old Testament is highly location-specific. It was so important to keep the Holy Land holy that the policy was zero tolerance: No abominations in Israel. Nothing. Nada. Penalties for disobedience in the land were severe, and God also established many specific practices for that land: familial property was not to be sold, cities of refuge were to be established, and so forth.
What God presented, in short, was an opportunity for Israelites to set up a new version of one kind of Eden: not the Eden at the beginning of Genesis (because sin would still burden man, the earth would still yield its produce reluctantly, and earthly life would still end in death) but a semi-Eden, not quite a garden but certainly a land flowing with milk and honey.
The semi-Eden carried with it God's semi-presence: God did not walk with Israelites but He did facilitate prophecy and give specific advice via the casting of lots and the mysterious Urim and Thummim (which do not reappear after the Babylonian captivity). God chose a particular nation to live in His semi-Eden, provided commandments so they knew what to do day by day, inspired a history so they knew where they came from, and promised them that if they obeyed all would go well.
This holy land, this semi-Eden, "a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit" (Jeremiah 11:16), was supposed to be spotless, a serious equivalent of Disneyland in which not a single candy wrapper is to stay on the ground for more than a few minutes. The prophets were indignant when, as God had Jeremiah proclaim, "you defiled My land and made My heritage an abomination." (And that defilement, of course, showed the desperate need of man for Christ; living in the best possible environment made little difference.)
But Jeremiah has a very different tone when he speaks to Israelites who live not only outside the semi-Eden but in the anti-Eden, Babylon: Israelites there were to "build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, because in its welfare you will find your welfare'" (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
Other parts of the Old Testament also indicate that Israelites outside the borders of Israel had a different agenda than those inside. The book of Daniel shows how Daniel had to hang out with enchanters, sorcerers, and the other wise men of Babylon, the very sorts of people who were banned in Israel. The books of Esther and Nehemiah show how God's people in Persia lived amid evil yet were the most patriotic of subjects: Cupbearer Nehemiah was the last defense against attempts to poison the king, and Mordecai in the book of Esther broke up an assassination plot. When Esther and her uncle Mordecai later had an opportunity to have the king promulgate legislation, they requested that the Jews of Persia have the right to fight back militarily against their persecutors.
The Israelites tried to keep God's commands in their own spheres and to pray for the general culture, but they had to recognize what was beyond their control. They did the best they could, with God's grace, and when they lost they prepared for the next time when biblical and pagan worldviews would come into conflict. We can patriotically do the same.