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What Does it Mean To Be an American?

I knew it was clickbait. But the title still drew me deep into the paragraphs that followed, and I discovered surprising facts that ought to help frame our national quest for identity.

Did you know, for example, that a recent Gallup Poll found most Americans believe immigration is good for us (75 percent)? Timely opinions, considering the level of foreign-born residents in the USA is the highest since 1910.

In practical terms, this means most Americans are still willing to welcome others who by their very presence will change our national identity.

And, in contrast to 1910, when most migrants came from Europe, today’s immigrant tends to be Hispanic or Asian (39 and 41 percent, respectively). What’s more, this new wave is the most educated ever, as 45 percent arrive with college degrees!

Whatever the long-term consequences of our changing demographics, one thing is clear: If we insist upon using ethnic definitions to define American, those definitions will soon be out of date. As a former colleague often said, ‘we’re more like a tossed salad than a melting pot.’ I would add, ‘and this salad is destined to evolve, as new vegetables, fruits, and spices are tossed in each day.’

The dialog about our American identity is fertile ground for sowing seeds of distrust and fear. Instead of embracing change and the opportunities it presents, politicians on both sides seem bent on exploiting these realities to promote narrow ideologies and buttress political agendas.

So then, how do Christians help the church navigate the emotional and political minefield of today’s national identity debate?

I’d like to point out three spiritual realities that help define our identity.

First, any debate about national identity will look radically different when viewed from the perspective of a sojourner. Let’s not forget the best citizens on earth are those who understand first and foremost they are citizens of another realm. Once this question of ultimate loyalties is resolved, we are free to help make our temporary homes a better place to live. We can be honest about both narratives being promoted. Yes, our national history is littered with both noble and nasty examples of what fallen individuals can accomplish when organized as a country. Denying that reality doesn’t help. The question should be, ‘how can we learn from the past and build a better tomorrow?’

Next, regardless of who wins this giant of tug-of-war and decides when to use the label American, as believers we will always be responsible for the marginalized in our society, whether classified as insiders or outsiders. This was God’s message to ancient Israel, where the vulnerable are usually called widows, orphans, and foreigners. And when Jesus said, ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ he wasn’t giving permission to ignore them. He was affirming our ongoing responsibility to care for them.

Finally, however we ultimately define our national borders and control who crosses them, the nations are already among us. As those who care deeply about the Great Commission, we have opportunities that would have made our forefathers salivate! Yes, we must continue to send our best ‘to the ends of the earth.’ But now we have unprecedented opportunities for every one of us to pursue an ‘end of the earth ministry’ with someone living across the street!

Rather than expend our energy debating what it means to be an American today, let’s embrace our role as temporary residents, deployed by Jesus on American soil, committed to pursuing the most vulnerable and least-reached peoples God has scattered all around us.

This article was originally written by Encompass Executive Director Dave Guiles for the INSPIRE Charis Pastors Network November 2018 Newsletter