Donald Trump is being sworn in today as the 45 th president of the United States and will begin trying to fulfill his promise to “Make America Great Again.” During the campaign, both Hillary and Obama stipulated that “America is already great,” but it is hard to dispute that decline has occurred when you consider America’s historic dominance. Following victory in WWII, America possessed almost 2/3 of the world’s gold reserves and more than half its entire manufacturing capacity. It ranked first in the world as producer of oil, steel, airplanes, automobiles and electronics. After fighting a Cold War for 45 years, the USSR imploded in 1989, and America stood alone as the global superpower.
But that heyday didn’t last long. Beginning in 1998, the nation began to experience back-to-back-to-back crises—unprecedented events that diminished the nation and which are described succinctly by one political commentator thusly: “One president impeached and his successor chosen by the direct intervention of the Supreme Court; a massive terrorist attack on American soil that killed thousands, traumatized the nation, and left senior officials bereft of their senses; a mindless, needless, and unsuccessful war of choice launched on the basis of false claims and outright lies; a natural disaster (exacerbated by engineering folly) that all but destroyed a major American city, after which government agencies mounted a belated and half-hearted response; and finally, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, bringing ruin to millions of families.” i
Other issues wouldn’t be thought of as “crises,” per se, but also reflect increasing inability of the nation to resolve its key issues. For example, when Obama’s election broke the deeply ingrained color barrier, there was hope that that important event could somehow heal the scars left by slavery, racism, Jim Crow and continuing discrimination. But instead of a re-set of race relations, eight years later they are at a new low. American cities are a tinder box of racial tension that the next injustice – real or perceived – is ready to ignite. Add in the attacks against police, and a race war or outright anarchy isn’t unthinkable.
With the ills facing the nation, Trump’s pledge to Make America Great Again was responded to at the ballot box. His promise to bring jobs back from overseas, invest in the nation’s infrastructure, negotiate new trade deals with foreign nations, all while cutting taxes, connects America of 2017 to centuries past when the nation was at its apex of power. The only way to understand the call to restored greatness is within the context of American Exceptionalism—the belief that there is a sense of Divine right for U.S. preeminence in the world. That belief is embedded in American history and thought, and can be heard clearly in the debate on the Senate floor when they discussed ratifying a treaty with the Philippines following American conquest in war with Spain in 1898:
- The Philippines are ours forever, and just beyond are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustees under God, of the civilization of the world. God has marked us as his chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world. He has made us adept in government that we administer government among savages and civilized people. (Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana)
- The Philippines mean a vast future trade and wealth and power; I am thinking of what is best for the world, for if the United States fails the best hopes of mankind fail with it. (Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts)
The claims were grandiose and messianic, but make no mistake—the focus was on trade and access to foreign markets which should sound very familiar. Woodrow Wilson observed in 1912 that “American industry will burst through their jackets if they can’t find free outlets in the markets of this world.” The march towards an American-centric global order continued, and just before the U.S. entered WWII, Henry Luce held forth on America’s vision of itself. Luce was the publisher of Time and Life magazines and the son of missionaries to China where he had been born. His comments are from an essay entitled, “The American Century”:
- We need most of all to seek and to bring forth a vision of America as a world power, which is authentically American...America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skilled servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and America as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice—out of these elements surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th century...the first great American Century.
- With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City. (Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, circa 1940)
Not only did Shanghai never quite become like Kansas City, but today the hope could well be inverted. With new infrastructure, its large manufacturing base and a cash-rich, ever-growing economy, perhaps being lifted to Shanghai’s level is the new hope in Kansas City (and other American cities). Things have certainly changed. As we write this, the Liaoning, China’s lone aircraft carrier, is passing through the Taiwan Straight as a show of strength and to remind Taiwan and the U.S. of their growing military capacity. The carrier was originally built by Russia but never fitted with electronics because of the USSR collapse. It was eventually sold to China as a stripped hulk and completely rebuilt, then commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2012. After sea trials, it was proclaimed combat-ready in November 2016.
It isn’t just economic restoration that is required to make the nation great again, but the practice of democracy itself. Electoral integrity in the U.S. now ranks 52nd among 153 nations, behind all the rich Western democracies, and also Costa Rica, Uruguay, the Baltic states, Cape Verde and Benin.ii The question is not, “Does America need to be restored?”; it does. The real question is, “Will it be restored to greatness?” That question (and Trump’s promise) sounds much like one asked of Christ by the early apostles, and His response is tailored perfectly for the Church in America today.
Will You at This Time Restore?
So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:6-8, NIV).
Just before Jesus ascended, the disciples had the chance to ask Him one last question. Their country had been colonized and was under the thumb of Rome’s imperial power and they wanted God to intervene. They had no idea at this point that they would be scattered to the nations through persecution; they were still ignorant and strongly nationalistic. They asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ response redirected their attention away from national restoration, and His words are relevant and provide us with a correct point of focus, also.
1. Pointed to God's Sovereignty in the Nations
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority… (v. 7).
The disciples were pointed away from a national and political focus, and they were directed instead to God’s Sovereign rulership of the earth. Their desire for a restored political nation is contrasted directly with things that God has set by His own authority. He wanted the disciples to understand the limitations of political power because nations and empires come and go, but the authority of the Kingdom never diminishes; it remains constant through time. To be focused on national and/or political restoration was a wrong emphasis for the early Church, and it is an incorrect point of focus today. Christ was telling the people, “Get your eyes off of Israel” and “Forget national restoration.” What if they hadn’t obeyed and shifted their focus? Their faith would have been crushed when the nation was invaded and destroyed by Titus in 70 AD.
not only in the making of America great and enlarging it, but also the God who destroys and is now dispersing it.
Job wrote, “He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them” (Job 12:23). That is an expression of His Sovereignty and it’s not negotiable. The word disperse is nachah; it means to guide, to govern and to lead. God is leading the decline; therefore, no political party can reverse it. Trump will not succeed in his efforts, but because God is guiding the nation towards dispersal, we can be assured there is redemptive purpose in it. Everything God does is good.
We must know the God who is Sovereign not only in the making of America great and enlarging it, but also the God who is Sovereign in the destroying and dispersing it. Apprehending the true nature of God cleanses us from the toxins of nationalism, and it severs emotional ties to that which is temporal.
2. Redefined Understanding of Power
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you… (v. 8)
The disciples understood power as the ability to have natural authority, and they wanted God to exercise rulership in the political realm. Instead, He directed their gaze away from the political and towards the Spirit realm. He defined power to be that which exists in the heart of man as the result of a genuine experience with God. These disciples were simple men—fishermen and tax collectors—and most of them hailed from an obscure northern region of a small colony the rest of the world had never heard of. But we all know their names two thousand years later because they were re-focused from the political to the place of real power—the Spirit realm.
Does anyone know who Jerusalem’s mayor was when Titus ransacked it (besides the professor of archaic studies)? But we all know the apostles who were filled with power from on high. Our faith is not tied to the history of nations rising and falling, but to the release of power which we experience in precisely the same ways our ancient brothers did. There is a direct contrast here; the disciples asked for political restoration and Jesus said nothing about that, but He said, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” It could not be clearer: true power is the ability to hear God and obey what He says despite contradictory circumstances. It is the ability to move God’s purposes towards completion. A person who is in partnership with God is the most powerful human on the planet, much more authoritative than the president who has the codes to nuclear weapons or the Wall Street banker who manages a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund.
3. Called to Partnership
And you will be my witnesses… (v. 8).
The response of Christ was to ignore their political hopes and instead call the disciples into a greater level of partnership with Him. Note the words you and my in the statement, “…you will be my witnesses.” God wanted to claim ownership of their actions, but He couldn’t do that if their primary objective was to restore a nation state. Too many churchmen today function more as diplomats of the State Department rather than sent ones with spiritual authority, which is why the church is weak and rife with unchecked nationalism. This contradicts the instructions of Christ that we are to be His witnesses. He commissioned them as apostles and disciples, and they were sent with Divine authority into the nations of the earth. It is a heightened day of partnership and relationship with the Sovereign God, not a time to look for political solutions. There must be a people who have been built as robust believers who don’t shrink back in a day when God is assaulting the unseen power structures that lie behind all natural realities, a people like Moses and the children of Israel who lived through the plagues required to dismantle Egypt and bring exit.
4. Expanded from National to Global
…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth… (v. 8).
The singular political focus on one nation was cancelled, and the call was expanded “to the ends of the earth.” The disciples asked, “What about our nation?” and Jesus responded, “Go global!” He liberated them from the restrictions of nationalism, and He commissioned them with global authority. He is building His Church across national, ethnic and socio-economic lines; the Kingdom of God is one transcendent nation in the earth. It is a time to be involved with authentic apostolic initiatives that empower people from across the earth and to be a part of global teams. We are citizens of a heavenly Kingdom, and therefore, the entire earth is ours to both understand and influence for the Kingdom of God.
God is saying to American believers the same thing He said to his early disciples in Acts 1 before He ascended: Shift your focus…receive power from the Holy Spirit…come into greater partnership…look at what I am doing in the nations. We need spiritual leadership that recognizes that the restoration of a superpower is not the issue on God’s mind; we need those who are aware it is not heaven’s plan to fix the American economy or society. The primary task of spiritual leaders is to build the faith of the people so as to live through the crises unto fulfillment of God’s promise of a global and victorious End-Time Church.
Those who refuse to understand this prophetic reality and instead insist that through prayer and revival the nation can be restored to its place of ascendancy will be like the prophets in Jeremiah’s day—they will mislead many of the people who will then be ill-prepared for the crises which already are breaking across the shores of the nation. It has never been more important for our devotion to be fixed on the eternal Kingdom of God and not on temporal nations which rise…and fall.
i Andrew Bracevich; The Age of Great Expectations and the Great Void; http://americanempireproject.com/