Strangelove 2017

Quit Worrying And Love The Gun?

In my 12 years of living in America, few things have made me feel my foreignness quite so much as the Second Amendment and its surrounding gun culture.

My birth nation the United Kingdom doesn’t have anything like an equivalent of the Second Amendment, and firearms, while not actually outlawed, are far less prevalent in society. Guns are so proportionally few in number, in fact, that most of our police officers are routinely unarmed apart from a (currently nightstick-style) truncheon, as they have been since the founding of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police force in the Victorian era.

It’s something I often use as an example when people here in Texas ask me about the land of my birth. “Is it very different over there?” they ask, and one of the things I’m likely to bring up is “well, carrying a concealed weapon is a crime, and even most of our police don’t have guns”. Some people here in Texas seem not to know what to do with this information. “If the police aren’t armed, who has the guns?” one man asked, apparently expecting me to say “the criminals” or something. He really didn’t know how to handle the idea that guns aren’t endemic and that we wouldn’t generally consider owning firearms a right.

Obviously, I’ve struggled long and hard with that sort of bafflement operating in reverse. The insane rate of gun deaths in America. The Second Amendment itself. The fact that even after the deadliest mass shooting in US history the government is unable to pass even rudimentary commonsense legislation restricting some of the more lethal hardware available, or to close the loophole in the law allowing people to avoid background checks when acquiring a gun through private sale.

It doesn’t take a genius to wonder whether America’s gun violence problems are directly connected to America’s Second Amendment to its Constitution.
If you’re going to tell people they have a right to juggle with chainsaws, you shouldn’t be surprised if hospitals are constantly having to patch up those who are less than expert at it. It does sort of beg the question of
why, though, and I’ve struggled for a long time to come to some sort of understanding of what the purpose and reasoning behind the Second Amendment are.

Various not entirely helpful theories are propounded by gun rights advocates. “The Second guarantees the First” is a common bumper-sticker justification for the Amendment, putting forth the idea that the right of individual citizens to bear arms is what stops the government from infringing on the rights listed in the First Amendment: freedom of conscience, of speech, of movement and of association.

While it’s in some ways an attractive theory, especially given the notoriously suspicious general American attitude to authority and government, to me it falls flat, in part because I am a foreigner. My native country has never felt the need to tell its citizens they have a right to go armed, neither has any other developed nation of which I’m aware. If the right of citizens to bear arms is what holds governments back from tyranny, we ought to see a far higher incidence of tyranny among non-American nations, with them scoring far lower on the international freedom indices used to compare the amount of freedom possessed by citizens across national borders. Whereas in fact some developed nations with extremely restrictive gun laws continually score higher than the United States in political freedoms granted their citizens.

Some people put forth the idea that it’s the knowledge that US citizens own 30% of the world’s guns in just 3% of the world’s population that restrains other countries from attacking. I’m not sure why these people have such a low opinion of what’s generally acknowledged as the world’s most powerful military – certainly the most technological – but apparently we can’t guarantee that the US military could successfully hold off an invasion. This sort of Red Dawn fantasy was a little ridiculous when that film came out during the Cold War, and it doesn’t seem any more sensible to me today in 2017.

It is a little more in line with what my considered reading of the Second Amendment suggests that the framers of the Constitution believed it was for, though.

Of necessity I’ve had to become familiar with the text of the Amendment, such that I can now quote it verbatim: “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed”.

I’ve gone through various interpretations and failures to understand this phrasing, including investigating to find out what on earth a militia is and what it has to do with anything. I don’t want to reprise the whole development of my thought on the matter here, but my understanding of a militia is that it was a type of 17th- and 18th-Century temporary military unit composed of farmboys and hunters and basically anyone who had a weapon and hadn’t been press-ganged already. In Europe, militia were notorious for their general indiscipline, battlefield cowardice and off-field brutality. If you were using militia, it was because you had nothing else

And yet in America, the idea of militia dovetailed with the Founding Fathers’ concept of the citizen-soldier who would take up arms in defence of nation and family and then return once more to their fields to take up the plough.

It certainly seems as though the colonists didn’t want a permanent standing army. I guess their experiences with the sorts of British Redcoats that the French would later nickname “les Goddamns” made them so suspicious of armies that they wanted no truck with any of it. They wanted a militia, not an army. Soldiers with nothing to do only lend themselves to oppression.

In this context the Second Amendment makes perfect sense. If your national defence is resting on militia, it’s a borderline treasonable offence to take away the weapons that make a militia possible.

It does rather make the Second Amendment the obsolete artifact of history that I always suspected it was, though.

Why there’s still a Second Amendment today, when there’s an entire permanent US military on which America spends more money than some countries’ entire GDP, seems like merely the inherent conservatism of Americans and their reverence for and reluctance to re-examine the basic provisions of their Constitution.

The fact that the people have apparently a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to own killing weapons doesn’t necessarily make it a given that a majority of people are going to, though. There are all sorts of quaint, archaic laws on the books, not only in the UK where I grew up but all over the world including America, banning and permitting all manner of improbabilities, but the mere fact that they’re on the books doesn’t mean anyone’s really paying attention to them.

No, to answer this we turn to the other imponderable of American culture: as a gun-owning friend once put it, “Americans, we love our guns”.

It’s taken me even longer to assimilate this truth than it took to come to an understanding of what the Second Amendment thinks it’s for. “We love our guns”.

I could recognise easily enough that it did in fact seem to be the case. One only has to look at the numbers. But it made no sense to me, particularly the staunchly pro-gun stance of many Christians. How could anyone who follows the Prince of Peace want anything to do with promoting the ownership of weapons whose primary purpose is to kill?

Obviously they must be ignorant. Or brainwashed by the gun manufacturers’ NRA mouthpiece. Or just supporting gun rights because it’s a conservative cause and American Christianity has become overwhelmingly identified with the political Right.

I suspect that this may be more than a little unfair. I still struggle with the idea that a genuine Bible-believing Christian might feel justified, in certain circumstances, in taking the life of another person when Christ died for them just like He died for me, but I recognise that I seem to be in a distinct minority holding that view here in America.

The scary thing is that my gun-loving friend was right. Americans really do love their guns, and it’s not necessarily because of stereotypical Yank cultural ignorance or personal bloodyminded stupidity.

I’m coming to the conclusion that gun advocates really don’t see guns in the same way, that the gun has a dramatically different symbolic value to most people in the United States than it does for me.

To me, a gun is a killing weapon, end of story. Gun rights advocates, at least in my experience, like to bring up the fact that the police define a car as a deadly weapon, or that you can kill someone with a length of steel pipe or a hammer, or that the 9/11 terrorists killed so many not with a gun but with an aeroplane. It’s not the gun, they claim, it’s what it’s used for.

Whether this doesn’t imply that US society as a whole is sick and violent is a question I choose to leave open right now, but in my mind there’s a difference between a car, which is intended as a means of transport to get from point A to point B but which occasionally gets abused as a weapon, and a gun, whose entire purpose is to shoot a bullet at a target and to kill what it shoots. There can be reasonable uses of this killing capability, for example hunting to feed one’s family, but at the end of the day a gun is made to do one thing: to kill.

More, guns make it easy to kill. You can kill someone with a knife, but you have to be much closer to them and use a lot more effort. In my thinking the ability to kill with the crook of a finger is a terrible power to wield, one that I wouldn’t trust myself with. To place that power in the hands of the meanest, most prejudiced and violent knuckle-dragging troglodyte seems like inviting horror.

I’m not trying to say that all gun owners are prejudiced knuckle-draggers, but by their nature as instruments of violence, guns would seem to attract the violent and appeal to the base killing instinct. A person who is peaceable and placid by nature would seem to have less inherent interest in acquiring a firearm.

Guns, to me, are by their very nature death-dealing devices of inherent designed potential for violence, and it’s this perspective that’s stymied me for so long in assimilating “we love our guns”. How could any rational, reasonable person possibly love a tool of violence and death?

It’s possible, even likely, that I’m being a little double-minded in this, because I have a thing for swords. Objectively, a sword is at least as much a tool of violence and death, but in my defence it’s not a current tool of violence and death, so that in the modern gunpowder age a sword is more or less a prop, a decoration, an anachronism owned for its symbolic value rather than its cutting-edge (sorry) killing technology.

To me, swords are symbolically associated with knighthood and the Mediaeval code of chivalry, with its virtues of honour, integrity, faith and the protection of the weak. Only a very distant secondarily are they a functional weapon, unlike the gun, which is purely and simply a functional weapon and has absolutely no mystique or positive symbolic value to me at all. Indeed, it almost stands in opposition to the sword as a symbol of the coarser, less spiritual and refined values of the modern age.

Is it possible that other people might imbue the gun with positive symbolic value? That ownership of a gun might for some be less about owning a death-dealing weapon and more about some intangible value like personal liberty or self-reliance?

Well, duh.

Of course other people of other cultures place different significance on things. Though the idea’s usually found in reference to “primitive” cultures, I suspect most cultures actually have certain totem objects imbued with strong symbolic value, like the British Crown Jewels or the American bald eagle.

The situation is complicated in the case of guns because the gun is a currently-employed killing weapon and has all of those associations as well, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that for the people about whom I most wonder at their enthusiasm for firearms ownership, the gun isn’t merely a killing device; it has a symbolic meaning that’s completely outside my ken.

Commentators on the gun issue in America frequently use words and phrases like “freedom”, “independence”, “self-reliance”, “rugged ability to take care of things oneself”. In the past, this might as well have been Martian for all it touched me. Not only do I not associate the gun with any of that, but I don’t even consider some of those to be important. Or even virtues.

Yeah, I’m a foreigner. Did you expect me to be an American with this accent?

Independence isn’t that important to me on a personal level. I’m more into the idea of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation. The “rugged self-reliance” that takes care of business without needing anyone else seems almost psychologically unbalanced and basically futile: macho posturing that more often than not creates a big problem whenever it tries to solve a small one. If guns are symbolic of this, count me basically uninterested.

I guess the gun-rights advocates are right, at least in my personal case. I really don’t share your values. In my case it actually does make me unAmerican, but there seem to be plenty of people in the States that are at least as nonplussed by the apparent love of the gun as I am. The people who, after a horrific mass shooting like Las Vegas, reopen the historically futile debate over firearms with calls for tighter regulation of these intrinsically dangerous weapons. The people who fight against the depressing knowledge that there will be another mass shooting just as bad as this last one if not worse.  The people who advocate for what I’d describe as rational and reasonable legal control.

Because a gun isn’t just a symbol of rugged individualism. It’s a deadly weapon, by its very nature an instrument of violent death. The dichotomy of this dual nature as both weapon and symbol is a pretty good summary of the American gun debate. And “Americans, we love our guns” finally seems to have an answer for why? that makes an ounce of sense.

Americans probably don’t love guns because they are twisted closet-sociopaths who love violence and death, though you could certainly make a case that the USA as a whole is fairly violence-obsessed. It just might be that there are important symbolic values for many Americans connected with owning a gun, and that they love guns because guns represent a value they cherish.

I’m probably never going to personally love guns. Neither they nor their ownership hold positive symbolic value to me, and even the values I’m told are associated with them are mostly not ones I place particular emphasis on. Freedom is good, for instance, but my freedom is necessarily limited by law, morality, courtesy and the common freedoms of everyone else. My self-image and identity aren’t bound up in owning a weapon. At least, not this weapon; I’d still love to get a broadsword. But even there, I’m quite able to live my life without one.

As a Christian, I question whether our self-image and identity ought to be so wrapped up in weapon ownership rather than Christ, but when I can lay down forever my desire to have a sword, then I can frame the identity-marker of gun possession as possible idolatry. I question whether the values expressed in the symbology of the gun are ones we ought to be promoting as Christians, but that’s not quite the same issue.

I don’t think I’ll ever see the Second Amendment as anything more than a historical artifact or ever really share in this great American obsession, but perhaps in finally grasping the value and symbolic aspects of the issue I can better understand that chimerical and seemingly unnatural beast, the Christian gun-rights advocate.  Or even just the gun rights advocate, no matter the rest of their functioning belief system.

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Come to the Dark Side (we have logic)

There’s a theory in much of the evangelical church in the United States that political liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. Talking to some people (especially where I live in Texas) you get the impression that it’s our Christian duty to support the free-market laissez-faire capitalism promoted by God’s chosen agent on Earth, the Republican Party of the USA.

I apologise for the facetious tone, but that’s often how it comes across. Most of the people I know here who believe in Jesus honestly think that being a political liberal as a Christian is either succumbing to the Dark Side or serving two masters, and that right-wing economic policy is somehow intrinsically godly.

If you’re a capitalist on the ruthless Ferengi-like American model, you’re perceived as a good Christian. If you’re a known liberal, fellow-believers sometimes assume you’re a pagan and want to share the Gospel with you.

Interestingly, that statement about serving two masters and the impossibility thereof was made by Jesus in the context of Mammon, the desire for and worship of wealth and the only false god Jesus ever directly named. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me this is sounding like capitalism’s worship at the altar of gain far more than anything left-leaning.

I don’t believe that the Bible prescribes any economic system as inherently Christian or God-favoured, but with the assumption among so many US Christians that “left-leaning follower of Jesus” is an oxymoron, I thought I’d take a critical look at some of the Right’s assumptions in the light of Scripture.

Personally, I find the right-wing notion that the way to relieve poverty is to slap poor people about the face and yell at them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be at best a little humanistic, preaching a “gospel” of self-effort and economic self-salvation that has more in common with Islam or Atheism than with Biblical Christianity. It’s no wonder so many struggle with the theology of grace alone; their right-leaning bootstrap economics both reinforces and is reinforced by the soteriological idea that you have to earn it.

By Republican ideology, it’s your own fault if you’re poor. If you were motivated enough or worked hard enough or invested enough or saved enough, you’d be a wealthy entrepreneur the way God intended. So the best way to help you is to cut off all support from the outside so that you’re forced to rely on your own resources to pull yourself up.

Even discounting the complete ignoring of the idea of systemic injustice and a system that benefits the already-wealthy, I fail to see what human self-effort has to do with the Good News about Jesus Christ. The point of the entire Bible, Old Testament as well as New, is that we can’t do it ourselves. Because of sin, we don’t have the internal resources in ourselves, and whereas all other religions are basically God or prophet slapping us around the face and yelling at us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, Christianity is the story of a God Who stoops down to become like us, in order that He might make us like Him.

In this sense the Gospel is fundamentally leftist; opposed to the Satanic notion that we can bootstrap ourselves into righteousness.

Furthermore, the Scripture lists our internal disposition to sin as only one of our problems. There’s an evil world-system under its false god the Devil, keeping people divided in prejudice and hate, in bondage to oppression and injustice. Satan loves prejudice because God looks at the heart rather than the outward things. He loves injustice and oppression because God is just and the way of God is freedom from oppression. Systemic injustice is characteristic of what we expect to see in a sin-dominated world, and it is our duty and privilege as followers of the One who died to set us free to fight injustice, battle prejudice and work toward the uprooting of systemic evil, much as William Wilberforce worked to outlaw the slave trade.

The battle won’t be finally won until the return of the King, but we still have to seek His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth now as it is in heaven.

As far as I can tell, capitalism is always on the side of the rich. By right-wing ideology they’ve earned their place at the top, and we should desire to emulate them.

By contrast, the Bible portrays God as almost always on the side of the poor and the weak: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He has sent away empty”. “Not many of you were rich, not many of you were of noble birth”. All those psalms that talk about how good the wicked seem to have it now and God’s impending judgment on them for acquiring wealth sinfully. All those proverbs warning the rich to remember compassion and not put their trust in riches; all those other proverbs pointing out that just because you’re wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because God blessed you. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20f) is practically Das Kapital for followers of Jesus, and declares woes to the rich and those that have everything now. The Kingdom of God is at hand! With economic justice for all.

Scripture warns that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Capitalism declares that the love of money is an unalloyed good and promotes industry and enterprise. We need to be careful here. Biblical Christianity doesn’t have a place for the sanctification of greed for material gain.

Jesus was born to a couple so poor they could only afford the very least sacrifice for a firstborn required by the Law. One of the signs of the Kingdom that John the Baptist was told by the Lord to look for was that the Gospel is preached to the poor. James warns the early church not to idolise the rich or show partiality to them. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”.

And yet with all this, American Christians nearly universally fawn on business-owners, elect millionnaires to high office (often seemingly simply because they are “successful” – at least in acquiring wealth), and favour policies to take money from the poor and give it to the rich (because they’re presumed to be “job creators”). Exactly the opposite of what Luke’s Beatitudes tell us should happen as the Kingdom comes.

The early church under the leadership of the Apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit instituted a communistic-like system in which each one contributed according to his ability and each one partook according to his need. This may be communism without the atheistic and state-dominated elements, but it is communism of a sort, just like an Israeli kibbutz.

No-one is saying that there isn’t a temptation on the economic and political Left to look to the state (or the government, or one’s fellow human beings) to do for you what only God can, but isn’t there just as much of a temptation on the Right to think that we can pull ourselves up to righteousness, that we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-Saviour? The Right isn’t necessarily any more Christian than the Left is, nor is the Left necessarily any less Christian than the Right. Both are human constructs invented by fallen men. God’s Kingdom, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, is not a matter of Left and Right, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that you can’t lean to the right and follow Jesus, but I am saying that it’s at least equally possible for one’s faith to influence one’s politics in a left-leaning direction.

In fact, I’d say there might be more that the Left have closer to God’s way right now than the Right. Concern for the poor, wage equality for women, proper stewardship of God’s world. International relations based on diplomacy and peacemaking rather than threat and military might. Even the desire to allow illegal immigrants some sort of amnesty seems more in line with Jesus’ concern for the woman caught in adultery as a person as opposed to the Pharisees’ heartless legalism and political games with a life at stake.

Like someone who came here illegally, the woman wasn’t an innocent party; she’d been caught in the act. The Law was clear, and she’s on the wrong side of it.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily an exact parallel in all respects, but the conservative tendency to exalt law at the expense of people strikes me as rather Pharisaic.

I’m not fully comfortable with all the positions taken by the American Left on everything, but political morality is far more than the one-dimensional issue of whether or not you favour legal abortion that so many Evangelicals seem to treat it as.

So I put this out there as a deliberate challenge to the assumption that right-wing politics is synonymous with righteousness and the way of God and that the Left is intrinsically opposed to Christ. I’ve been deliberately provocative at some points simply to shake up the false idea that Right=moral, Left=immoral. I hope it provokes thought rather than offence for the sake of it.

I look forward to the day when followers of Jesus can rise above their political differences and recognise all who put their trust in Him as sisters and brothers.

Independence Planet

A cross-post from my LEGO blog Square Feet today.  This seemed appropriate in both places.


It’s quite out-of-the-ordinary for me to be building a Fourth of July-themed LEGO model.

Although I live in the United States, I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and American Independence Day is the single US public holiday I’ve had the hardest time getting my heart around.

In all honesty, Britain in 1776 doesn’t look to me like the “tyranny” of you Americans’ popular belief, based as it is on half-remembered childhood school lessons. We had pre-Revolutionary (and later post-Revolutionary) France sitting next door inviting comparison, and besides that the citizens of the American colonies seem to have had in large part a lighter burden than those of the mother country. “British tyranny”, as you so delightfully put it, hardly seems fair.

It’s taken most of a decade now to get past my offended national pride at this seemingly mentally-lazy accusation of “tyranny”, together with my secret fear that you Americans might be still holding a sort of grudge about it all with your closely-held popular memories of your Paul Reveres, your Boston Tea-Parties and your “rockets’ red glare” (from missiles fired by one of our warships, as I can’t quite ever forget).

Really, the Fourth of July is a weird time to be a Brit in America, if you have any sense or knowledge of history. I love America, but I love my homeland too, and it’s difficult to enter into the spirit of a holiday which persists in painting my home country as the villain.

For all that my country of birth and my country of residence are now staunch allies, such that your Red, White and Blue flies proudly beside ours, and the idea that we might be deadly enemies is frankly ridiculous; still, every Fourth of July I’m reminded that it was not always so.

However, in recent years I’ve been far better about not working myself into a frenzy over it in the run-up to the Day itself, finding ways to love America even on the Fourth of July that don’t feel like I’m being subtly asked to reject the land of my birth.

Really, it’s nothing anyone else has ever said or done. This is my own love of my homeland running headlong into the reality that it was that country that those early Americans had to fight to gain their independence. I’m quite happy to celebrate American independence; what I feel sometimes like I’m probably not going to be allowed is permission to love my other country too, even on the Fourth when you memorialise that former enmity.

Silly? Maybe. Weirdly insecure? For certain. Neurotic? Perhaps.

Rather English, though. We never want to impose on anyone; I wouldn’t dream of sounding a discordant note of Britannic pride in the midst of the United States’ birthday celebration. Hence my annual patriotic neurosis.

Really, though, I have been getting better. The War of Independence isn’t exactly current affairs even in the UK where it’s so much closer to 2017 than to 1066, and no-one is asking me to choose sides for battle. I’m gradually realising that it really is a free country (still); I don’t need the nation’s permission to be British even on the Fourth.

And there’s much to love about America, land of liberty, welcomer of those “huddled masses” and home of opportunity and an inventiveness that has blessed the world with so many wonderful devices.

America really is great, and not even Donald Trump can take away that proud legacy.

Hence this build.

A deliberate homage to that famous image of the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima, it uses some of my new red and white LEGO Classic Space astronauts, and my slightly older blue Classic astronaut.

Indeed, the whole build owes itself to the way I had my new astronauts arranged on my son’s LEGO display shelves. Independence Day rapidly approaching, it occurred to me that the visual combination of red, white and blue astronauts was very patriotic. “I’m sure I could do something with that, for this holiday I’m actually beginning to come to terms with”.

Thoughts turned to that famous USMC image, and the rest is as you see.

Have a happy Independence Day, everyone.

Americhristmas: The 10 Most Surprising Things About American Holiday Traditions

Christmas is one of the holidays with the most commonality between Britain and the US. We both encapsulate the Northern European traditions of trees and snow and reindeer and so on. But there are some surprising differences. Some of these that particularly flummoxed or amazed me when I first encountered them are as follows:

  1. What, no Boxing Day? American companies are rather Scroogelike in the amount of holidays, public or otherwise, that they give their employees. Whereas in England, the 26th is a public holiday as well, I was most distressed to learn that here in America I was expected back at work bright and early, fully functional and ready to be a productive little cog in the machine. Seriously, does anyone really expect to get much done on the day after the biggest holiday of the year? I get more time off for Thanksgiving than I do for Christ’s birth most years, and last time Christmas fell on a Saturday I got the Saturday off (it’s usually a workday for me) and that was it. Conservatives moan that “companies can’t afford it”, but given the bonuses they pay their executives, I’m more convinced it’s “won’t” than “can’t”. Very surprising, and unpleasantly so.

  1. Food Differences. The familiar mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake don’t really exist here, but make room for cookies. Hundreds of the things, sugared, iced and cut into seasonal shapes. The potatoes served with the turkey are likely to be mashed, not roasted (you people have no idea what you’re missing), the turkey might get deep-fried, and the green vegetable accompaniment is beans, not Brussels sprouts. Chocolate coins in the Christmas stocking isn’t the done thing, but candy canes hung on the Christmas tree might be.

  1. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Top of my personal list of “what on earth were you thinking?” foods, this one is so weird it needs its own category. Sweet potato was a nonexistent vegetable in my growing up, and I really wasn’t sure about something that had the consistency of stringy regular potato but a sweet flavour. But to mash it up and bake it in a pan with marshmallow on top, and then insist that it belongs on the same plate as turkey? No, you people are strange. I like you, but this food crosses too many boundaries for me. I’d never even suspected the existence of a food (not a condiment like apple sauce with pork or cranberry sauce with turkey, but a food) that was sweet but a “dinner” food and not a dessert. That’s a line I don’t personally cross. Like your weird jello salads, this I’ll pass on.

  2. HanukChristKwanzFestivus. When I first arrived in the States, I hadn’t yet tumbled to what inveterate particularists Americans are. When I was growing up, Christmas was Christmas. I’d vaguely heard of Hanukkah by the time I moved to the States as an almost thirty-year-old, but other than that it was a Jewish festival around Christmas time, I didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a very high profile in the country of my birth. Jews, and even Muslims, are as likely to wish you a happy Christmas as anyone else. But what on earth’s a Kwanzaa? A Festivus? Come on; you’re making these up. Kwanzaa, I’m informed, is essentially Christmas for black people who think Christmas is too white and European; Festivus is Christmas for militant atheists. This is America. Everyone’s got to have their own holiday catering specifically to them. Now, I understand that if you’re Hindu you probably want to celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas, and if you’re a Jew you probably want to celebrate Hanukkah. But these have an actual history and don’t seem to be fabricated out of whole cloth simply because we like having a holiday and there are things we object to about the majority one. I guess the early Christians’ adoption of the Saturnalia for Christmas was something like this originally, but given the basic nonexistence of Kwanzaa in the UK and the very definite existence of a thriving black and African community, I wonder whether stuff like Kwanzaa is really as “African” as it’s claimed.

  3. Musical Differences. I talked about this last post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The carols have different tunes in many instances (Away In A Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels From the Realms of Glory, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear). The secular music is totally different. And there are some different carols, too. I was particularly surprised by Angels We Have Heard On High, which has our tune for Angels from the Realms of Glory (mostly) but different words, and the complete absence of Once In Royal David’s City.

  4. There’s No Such Thing As Tacky Decorations. Whether it’s the tree or the house, American notions of proper decorating are like themselves: bold, loud, overpowering and individual. Nothing is so cheesy or tacky that some American won’t put it on his front lawn, whether the 12ft tall inflatable Nativity scene, the dinosaur Santa giving presents to all the little T-rexes, the zombie Santa, the upside-down Santa that hangs by a toe from the gutter, or whatever else. Coming from a part of Britain that was relentlessly middle class and the last thing anyone wanted to be accused of was of being tacky, it was rather surprising. Tree ornaments are similar. No-one would make patriotic or state (if we had them) tree ornaments in Britain, but you see them all the time here, blazoned with the Stars and Stripes, or the Confederate flag if you’re of a mind, or football teams, TV shows, whatever. Express yourself. It’s the American thing to do, and if anyone doesn’t like it, it’s the American thing that they can kiss your… Ahem.

  5. So few Christmas cards. Ok, Britain goes a little overboard with Christmas cards. You get them from everyone, and you’re supposed to give them to everyone. They make special Christmas card display hangers that you can pin up to 100+ cards to apiece, and people regularly need several per room in their house. Think US valentine cards, raised to the power of ten and at Christmas time. And when I say everyone gives them to everyone, I mean it. I got Christmas cards at school from kids with names like Anwar Islam and Rakesh Patel. But we didn’t usually send or give cards to immediate family. By contrast, my wife’s family did cards for one another, and a few closer friends and church people, and that’s it. As my family know, I’m particularly disorganised about cards, and at $2 a card to mail them internationally, it gets expensive, but I always feel particularly guilty that I’m not doing it right, no matter what we do.

  6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Movie. Yes, I mean the 1964 vintage one. We all know the song, even in the wilds of Britain, but not only had I never seen the film (still haven’t, in fact), I had never even suspected its existence. This “classic” American Christmas film apparently has a distinctly North American audience; it hasn’t been shown on British TV that I know about or remember any time in my life of fortysomething years. This, Frosty the Snowman (which I’ve never seen either), and a couple of others I don’t recall off the top of my head are basically unknown. We have our own Christmas TV classics (The Snowman), but typically what I recall being shown on TV on Christmas day were popular mainstream films like The Empire Strikes Back. Of the classic American holiday films, I’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and maybe a couple of others. “Classic” for me is sometimes code for “not watchable on merit; needs added nostalgia”.

  7. Eggnog. To go from a country in which it’s a marginal, slightly strange alcoholic cocktail involving real eggs (at least, that’s what I thought “egg nog” was when I got here) to a country in which it’s a vanillaish creamy soft drink demanded by the masses and used as a flavouring in seasonal chocolates and stuff is fairly eyeblinking. I’d never drunk eggnog of either incarnation before I moved to the States. To hear what I always thought was an alcoholic drink craved loudly by my resolutely teetotal father-in-law was something of a shock. Eggnog is big business here, consumed by the pint and lapped up with relish. I don’t personally care for it; you can have my share. But how in demand it is and how much a Christmas flavour it’s considered to be here was certainly surprising.

  8. We Wish You A Sober Christmas. America has its share of holiday drinking, but it seems to be of things that would be drunk anyway, like regular beer or wine. There seems little of the holiday sherry or the alcohol-soaked desserts or the mulled wine that you have to prepare or buy specially. Hot apple cider in the US means warmed spiced apple juice, not the alcoholic drink that is the only meaning of “cider” in the UK. American Christmas is designed for kids, so there’s no alcohol on show, there’s masses of sugar, and everything is very G-rated (U or Uc, in British film classification parlance). Britain’s a bit more European; alcohol is a part of life and we don’t feel any particular need to hide it from our children. The sooner they treat it as something to drink sensibly, but just something to drink, the better off they’ll be. Including at Christmas, with our sherry and our mulled wine and our brandy-soaked Christmas puddings that you set alight at the table, and our brandy butter. We’re really not a nation of alcoholics, but alcohol is definitely more embedded into the Christmas festivities than it is in the US.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but those are the main ones that caught me out. Enjoy your Christmas preparations; I’m back to mine.

Kyrie Eleison

And now I have to somehow find a way to explain to my children that the Presidency-elect of the United States of America belongs to an arrogant sex predator who brags about sexually assaulting women, cheating on his multiple spouses and being completely uninvolved in raising his children, who mocks the disabled, cheats his employees out of their wages, apparently thinks that the reason we have nuclear weapons is so that we can use them, and doesn’t think he’s done anything that needs God’s forgiveness.

Worse, I have to somehow explain that self-proclaimed evangelical Christians voted for him in droves because apparently God doesn’t care about anything except abortion and the US Supreme Court.

May God have mercy on us all.

My dad texted the single comment from his home in the UK:  “Disaster for the world”.

I think for me the most hopeful thing of the election night coverage was Glenn Beck’s comments about listening to one another.  Normally I don’t have a lot of time for his brand of screaming conservative rants, but what this seems to amount to is “Dear God, what have we done?  What have I done?”

Glenn Beck, arch-Republican of arch-Republicans, said that.  There might be hope yet for sense to break out.

I have my doubts, though, when members of my church claim “he’s not saying anything we aren’t thinking”, when I know pastors who think Hillary Clinton is “worse than Jezebel” (what on earth has she done to deserve that dubious accolade?  She’s not exactly killing Christians left, right and centre the way Jezebel killed YHWH’s prophets).  Good grief, if you’re thinking what Trump is saying, all I can say is that you need to know Jesus.  Badly.

And yet, God is still good.  He’s still sovereign.  He is still in the business of redeeming lives from darkness and sending His Holy Spirit to convict the world with regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.  He doesn’t need a righteous President in order to build His Kingdom; He built His Kingdom under Nero and Domitian and Stalin and Hitler and builds it today under Kim Jong Un and Hu Jintao and even Ayatollah Khomeini, in spite of the political powers-that-be in the various nation-states around the world that persecute His followers.  He is still able to build His Kingdom here in the United States despite us having elected ourselves a crude and unpleasant troll with anger management issues.

I will not fear.  I will trust in the Lord and continue to do good.  He is my shield and my strength and my song.

Citius Altius Fortius, or “Why are Americans so dominant in sports?”

With the Olympic Games currently being staged in Rio, naturally the Americans are dominating the medal tables. This is normal; Americans treat this as evidence that everything is right with the world; the rest of us with a sort of weary acceptance that yes, things are proceeding as usual.

But it begs the question: Why are Americans apparently good at every sport we’ve ever heard of, plus all the ones no-one has suspected might exist as well?

I typically like to lay the blame on the simple mathematics of population and economics. The United States of America is in the world’s top three for population and has the world’s largest and most dominant economy. They’ve got the population base to find people who are good at just about everything and the economic muscle to buy them world-class training facilities. The results speak for themselves.

But there’s more to it than that.

Talking with my American wife about it, she made the astute observation that there’s a cultural difference between the way Americans approach sports and the way Brits approach sports. She expressed it as “Brits don’t worship athleticism in the way Americans do”, and while that wouldn’t be the way I’d put it, she’s definitely got a point. There are reasons why Americans are so good at sports, and they are primarily cultural, not mathematic.

I thought that in this post I’d take a look at some of those differences. Yes, it’s another “compare and contrast” exercise between our two countries. I happen to like them. Live with it.

The usual caveats about generalising and personal opinion apply; this is my list, not a definitive guide. Plus the following:

I’ve never personally been much of a sportsman. As a child I had the hand-eye coordination of a jellyfish, the physical flexibility of a rhino and the forward running speed of a sloth, and there isn’t any point in trying to compete with eagles if you’re one of the world’s penguins.

Also, I’m at best a casual sports fan. It’s difficult to really love something you’re personally terrible at, and the only things I’ll actually turn the TV on to watch are the Olympics and the World Cup. But the cultural differences involved here are fascinating to me, so here goes anyway:

1. Americans exalt competition and success, Brits love a heroic failure.

Americans are naturally competitive about everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, Americans will compete over it. It’s been said that if an American’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls-Royce, the American will want one just like it or better, whereas if a Brit’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls, they will secretly wish the neighbour to die a fiery death. Same envy, different results. Americans compete in work, they compete socially, they compete in and through their kids. And naturally, they compete in and through sports.

Not only do Americans love competition, they worship success therein. Only in America would “loser” achieve the level of perjorative connotation that it has. The world is basically seen as a Darwinian struggle in which you either succeed or are trampled. Even American street address numbering starts at 100, so that the Americans who live there don’t start killing one another over who gets the number 1 address.

Donald Trump seems to be a sort of unfortunate distillation of this mentality. He worships the idea of power and “success” so much that he actively despises weakness – the economically disadvantaged, the disabled, the physically unattractive (his own speech convicts him) – and the one thing that will send him most quickly into frothing apoplexy is the suggestion that reality might be different from his “Look at me, I’m a success” self-image (witness his persistent rage against various reporters). Frankly I think he’s temperamentally unsuited to the leadership of anything more sophisticated than a chimpanzees’ tea party, but we’re talking about sports.

Naturally, therefore, because competition and winning are so important, Americans expect to win. Winning is vital to their national self-image; if we don’t win, something is wrong with our country. See my comments on “loser” above.

By contrast, nothing warms the British heart like a story of someone struggling against the odds and almost making it. To American ears, the concept of “heroic failure” is nonsensically oxymoronic. There’s nothing heroic about failure. Heroes are people who win. End of story.

But it’s one of the subtle central tenets of British culture. Scott of the Antarctic would be a national embarrassment to Americans; to us he’s one of our heroes. Maybe it’s something we got from the Scandinavian domination of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th Centuries. The Norse ideal of a hero was someone who went down fighting for all they were worth, and even their gods were destined to lose the final battle at the end of the world. To them, heroism wasn’t shown in victory, it was shown in how you face death. (To use an analogy from the original Star Trek, it’s the antithesis of Kirk’s cheating solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario.)

Wherever it comes from, we seem as a nation to have some of this idea. Heroes don’t necessarily have to win to be heroes; they show their heroism in how they face whatever comes their way, be it victory or defeat. Sometimes all the courage and training in the world isn’t enough, and the true hero is the one who does what’s right whether that leads them to victory or sends them crashing down in flames. That’s something of what I mean by “heroic failure”.

Turnabout is fair play, so a British political example: I suspect that Boris Johnson was trying to tap into this deep well of the national psyche by the way he campaigned for the Brexit. He seemed totally unprepared for the idea that he might win; I think it might have been intended as a subtle calculation, that he was supposed to put up a valiant fight and lose, so that the nation would then love him. My opinion only, and probably based on hearsay (but the same goes for what I think of Trump, I guess).

Anyway, Brits love heroic failures. Trying big and falling on your face is a way to our hearts like nothing else. Remember Eddie the Eagle?

2. Americans deify hard work, Brits worship fair play

It’s impossible to overstate the value of hard work in American culture. I’ve commented on this in a Father’s Day post a couple of years back; one of the questions that always seems to get asked in American church small groups around that time of year is “what did you learn from your father?”, and almost without exception the answer Americans give includes something about the value of hard work as the first or second thing mentioned. And without exception it’s in there somewhere.

American culture worships at the altar of work. Whereas in Britain, asking someone what job they do is perceived as a sly way of asking how much money they make, in America it’s one of the first questions asked. Work is what defines you; an out-of-work American suffers a sort of identity crisis in a way Brits don’t (or not to the same degree), because who Americans are is so tied up in what they do. The American Dream is that if you work hard, anyone can make it; their love of success makes them gravitate especially to those who started from nothing and made themselves wealthy and famous. The entrepreneur, the business-starter, the self-made man: these are the national icons.

Most Brits, I think, would probably suspect that the American Dream is a subtle bill of goods: that hard work doesn’t always pay off in the real world and that the deck is being stacked by those who are “winners” under the current system. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t only dependent on what you personally can do. Time and chance happen to us all. The race is not always to the swift.

Americans also almost universally see personal drive and ambition as basically unalloyed good things. I’ve heard Americans saying “I’m a very driven person” and meaning something unequivocally positive, whereas to me it always comes across as either “I’m a Nazi to my underlings and my employees are plotting to kill me” or “I want my boss’ job and I’ll trample anyone who gets in the way”. They’re often prepared to accept levels of cutthroat ruthlessness in the pursuit of goals that would shock most Brits; again, look at Donald Trump. Any advantage you can wrest is to be seized with both hands, whether it’s above or below the table. If playing dirty gets the job done, there’s a certain amount of shrugging and telling people not to be crybabies. All’s fair in love and war.

Theologically, the work focus leads to an awful lot of American Christians struggling with the notion of grace, but it’s not like there aren’t facets of the British mentality that run diametrically opposed to the truth of God. Anyway, we’re talking about sports. Onward!

Brits, by comparison, deify the notion of fair play. Sharing, fairness and taking turns are drummed into children with the same singleminded devotion we show to the teaching of important things like table manners. My own kids’ ineptitude with a knife and fork is something I find deeply shameful; most Americans, however, wouldn’t even notice a problem in the way they eat.

Where Americans crowd and use their elbows, British people wait patiently in line. Your turn will come. I suspect that if Michael Phelps had been British, he wouldn’t have come out of retirement to swim in the Rio Games, and when I personally am confronted with ultrasuccessful athletes like this, I’m always struck with the impulse to cheer for someone else. Anyone else, in fact: he’s already won his share of medals, and it’s someone else’s turn now.

I expect that most of my countrymen would find that this impulse resonates with them; to most Americans it’s probably an absurdity. A winner is expected to keep on winning, otherwise he becomes a loser (or worse, a “quitter”) and we despise him. By contrast, the British “heroic failure” mentality means we often warm more to our celebrities on the way down than on the way up.

Notions of fair play carry over into the language. One of the primary connotations of “sporting” in the British variety of English is “giving the other guy a chance; not pressing your advantage; playing fairly and in a gentlemanly manner”, and of course, “it’s not fair!” is probably the number one complaint that you will hear from children up and down the country whenever anything goes wrong.

It allowed us to host an Olympics without any shadow of judging scandals that I ever heard about; as a nation, we’re deeply devoted to the idea of fairness and the level playing field. We cheer for the underdog, because the big guy has all the advantages and it’s a way to do something to even the odds a little. We also have a deep-rooted national suspicion that if you’re successful, probably you had an unfair advantage of some kind. Someone with Trump’s background would never make it in the British political scene because of the unfair advantage that his inherited wealth gave him, and we’d never celebrate the way he uses his money to push people around in the way that some Americans seem to celebrate it.

Americans, on the other hand, would probably view the success of the successful as just desserts. Their national mythology expresses the idea that hard work always pays off; therefore the successful must be those who have worked for it (even if they didn’t necessarily get their own hands dirty). It’s right that they enjoy the fruits of their success, including, perhaps, the right to do what they can to see to it that they keep on succeeding. If this means bending the system to support them, American culture doesn’t care about it as much as it cares about winning.

3. American education emphasises sports to an insane degree

University-level sports is big business in the USA. Any American who hasn’t spent the last hundred years in an underground nuclear bunker knows about March Madness, the BCS, College Baseball and so on. They’re televised and followed nationally by legions of fans, even among those who never went to university or played the sport in question.

Partly this is just that Americans exhibit a far greater degree of loyalty to their university or college than Brits do. We don’t have class rings; reunions are very low-key; we don’t do the whole “Class of ’86: The Titans” type naming thing. Very few Brits, apart from perhaps those who went to Oxford or Cambridge, would have an expectation that their child would necessarily go to the same university they went to. But it goes deeper and broader than that. With the exception of the traditional Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, there isn’t a single university-level sporting fixture that anyone in Britain would even remotely suggest televising. Universities are academic institutions; they aren’t supposed to be there for their sports programs. In Britain, if you want to study something like Sports Management at university, you try to go to the single sports-focused university, Loughborough. Who therefore win every sporting event they are in, which makes most of the competitions (particularly in the Midlands regional group where my own university was) unwatchably lopsided. There’s no point.

Anyway, with the way most of our universities’ funding comes from the public purse, we’d think they were wasting our money spending it on fripperies like sports teams rather than the academic education they are supposed to be there for.

Even at a primary-school (“elementary school”, O American) level, American school sports are worlds more professional and organised than British ones. What in British schools is a “P.E. teacher” rejoices in American schools with the title “Coach”. It’s a different focus. In Britain the suggestion is that they are a teacher, whose job it is to make sure your bodies aren’t withering while you exercise your mind in a classroom. In America they are a “coach”; their job is to help you succeed in your chosen sport.

The unspoken expectation is that you will have one, and that’s not nearly so much the case in Britain. Everyone is required to have some physical activity, but not everyone is expected to be an athlete. Some people are cheetahs, some people are sloths. There’s no shame in being one of nature’s sloths; they just aren’t well-designed for speed. Lack of basic sporting talent is not necessarily something you can help; it might well be inherent in who you are.

I suspect that the money machine drives a lot of the emphasis on sports in American schools. By and large, American schools are humungous by comparison to British ones (my high school was considered huge with about 600-800 kids including what in America are Junior High-age children, whereas there are high schools around here that have easily 1200 or more kids and less than half the age range of their British counterparts), and this means they have far more resources to devote to nonacademic things. In Britain, if you want to do something less mainstream like archery, your school is not going to be able to help you. They don’t have the money and they don’t have the people, and they will not waste either of those resources trying to make the time.

My wife counters that if American people weren’t devoted to sports in general, the money wouldn’t go to it in schools. I can see that, but I think that the “devotion to sports” is a complex of things stemming more from the veneration of the American twin gods of competition and hard work than it is about sports per se. I’d suggest that schools focus on sports as a way to let all the kids exercise their inner competitive jerk in a relatively controlled environment that isn’t going to end up with someone getting killed.

Because certainly the level of British sports fandom is comparable. Football (by which I mean soccer, not handegg) players have even more inflated salaries, not to mention egoes, than their American sporting counterparts. People are still insane enough to strip to the waist and paint themselves in their team’s colours, even with British weather to contend with. A team’s fortunes at their match may provoke either a celebration or a riot. We’ll cheer on our Olympic athletes with gusto even when we know they’re lucky to have made it that far, and we’ll get disappointed despite that knowledge if they don’t somehow pull off a miracle and win a medal.

However, you’d never get British universities accepting a knuckle-dragging troglodyte of a student purely because they can kick a ball, but this is what happens with the US’ sports scholarships. As I said, British universities aren’t perceived as being about sports; no-one cares who wins the national university rugby championship except students and their parents, and not all of them. The idea that you’d allow people to go to university just based on athletic achievement rather than academic ability is mind-numbingly dumb to me. Yeah, sure, if they have the academic ability as well, but not solely for sports. Why, America? How did it start? What is the academic point?

Maybe my wife’s idea of an American “worship of athleticism” isn’t as odd as I thought.

4. Brits insist on dividing themselves up

We’re already a smallish nation, population-wise. There are at least five European nations with larger populations, and we don’t even register against populational heavyweights like India, the USA and Brazil. But then, for reasons of tradition, we insist on dividing ourselves up into our component parts for most sporting events. We may be “Team GB” in the Olympics, but in the World Cup, or the European football championships, or rugby, we play as Scotland, England, Wales and (occasionally) Northern Ireland.

Understand, I’m not begrudging the Scots the opportunity to field their own team, nor to cheer for whoever’s playing against England. But it always seems to me like we’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot. We aren’t big enough to do that any more.

Once upon a time it might have made sense. Surprising as it might be to modern ears, the United Kingdom once held the same sort of ultradominance in sports that the United States does today (incidentally, should that be “the United States does” or “the United States do”?). And so, due to the national devotion to fair play, it was more sporting to compete as England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland than as the United Kingdom all together. It’s more important that it be a fair and evenly-matched competition, even if that means hamstringing ourselves, than it is to win. Americans probably see this as a sort of national devotion to failure, but it isn’t. Fair play matters.

5. Americans revel in victory, Brits don’t want it to go to our heads

This is similar to some of what I’ve already said, but the emphasis is a little different.

Americans have an expectation of national victory surpassing even the Chinese (or the Soviets before them). Their whole national mythology leads them to the belief that the United States of America shows a self-evident superiority to every other nation, because We Are America, and we have the free-est and best country in the world. More, Americans approach competition with a mindset of victory. They won’t be happy with anything less than gold, and ideally we want to utterly crush the opposition, rewrite the record books and win silver and bronze too while we’re at it. To most Americans, this is probably a “well duh”-level obvious truism, but the attitude is a bit more alien to us Brits.

Americans believe in celebrating victory, and only victory. The national cult is the Cult of the Winner, and any winner is lauded and celebrated with a vigour that only Americans can devote to a party. And as soon as they stop being a Winner, the nation casts them out onto the ash-heap of history with an alacrity that has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you can no longer produce the goods, we don’t like you any more. “What have you done for me lately?”

Second-best isn’t considered good enough unless another American takes gold, and even then the individual athletes will fight amongst themselves. The Cult of the Winner tells you that “runner-up” is just another way of saying “fastest loser”, and that the one who does win deserves all of the acclaim.

No British version of Michael Phelps is going to arrogantly waggle four fingers at the camera in a sort of “I’ve won this gold in four Olympics, na-na-na-na-na!”. Yes, the athletes deserve their personal celebrations, but there’s a distinct national attitude of despising even the appearance of arrogance, and the last thing anyone wants is for victory to go to their head. Once it does, they’re insufferable.

I remember the first season that Wayne Rooney played football for England. At that point he was a joy to see; it was like you could see him thinking “I’m playing for England; how cool is that?” every couple of minutes. His delight in being able to play the game at that level was wonderful. After a season or so of that, though, all the fame and applause gave him a severely swelled head, and the modern Wayne Rooney is a very different animal (using that term deliberately).

“Don’t let it go to your head” is something almost every British kid has heard at some point in their life. Yes, it’s great that you won, but you don’t need to rub salt in the other guy’s wounds. Let them at least keep their dignity. Don’t become an arrogant braggart over it. It’s not sportsmanlike.

Even in other fields than sport, there’s a sense that it’s bad form to cheer your own victory too loudly. The first Duke of Wellington said “next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle gained”, whereas Sir Winston Churchill put it as “in victory, magnanimity”. The noble thing to do is to acknowledge the other person’s efforts and to demonstrate your greatness by being magnanimous, rather than proclaiming your greatness in words.

Perhaps we Brits are more interested in how you win than in whether; as an example, I’m prouder of my countryman Max Whitlock for standing to one side and letting the Brazilian gymnasts take centre stage for their celebration of the silver and bronze medals than I am of his winning Team GB’s first ever Olympic gold in gymnastics. That showed character and class, that did.

But be that as it may, we’re probably not going to be toppling the Americans from their pole position in Olympic medal tables any time soon. On the other hand, we did exceptionally well in London four years ago, and so far we’re doing astoundingly well again this year, without even the “boost” of being the host nation. Nothing in the US’ national culture automatically slates their athletes for victory, any more than being British is a recipe for automatic athletic disaster. London opened the door, and now a new generation of rising stars have the modern training and competition facilities and the renewed emphasis on sports that will be the Games’ enduring legacy to the country. Four years later, and if the Rio Games continue as they have done up to this point, it looks like we may well eclipse our medal performance in London. Despite a sort of collective sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, perhaps we know that victory is possible now.

But of course also, the Americans continue to lead the field in medal counts. That’s not going to change any time soon; unlike the Soviet and Chinese governments who groom children for particular medal success, the USA has never needed to bother because Americans will do it to themselves.

The American determination to win and succeed is one of the truly great things about their nation as a whole. As I’ve shown, it’s not without its downsides, but what can occasionally look like arrogance to the rest of the world is usually just individual Americans honestly expressing their Americanness. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’d suspect that Britons may hold together better when the chips are really down, but let’s not have any non-sporting national showdowns any time soon, ok?

God Bless America

An article I saw recently asked the question “What if God doesn’t want America to be great again?”

It’s a thought-provoking question. The point is not that God might want America’s destruction (I don’t for one second believe that He does), but that our ideas of what “greatness” looks like might be different to His.

Are secure borders, a strong military and a powerful economy what make a nation great in His sight? As the article pointed out, Jesus was born into a nation so weak it was actively under military occupation by a pagan foreign nation, to a poor family who could only afford the very smallest celebratory sacrifice prescribed in the Law for a firstborn. The early Church were a persecuted minority even in that nation. Why should we believe that God necessarily wants an America that is militarily and economically powerful even at the expense of righteousness?

Is this greatness?

The world would say so, but I do not believe that this is God’s view of the matter. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”. “When I am weak, then I am strong”. “Do not consider his height or his outward appearance, for I have rejected him. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart”.

God is omniscient. This is fast becoming my favourite attribute of the Divine nature to talk about, but I think it’s timely. He sees everything as it truly is. No masks, no hiding. His Eye penetrates every smokescreen and half-truth. When we do not conform to His view of a matter, we are disputing the only One who really knows what is true Reality. We’re building on the shifting sand of illusion rather than the solid ground of the Real. We have to conform our ideas of greatness to God’s, otherwise we are being caught up in an illusory snare.

What might an America that is truly great in God’s sight look like?

A place where there truly is “liberty and justice for all”. A place of real equality of opportunity, no-one denied their opportunities for advancement or basic dignity as a human being made in the image of God on the basis of the shape of their reproductive organs, the colour of their skin or any other external factors. Honest pay for honest work. Employers being required to give just wages to their employees. No-one being required to shoulder the burden of selfish parasites who game the system, whether they bear the label of employee or employer.

Truth in our media, why not? No more misleading claims or outright falsehoods from our politicians, our advertisers or anyone else. A news industry that is more interested in publishing the truth than prolonging a problem or selling a story. A nation of forthright integrity, where a man’s word is their bond and where no-one takes credit for the good done by another or blames their own fault on someone else.

A nation whose abundance of resources are a source of blessing not just to a rich and powerful few, but to every citizen and overflowing into the world. Where we steward the good land that He has entrusted to us, tempering the real need for economic development and employment with our responsibility to preserve our vast natural wonders for the next seven generations and more.

A nation that recognises its role as a world leader as a role of service in the world; a nation that is a leader in compassion and justice, that engages in this fallen world in a way that promotes Godly freedom and opposes Satanic tyranny where it finds it. A promoter of true and lasting peace, not the “peace at any price” compromise with darkness or the harsh “peace” of the gun, but a peace built on justice and equity.

A nation whose entertainment industry is no longer a byword in the world for brazen lasciviousness and immorality, but for honest, clean fun and real thought-provoking stories.

An America we can all be proud of.

I offer this as a shining image we can all aspire to. Even this Brit. I’d be honoured to be a part of that America; who wouldn’t? Who cares if it comes about under someone calling themselves a Republican or someone calling themselves a Democrat; they aren’t going to be the ones responsible for it anyway. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes”.

Feel free to disagree with some of my details, too. I’m not claiming prophetic insight here; I’m using my imagination. God gave you one also; if you don’t like my interpretation of an America that’s great in God’s sight, use it to prayerfully build your own.

This isn’t intended to be a case of the prophet pointing to the actual while holding up the ideal and saying “I have this against you, says the Lord, that you are not that“, either. It’s intended as a goal. Something we can pray towards.

Note my deliberate choice of verbs. This is not something we can achieve at the ballot box; it’s something we can only see if the Lord is gracious enough to send us a true revival. It begins not with the enforced changing of behaviours or the persuasive changing of minds, but with the Holy Spirit-instigated changing of hearts.

Maybe it’s time we took all of that energy and time we spend posting and arguing with political posts on social media, and instead spent them on our knees (metaphorically or literally) in prayer for our God to intervene and, by whatever means He should choose, to bring people to Himself heart and soul and mind and behaviour.

I put it out there as a challenge, and I’m challenging myself as well, because I’m at least as guilty as you are.

And I have a few suggestions for how to sustain it without it becoming rote repetition of a meaningless phrase:

  • Pick an attribute of God’s character – for example, mercy. Think about what it might look like for God’s mercy to be truly reflected in our national institutions. Ask God to make that a reality; that His will truly will be done on Earth, here in America, as it is in heaven. Tomorrow, pick a different one.

  • Pick a national institution or industry, for example the media, or the justice system, or the world of business. Ask God to show you what it might look like if His will was truly being done as it is in heaven. Listen, then ask Him to do it.

  • Live as a citizen of heaven. Praying “Thy will be done” in the nation is all very well, but what if one of the impediments is that His will is not being fully done in your own life? We’re all there to a greater or lesser extent; ask God to help you live out of your new identity in Christ. He’s given you His Holy Spirit; you have the power of the omnipotent God who dwells in His people. You can live a holy life, and do so without being an unpleasant person, too!

  • Get together with others. Following Jesus was never meant to be an individualistic thing divorced from any real fellowship or relationship with other people. We are a people belonging to God; a communion of saints. A real fellowship that begins with being real with one another is a vital part of this following-Jesus thing. And nowhere more so than in prayer! We are coming before our God, the ultimate Reality. We cannot afford to let offences and divisions build until they obscure His image in our fellows.

  • Keep at it! Persistence pays off. Even in Jesus’ parable of the widow faced with an unjust judge who was determined to rob her of her right to justice, the judge relented in the face of her persistence. God is not like that unjust judge, determined to keep us in misery and rob us of His justice. We are asking Him to do something He wants to do! We know that when we do that, we are praying according to His will; let us not give up before we see the fruit. When Elijah prayed for the drought to end, he had to send his servant back to look three times, and at the end the only sign was a cloud as small as a man’s hand. Look for it. Expect it. Live as though the Divine breakthrough is on its way. Be a living avatar of what it will be like then.

I finish with a song. One of only a very few patriotic American songs that I can stand tall as a Brit and sing with a whole heart, in fact:

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam:
God bless America, my home sweet home.
God bless America, my home sweet home.