For many, many years, the tallest buildings in the world were all in America, and many Americans took great pride in that. No other nation on earth even seemed to want to attempt to build taller buildings. Then, in 1998, the Petronas Towers were built in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the US was no longer number 1. To cap this off, in 2009 the Burj Khalifa was completed in Dubai. At 2,717 feet, it is nearly twice the height of the US’s tallest building.
By the standards that so many Americans used for so many years, we should be hanging our head in shame. Indeed, countries such as Dubai, Malaysia, and China trumpet their tall buildings as a sign that somehow they have “arrived”, and have surpassed or will soon surpass the US in greatness.
It is hard to see the reasoning behind this. The Burj Khalifa, for example, was built with money from the United Arab Emirates–Dubai provided little or none of the actual financing for the building. The architectural firm that designed the building was Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago. The general contractor for the building was Samsung C & T of South Korea. The building itself was built with imported laborers using imported equipment and in most cases imported parts. About the only actual contribution Dubai made to the building was sand for the concrete. It cannot even be said that the building was made for Dubai customers, as it is still nearly 90% empty.
Does the Burj Khalifa in any way make Dubai great or speak of Dubai’s greatness? No, it doesn’t. Dubai is a medieval dictatorship run for and on behalf of a small clan for the purpose of using and abusing others. Like many of the countries in the Middle East, it effectively allows–and is in many ways built on–slavery.
Far from being a sign of greatness, the Burj Khalifa is a symbol of human arrogance and excess. It also raises the question, What is greatness?
Americans tend to think only in superlatives of the biggest and the smallest, the wealthiest and the poorest, the greatest and the least, and despise everything in between. While many Americans believe that America is the worst nation in the world, many others believe that America is the best. There are few who believe that America is somewhere in the middle. Thus, some Christians believe that the US is the whore of Babylon, while others hold that it is God’s covenant nation. Both of these views are a manifestation of pride, and are therefore two sides of the same coin. Indeed, some Christians actually split the difference and hold that America is both the whore of Babylon and God’s covenant nation–that America is the worst of all nations on earth because it has failed to live up to its high covenant with God.
There is not a whole lot of wisdom with any of this. It is all based on comparing the US to other countries, and with itself. Yet, what does Scripture teach us?
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us …
2 Corinthians 10: 12-13
The only real question is, What is the sphere of service God has assigned America to?
That is it.
America is many, many things. However, it is not God’s covenant nation. It is not the new Israel. But it does not have to be: America does not have to be God’s covenant nation to have a calling and to be a part of God’s will. America does not need to boast beyond its limits.
This does not mean that America is not a great nation and is not called to greatness, or even that America does not have a special place in God’s heart. Far from it. It just means that we do not have to prove ourselves or live up to a special code or set of laws that no other country has in order to gain God’s approval. America is greatest when it simply behaves as America–anything above and beyond that always leads to trouble.
Arguably, the worst excesses of violence and foolishness, and America’s most shameful episodes, all came from this pride, from America and Americans not being content with just being who they were, but trying to be something more, and using the idea that America had a great calling to justify any number of sins.
In the 19th century, for example, Manifest Destiny–a concept very much based in the idea of a covenant relationship–was used to justify all kinds of travesties in the American West. While I do not for a moment dispute the idea that God had destined the US to rule from sea to shining sea, would it have not been better to buy land from the Indians at a fair price, work towards better treaties with them (and then actually keep those treaties), and focus on missions and trade with them, rather than exterminating them or sending them to far off reservations?
But we do not need to go even so far back as that. The Vietnam War–and America’s Cold War policies towards developing nations in general–represented America at its best and worst. Without doubting for a moment that America had a responsibility to act against the Soviet menace, might America have had more success and caused less bloodshed, heartache, and troubles abroad if it had been a little less cocky?
We say “one country under God” and in “God we trust”, yet so often these words are not said with humility, but with pride, as though we are on God’s team so we can do what we want and will not suffer defeat.
Yet, true trust in God means doing what he wants, and leaving defeat and victory up to him.
America’s greatness is not dependent upon whether it is a covenant nation, whether it has a special relationship with God, or whether it is the most loved of God’s children. America does not need to have a special covenant with God to be great any more than it needs to have the tallest buildings or the richest economy. It only needs to do what it was called to do, and be what it was called to be: A land of freedom, a haven for those looking for life and liberty, and an example to the rest of the world as to how people can live in peace without the heavy hand of tyranny on their shoulders.
This should be enough of a calling for anyone.
(Part 1 can be found here.)