I remember the adults in my home gathered around the television during the 1980 Olympics, rooting for the underdog American hockey team against the Soviets. The indomitable Soviets, with their full-time players posing as amateurs. The Soviets with their nuclear weapons. The Soviets who were our enemies. I didn’t need reasons to root against them, because even as a child, I understood that you should cheer for your countrymen. Especially when your country is the land of the free and the world’s greatest hope against godless Communism.
Then in 2014 my family and I watched not a team on the ice, but a single Russian girl—a skater—competing in her first Olympics. One of my sons noticed she was wearing a cross. I am no judge of the soul—thank God—but this got me thinking that I am accustomed to assessing my kinship with people based on physical geography rather than the geography of the spirit.
We know many kinships—of blood, of nation, of language. We have many tribes, and we are daily tempted to join others. Political parties, religious denominations, sports teams, schools, neighborhood associations—many loyalties compete for our enthusiasm. It’s pleasurable to be part of a tribe. It increases not only our sense of belonging, but our sense of virtue. I am in this good community, not that bad one over there.
The curious thing about tribal membership, however, is that while it asks us to elevate one kind of loyalty, it simultaneously tempts us to diminish others. Witness how many sports fans are willing, for example, to overlook horrific behavior from their favorite athletes, even as they nod their heads at the notion that our children need better role models. There have been too many times I have fallen prey to this tendency. Our passion for a tribe can make us forget our professed passion for Christ.
Our passion for a tribe can make us forget our professed passion for Christ.
As my family and I watched the Russian skater warm up, I found myself quietly hoping she would win. This had less to do with the cross suspended from her neck than with what seemed a gentle spirit, and the incredible pressure she no doubt felt, performing before so many people. I felt guilty for my un-American allegiance, but it occurred to me that my kinship with this Russian skater could be deeper, and more enduring—unto eternity, even—than my bond with many Americans. Judging from some of the interviews and back-stories, in fact, I had already come to the realization that I have little in common with many American Olympians. Their politics are not my politics; their beliefs are not my beliefs; their mannerisms are not what I strive to inculcate in my children.
What a dangerous path that is, though, to sit on my couch, trying to discern the salvation of people based on a few words, how they comport themselves when they are briefly on screen, and whether their jewelry and tattoos indicate Christianity or paganism. Yet I often do exactly that, not just during the Olympics, but every day—waiting in line for coffee, at the grocery store, at a traffic light.
How ironic would it be for me to make myself the silent, petty arbiter of who does and does not belong in the kingdom of heaven, only to cultivate a hardened and judgmental heart that ensures my own exclusion? Heaven already has a Judge and King, whose kingdom comes—and we who would be its citizens have thereby renounced our former citizenship. We remain Americans and Russians and Chinese and Mexicans, obedient to civil authorities as Scripture demands. (See 1 Peter 2:13-17.) But a consequence of our reconciliation to Christ is that we have a new citizenship. We are “a holy nation” and thus must live as “aliens and strangers” to this world (1 Peter 2:9-11).
We have a new citizenship. We are “a holy nation” and thus must live as “aliens and strangers” to this world.
We are aliens, and at the same time we are fellow citizens not only with Christ, but also with one another (Eph. 2:19). I used to think of my nation as a blessed island, safe from deprivations that plagued the rest of humanity. But the truth is that my family—all of us who belong to Christ—spans the globe. There are an estimated 2.3 billion professing Christians in the world, approximately 11 percent of whom live in the U.S. My geographic nation has felt relatively safe in this troubled world, but when I consider the body of Christ as my nation, I realize that it is not safe at all. Many of my fellow citizens, in fact, endure suffering far greater than my daily struggles.
My heavenly nation includes Christ-followers being executed in Syria, children of the faithful being tortured in Somalia, and families hosting illegal churches in China. It fills me with shame to consider how much more time I’ve spent cheering for athletes representing my alma mater or my country than I’ve spent praying for these people who are my true family. How many hours would I need to spend on my knees to rectify the imbalance?
We learn a rhyme as children: “Here is the church; here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” I taught it to my own children, but I forgot the lesson. The church is a real and present thing, and it is filled with people. These people are my family and yours. Our family is everywhere, and we have no business feeling contented—or perhaps even worse, feeling aggrieved by life’s small irritations—while so many of them suffer.
I had it backward, all those years I thought of my nation as an island of safety. It is I who has been the island. May I, and all we who call ourselves Christians, be more mindful of our kin, wherever they may reside.
Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez