I recently attended my brother’s wedding in Omaha, Nebraska. As he is stationed at the air force base there, he decided to have his wedding in the chapel on base. I appreciated the quaint beauty of the chapel. Growing up in a church that met in an old downtown office building, I always like a visit to a church with pews, stained glass and some sort of crucifix at the front of the room. It always incites a sacred and peaceful atmosphere that is more difficult to come by in the functional, eschatological-focused church habitations.
Traditionally, stained glass windows tell stories. In medieval times, stained glass was a way to tell the stories of the Scripture to those who could not read it themselves. Not only is it beautiful, but it also serves a purpose. For example, in the Old Laurelhurst Church in South East Portland, the windows tell the story of God’s plan of redemption; it begins with creation and ends with the Christ’s return.
At the wedding rehearsal, I had a chance to walk around and look at the stained glass. One window was covered with emblems, and another depicted a handsome, young airman leaving his family. It was both sad and poignant. On the opposite side of the room, I saw a mushroom cloud, and bomber plane in the foreground. Unlike any chapel I’d seen before, this stained glass told a different story. It told the story of the U.S. taking control of Eniwetok, a Japanese-controlled island, in World War II, by attacking it with a hydrogen bomb.
I took a moment to think about this depiction of violence, and that which usually appears in stained glass—the crucified Christ. In this glass, I saw the U.S. soldiers bringing devastating, incredible suffering. In the conventional stained glass scene Christ is on the cross, as the one receiving the suffering. Considering that in Revelation Jesus is presented as slaughtered lamb, it seems more appropriate that he should be honored in a chapel on Eniwetok Island than on the bomber’s airbase. One might say he fits better among the suffering than the those who bring suffering.
While glorifying a hydrogen bombing inside of a church was upsetting, there was something bigger awry. It wasn’t the specifics, as much as the larger story that was being told that confused me. While most stained glass tells the story of the people and Kingdom of God, these told the story of the people and kingdom of America. When the story of Christ and His Kingdom is replaced by the story of a different kingdom, it is very easy to forget our identity as members of the Kingdom of God.
Walking around Omaha, it does not take long to find tributes to the air force and its battles. These monuments do more than simply remembering those who sacrificed; it encourages those who are now stationed at the air force base, and those who someday wish to join. The stories these monuments tell are embedded with values, as any story is. They instill values of honor, sacrifice and command to those who live there. These stories of the past form those who hear them today.
Taking heed of the impact the stories of America have on Americans, it makes sense that as Christians, our first priority is to tell Jesus’ redemptive story and allow it to form us, considering any other stories to only be secondary. In fact, after a close look, there are some stories we may not be able to tell, at least in the same tone and the same way. In his book Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Jesus’ universality is manifested only by a people who are willing to take His cross as their story, as the necessary condition for living truthfully in this life.” As we take on the cross of other-centered suffering, we tell the story of God’s Kingdom not only as a narrative, but as a way of life.
Even as a civilian, it is often difficult for me to remember that my identity is in the Kingdom of God. Especially in such a confused nation, as was epitomized in that chapel on the military base, we are often tempted to think our national story is God’s story. Martyn Mayfield, a missional theologian, writes: “Sometimes, without even knowing it, we mix and match certain stories and end up with a completely different story. Living the King Midas story and expecting a Cinderella ending will be like living in the Alice in Wonderland story.” It is ridiculous to take part in the story of the kingdoms of the world, in their coercion and violence, somehow believing it is toward the end of a completely different story—that of Christ’s love and eschatological peace.
As Christians, we must tell God’s story of love and redemption, and the hope of a Kingdom that is both now and not yet. In fact, I suggest we must choose between telling the story of redemption and forgiveness, and the story of violence and retribution.
My wife’s childhood followed a path through many States. Moving to each new place, she learned the local history. When assembled, she has an extensive grasp on our story as Americans. However, her mother raised her and her sisters on biographies of women missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, like Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael. They all three, in one way or another, grew into the stories they were told as kids. Today, my wife and I live amongst an international refugee community in Portland, her sister is involved with African missions and her youngest sister moved to Uganda, helping to rehabilitate former child soldiers. This is the kind of community we find ourselves in when we are diligent to tell the story of God and His people.
My wife and I are currently expecting our first child, a daughter. Like my in-laws did, we will raise her on missionary biographies, stories of great faith in action of the Old and New Testaments, and perhaps even Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. We will do this for her benefit, and for our own, that we might continue to hear the stories that mold and shape our values to be aligned with the Kingdom of God.