Jonathan Walton, Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth that Sets Us Free. (IVP Books, 2019)
I’m not an American, so I can only imagine how scandalous and deeply uncomfortable Jonathan Walton’s book must be to, probably, most Americans. It is nothing less than a stinging rebuke to his fellow countrymen and women for buying into a nationalistic narrative about the United States that, he feels, is deeply false and has little grounding in either history or present reality.
An African American from Virginia, but now resident in New York City. Walton tears mercilessly into deeply held American myths, like “all men are created equal,” “we are a great democracy,” or “America is the home of the free.” Yet in doing so, he comes across as thoughtful and measured. Very importantly, he has a reason for his criticism and an alternative vision for his fellow Americans.
For Walton, American values are generally at odds with the values of Christian faith, and faithfulness to Jesus is a liberating power from a way of life that negates “shalom.” “The United States,” he says, “is rooted in genocide, land theft, institutionalized slave labor, and sexual exploitation. The kingdom of God is rooted in the sacrificial, transformative, and enduring love of God for all people.”
Walton decries what he calls “White American Folk Religion (WAFR),” which is a semi-Christianized national narrative about equality, democracy, freedom, wealth and power, that has little basis in any of the United States’ history. He proceeds, then, to expose what he calls the twelve dominant lies of American culture, dealing with them one by one and by turns providing alternative stories of faith to encourage our resistance to what he sees as “idolatry.”
Along the way we get something of Walton’s own story, of how he has bought into various of the “lies” and how he has found liberation in Christ. Helpfully, at the end of each chapter, he provides some questions for readers to consider either on their own or together within a group.
American exceptionalism and nationalism are clearly problematic for followers of Jesus, something that Walton is at pains to point out throughout his book. Values of thrusting wealth pursuit, the craving for power, and the willingness to exploit others, which Walton sees as embedded into the American way of life, all run counter to the values of Christian faith – even though these have been, to a greater or lesser degree, baptized into the faith of many Americans.
In this exposé, Walton has both conservatives and liberals in his sights – “Jesus,” he says, “transcends both of these perspectives and defines freedom in spiritual terms as liberation from sin and the restoration of shalom.”
I was a little surprised that Walton did not include in his list of lies, two that, it seems to me, are pervasive (here in Europe, as much as America). Firstly, the myth of redemptive violence, propounded strongly by the entertainment industry, and deeply embedded into modern nation states, the idea that justice and violent attack is best served by an even stronger display of violence. As the saying attributed the Gandhi goes, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Secondly, the lie that constant war brings peace. The United States has been at war for 224 years out of the last 241. (Compare that with, say, Canada). While you might make a case for a “just war,” in certain cases, there is no denying the cost of war in terms of lives and many other measures, both at home and abroad. And how often has it brought peace? Aside from the political arguments, the calling for Jesus followers from the New Testament is clearly towards seeking peace and love of enemies.
To be fair, Walton does address the problem of violence along the way, especially in pointing out that America has been founded on violence, both in terms of native Americans and slavery, but the violent nature of American society and its near idolizing of the military seems to me to be very evident. So, perhaps we might have had a 13th “lie” to cover these two issues more explicitly.
In addition, it would be interesting to discuss how faithful Jesus followers who do not buy into nationalistic myths can be loyal members of society and perhaps be said to “love their country.” But that, I think, is beyond the reasonable scope of Walton’s provocative and challenging book.
Walton is right to worry, as he does, on page 7, that some readers may be so incensed with his take on things that they will stop reading. Doubtless there will be some who do just that. For those who persevere – any, by the way, it’s engagingly written – they’ll find it provoking, and possibly, if they are open enough, liberating.