Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Jesus and the Fourth of July
Tomorrow is July 4, the day that USAmericans celebrate Independence Day—the day in 1776 when the American colonies declared, in writing, their independence from Britain (although, in 1964, the Beatles came over and took our hearts back to England, but that’s a different story).
Churches all over the US, either last Sunday or on the Sunday coming up, will include patriotic songs, pledges of allegiances, honoring of veterans, and the lifting up of the United States of America as a land to be celebrated in the midst of a service of worship.
This is, in my view, a very bad idea.
My dismay at this ongoing practice has nothing to do with patriotism or national loyalty. It does not suggest a dismissal of the sacrifice of veterans or the disparaging of freedom. It has to do with the risk of exchanging the centrality of Jesus Christ as the focus of Christian worship and replacing him with a particular form of nationalism. When we conflate patriotism with faith, we get confused about our objects of worship.
There are two negative historical precedents for this kind of thing (there are certainly more, but I’ll just consider these two for now):
The first is found in the history of Israel as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). Israel (and Judah) became a monarchy and suffered through generations of kings that ultimately led to its destruction and the exiling of most of the people. Up to that point, however, the nation began to find its core identity, not in God, but in the lineage of the king. As long as there was a king on the throne, the nation, it was thought, lived forever (a number of the Psalms even suggest that). Nation, king, and God morphed into one muddled identity, and God was ultimately sidelined.
The second example is seen in the machinations of the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Hitler secured the allegiance of the leaders of the state church (the Lutheran Church) and offered his promise of support in exchange for the symbols of the cross and the Bible in the sanctuaries, which he successfully replaced with a sword and his book, Mien Kampf. The Christians who resisted Hitler were exiled or murdered (you can see their names in a display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC).
Confusing God with the nation is a slippery slope.
This is not to say that the USA is the same kind of nation as ancient Israel, nor is it to overlay the horrors of Nazism on the foibles of America. But it is to say that when the people of God get confused about who or what they worship, trouble is on the horizon.
People all over the world—even those who suffer under their governments—often express love for their nations. Christians all over the world pray for their countries and attempt to live as honorable citizens of their homelands. Christians in the USA are rare in our willingness to love God and country with equal fervor. We are somewhat unique in our willingness to display our nation’s flag in our sanctuaries. Having Caesar and Christ in church together does not seem to be much of a problem for many of us.
I believe that we can love our country (even though none of us loves all of the country—we make that clear every election year) without losing sight of the heart of our worship. The calendar offers us national days of remembrance all through the year, and we are free to enjoy and celebrate them with our fellow citizens. But we need to remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God before we are citizens of any nation. There is a priority to our citizenship, and that priority is painted a bloody red—not red, white, and blue.
As a friend of mine once said: We Christians who gather in America to worship are not in that place before God because of our constitution, our flag, or our veterans. We are here because of Jesus. With that, we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.
Have fun tomorrow. Thank God for the blessings of living in the USA. Shoot off some fireworks. But do not dress Jesus up as Uncle Sam. You won’t like how that turns out.