I walked out of church Sunday morning. It was a bit like walking out on a bad movie, but with greater conviction. I knew it was risky visiting a church for the first time on Memorial Day Sunday, but we are new in town and eager to find a church home. The service started off benignly enough with a short prayer of memorial by the pastor remembering the fallen, but suddenly it went all FUBAR. Right away I noticed the Christian flag and the American flag standing side by side at center stage, signifying the almost universally accepted spiritual and patriotic loyalties of the congregation. And then, with the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background, the Pastor summoned the children to come up to the narthex. After a short homily on the virtues of sacrifice in which he invoked an incorrect interpretation of John 15:13, linking the sacrificial death of Jesus on behalf of his enemies with the thousands of soldiers killed in battle while trying to kill their enemies, he read this prayer from the paratroopers prayer book:
“Almighty God, Our Heavenly Father…Drive from our minds of our paratroops any fear of the space in which Thou art ever present…Endure them with clear minds and pure hearts that they may participate worthily in the victory which this nation must achieve in Thy name through Thy will. Make them hardy soldiers of our country as well as of Thy Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Images of the Hitlerjugend danced in my head. The entire congregation was then asked to join the children in singing ‘America the Beautiful’. I thought of my friends Jacquie in Vancouver, Glenn in Melbourne and Graeme in Cape Town and wondered what they would think of me invoking their God to bless my country. And so as everyone else stood with one mind and one voice to sing this beloved patriotic melody, my family and I rose, grabbed one another’s hands and walked back out the center aisle.
Related: Daring to Call it Idolatry, Nationalism in Worship
We came to church ready to venerate the God made flesh, instead we were forced to pay homage at the alter of America’s civic religion; a twisted amalgamation of God and Country that links the coming of the Kingdom of God with the efforts of the American empire. Exalting the one with the other in worship creates a scandalous federation of Gospel and government yoking a particular and fallible earthly nation with the cause of Christ. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “It’s an understandable position given our country’s history, but that doesn’t make it any less perverted.” If historically there has been little if any conflict in America between Christian devotion and allegiance to the United States of America it is not due to the ‘Christian Nation’ myth that so many still believe in. Instead it is an indication of just how much the church has been subverted and conformed into the image, ideals and identity of American culture instead of being a people capable of living in but not of the world. When believers in any nation allow the worship and adoration of the state to be become part of the creed, rituals and practices of Christianity it renders the church impotent to stand with skeptical criticism of the nation in which she is a part. And possibly even more dangerous, the church then functions to accept as part of her raison d’etre the preservation of the state, absolving the state all along of any and all activities necessary to maintain her conservation. As Craig Watts reminds us:
“No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many. The God being worshiped is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation. Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.”
A church who has co-opted Christianity with nationalism not only worships a false god, but also practices a faulty ethic by instituting the social, economic and political operations that the state sanctions. American Christians thus assume that capitalism, democracy, individualism, wealth, freedom and opportunity are Christian virtues passed down by Jesus himself. But the Gospel of Christ refuses this marriage of empire and Kingdom, realizing the Christian ‘we’ and the American ‘we’ are not synonymous. When acts celebrating America enter our worship space, our Christian identity and the nature of the church are compromised. Christians can not serve two masters. The one requires that her sons be sacrificed on the alter of freedom while the other dies instead of raising His hand against his enemy. Sooner or later we must swear fealty to one or the other. Do we worship God or Caesar?
The answer to this question is essential because what and who we worship shapes our very existence. The practices and rituals that become the liturgy of our lives direct our devotion in certain directions. Are we to be a people of peace and unity or war and division? American Christians cannot in good conscious worship the rightful king who reigns from a tree alongside the imperial, militaristic cult of nationalism. We cannot mourn with those who mourn while celebrating the nation responsible for killing the very people we are called to love. We cannot serve the Prince of Peace while idolizing Mars. We dare not take our place alongside our global brothers and sisters in God’s Kingdom while swearing allegiance to our empire. In our worship, there must be an absolute separation of church and state. “The church that sees the cross of Jesus as the central event in history can never identify any political order with the reign of God.”
Why? Because worship is overtly political. It may well be the most public, civic statement you make each week by declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar is not. In this light, worship, when done correctly, becomes an act of resistance. The adoration of the crucified King is a revolutionary stance against the powers that be who ask all mankind to draw boundary lines around race, creed, language and nationality. But God’s sovereignty nullifies such differences, since “Now you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens.” We stand side by side with the aggregate of believers world-wide who have been called out of every nation as a chosen people and a holy nation. And in so doing we resist the cultural temptation to link our particular and fallible set of economic and governmental policies with the cause of Christ.
Also by Gary: The Death of a Dynasty
As we purify our liturgies, we will discover that true worship is profoundly inclusive. And in the process we will rediscover that the church functions as an alternative community whose social, economic, political and ethical allegiance is to Christ alone. “The church is constituted as a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people.” Gathering together each week to worship the one true God is an eschatological act; it is a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Kingdom of God is finally fulfilled. May the American church, in our public acts of worship, join our ‘Barmen’ brothers and sisters rejecting the false doctrine that the church exists as a subordinate of the state, “as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”