Like any cult, a state religion of selective, political piety needs liturgies. They need Holy Days. Memorial Day is a biggie, as is July 4. Patriotic songs are sung, and national doctrines and narratives [Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism] are recited. Heroes are celebrated [adoration of the saints]. Political litanies tell what we got wrong [confession]. There are predictions of glories [beatific vision] if we get it right, and prophecies of doom [civic hell] if we don’t. There are exhortations to vote [ballot as political sacrament], calls for more [working class] sacrifice [offerings], and appeals to re-consecrate to national purpose [more chauvinism].
To help set the spirit for the event, Sharefaith makes available a variety of suitably martial Memorial Day images. Pastors and worship committees use such things to remind us of stuff we won’t forget if we know what’s good for us. For a price, of course.
‘Suitably’ matters. A lot.
Lest we doubt that images seek very specific responses, imagine the uproar if a Memorial Day church service used this as a power point image.
Actually, ‘uproar’ is an understatement. We can reasonably expect that many would up and leave.
Others would offer diatribes. Conceivably, there would be some fist-fights. Certainly some would resign from church councils and boards. Other churches would sever pastoral relations. In some localities, a few bricks [or a Molotov Cocktail] might pass through a parsonage window, driving home the message that pastor needs to leave sooner, not later.
Yet for many in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other lands where the US military routinely conducts clandestine operations, the ‘Statue of Liberty’ image may be more indicative of their experience. This raises an issue that Christians in the US ought to consider.
Say an Iraqi man wanders into this service. Twelve years ago as a young teen, he lost his parents, siblings, four uncles and nineteen cousins. His admittedly lively birthday party was mistaken for a resistance cell. A US tank shelled his home. It collapsed. He alone survived and came to the US as a refugee.
What is our guest to make of this pageantry? What of the nationalistic hymns, prayers, narratives and other symbols? Attached to the Christian story, might not the riot of all things patriotic obscure the cross and glory of Christ for this guest? Might not this hinder gospel proclamation?
If as Mt 28:18-20 and Re 14:6 imply, the redeemed are from every nation, is not God’s purpose undermined by our unbridled nationalistic fervor? At some point, we must not say that this simply isn’t appropriate?
Ordinarily, the ‘Statue of liberty’ imagery would be equally inappropriate. This is not to say that the church might never have occasion to use it; but in her worship, the church has numerous, ever–appropriate Biblical images — the bread and cup, the basin and towel. A rich history of Christian art — ancient, classical and modern — illustrate every Biblical theme imaginable. Use those in worship.
While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium?
That’s the rub.
It is just too easy for the church to be co-opted by secular, civic premises and systems of thought. All too easily, we become the ecclesial reflection of the politics of earthly power and glory. That it is an ecclesial reflection of the powers of this age might explain why the church is where it is.
William Barber said:
‘If your Gospel isn’t good news for those who are poor…then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.’
This can be extended to include all people. If your Gospel doesn’t visit orphans and widows in distress … if your Gospel isn’t peace to those who are weary of strife … if your Gospel isn’t healing for the sick … if your Gospel isn’t restoration for the broken … if your Gospel isn’t protection for women, strangers and aliens, etc., … then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.
Whenever these or any voices are smothered or otherwise silenced, we know that we’re getting it wrong. Whenever our issues come to the fore, we must remember who we are and what we’re doing. Our central confession of faith in Jesus Christ is this:
- Christ has died.
- Christ has risen.
- Christ is coming again.
That confession can never mesh with the ideologies of this world, and we would be wise to question attempts to do so.
It is never an easy task for church to rid herself of the cultural signature that is everywhere about it. It is easy for us to be blind to what this says and does. To us, it is all so normal. But we can address the more blatant displays of our culture — especially where it can cause others to stumble.