When I was at Souderton BIC a few weeks ago, I was quoting Acts 17. I was asking the people there to consider how they might see God in the culture around them, just like Paul did when he was waiting for his friends to come down the coast and meet him at Athens. He saw an unusual inscription that read, “To an unknown god” and he named that unknown god to be Jesus himself. Pretty good re-appropriation, if you ask me. I like the strategy and the inclusion. Good guy, that Paul was. Read the whole story here, Lego-style.
Faith is one of the most potent experiences a human being can have. Furthermore, without worship, I think we shrink (sweet quote from Equus turned Circle of Hope proverb). I think people move with God and have faith because it taps into our innermost selves. We are meant to follow God. We are deeply spiritual beings.
So it doesn’t surprise me when the corporate powers and heads of state re-appropriate our longing for faith and turn it into something else. I’ve written before about civil religion, it’s something of a favorite subject of mine, but Memorial Day and the patriotism of the summer brings it back to my immediate consciousness. Let’s re-appropriate that misappropriation. Here’s how to convert an American to Christianity. A few examples of the problem.
The honor of the military. Let’s start with the military and memorializing soldiers. This is a tricky subject. I have strong and deep-seated convictions about peace. And I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I get a little up-in-arms when the President tweets something like this:
This Memorial Day, I hope you'll join me in acts of remembrance. The debt we owe our fallen heroes is one we can never truly repay.
— President Obama (@POTUS) May 30, 2016
Of course, Barry, if you can’t repay the debt, why did you buy the life? I don’t think he actually did buy it, because it’s not for sale. But he uses it for his ends (just like Hillary, Bernie, or Donald will). Maybe for a noble cause, maybe not. But a theft is still one, even if it’s benevolent. They are playing with something sacred when it isn’t theirs to mess with.
Serving in the military and sacrificing your life for your friends is respectable and even honorable. It’s hard for even the most ardent pacifist to argue otherwise. But the reason it is, is because that’s how the Lord made us. When he’s about to die, Jesus tells his disciples “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” At its core, the American sense of duty and sacrifice that is associated with the military comes right from Jesus, but it misappropriates it. I don’t think, though, that misappropriation takes away from the need to remember those that died (and those they killed, too).
The need to worship and to pray. Sometimes I wonder what people think of Circle of Hope when they come to one of our Sunday Meetings and they hear us worship using music, and then I remember that worship is not exactly a new or underused idea. Sports fandom is filled with the kind of worship that we do even at our meetings. There are fight songs for almost every team. Add to that, the National Anthem and the obsessive recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and you can see clear connections between American literature and the hymn book and the Lord’s Prayer. There seems to be an American hymn book, and perhaps even a book of common prayer (you could also say that the Constitution is a sacred text and the founding fathers like apostles). The parallels are clear as day, as far as I am concerned, and they are effective because they are tapping into our need to worship and pray and connect with something bigger than we are.
The yearning for community. This is the big one. It’s the heart of patriotism. Identity. It’s the pride and the heart associated with the U.S. and being American. It’s why all the politicians call this the “greatest” country, we people sing to a flag, why they are proud to be an American. It’s what makes the military’s propaganda effective, what gives us something to worship to and pray for. Christians find their identity in the person of Jesus Christ. There is not a singular “savior” in the U.S., but there is certainly a notion of salvation in U.S. mythology (wrapped up in redemptive violence). Moreover, there is also security and belonging that participation in the arbitrary nation-state and its idolatrous boundaries offer to us.
The takeaway, I think for Christians, is not just rebellion but mindfulness. Christians need to be mindful of all the idols we hold on to. And citizenship in another kingdom is one of those idols. The sense of belonging and being is a vacancy in everyone that they are longing to fill. But Jesus and his Body are the only things that fill that vacancy and quench our loneliness.
The trouble, of course, comes when the church marries this kind of patriotism (with displays of flags, for example), instead of providing an alternative. Not only is this borderline pagan worship, it is a missed opportunity to do something else and to name it as such.
More than just reacting, though, I’m thankful that Circle of Hope has been committed to creating an alternative and resisting the ways of the world, because as Jesus put it, our Kingdom is not of this world. And I don’t just mean that the world has the wrong philosophy and some other philosophy (anarchism, socialism, Marxism, etc.) would do, I think forfeiting political power and creating an alternative community is what Jesus is calling us to do.
But I hope that our creation of an alternative can come with a level of empathy and understanding. Anger cannot move us, love needs to. And as we love and relate, I hope that we can see why American mythology is so effective. The military is borrowing atonement theology right out of the Bible. American literature is filling our need for prayer, worship. Even citizenship in this nation is filling our vacancy for belonging and connection and community. Let’s use those ideas as our own unknown god inscriptions and help a neo-Athenian follow Jesus.