God Bless America, Part 2

Returning to the topic of our church’s celebration service honoring the men and women of our armed forces, though I think it was appropriately and tastefully done, there were a few aspects of it that bothered me.

American Protestantism is rather tone-deaf regarding physical symbology.  Being children of the Reformation, we’ve grown into an almost Gnostic spirituality that devalues all things material, especially in the context of worship.  As a result, we create worship spaces and accoutrements that send wrong messages to both worshippers and inquirers, because we don’t think about how real and powerful physical symbols can be.  The celebration service reflected some of this. 

1. A giant flag hung from the roof of the sanctuary, and was easily the largest decoration present in the usually bland room.  It blocked the congregation’s view of the cross, in this case a stained-glass window depicting a cross, mounted above and behind the stage.  From a practical standpoint, this was the only place this flag could fit, but it bothered me that no one seemed to have considered the resulting image: America’s primary symbol completely overwhelmed the primary symbol of the One we assemble in church to worship. 

2. Color guards from the local police and fire departments marched in, under arms, with two identical sets of US and state flags, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem.  I began to wonder how many flags we needed, as the stage was already flanked by rows of US and armed forces flags.  The armed color guard is proper decorum, but bringing even symbolic weapons into a house of worship again creates some dissonance in the unspoken message.  During my days as an Air Force Academy cadet, marching and chapel services often dovetailed, and in those situations, the strict rule was to ritually demilitarize our parade weapons by locking open their bolts and lowering them upon crossing the chapel’s threshold.  It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it communicated to future military officers that houses of worship were “no weapon zones” and deserved special respect.  The Pledge is a state loyalty oath, even though the last section acknowledges the nation’s submission to God.  LIkewise, the Anthem is wholly secular, except the very last verse, which I’ve never heard performed in public, and am familiar with only because I was forced to memorize it at the Academy.  I have no qualms about professing loyalty and allegiance to my country, but in the context of worship, I think it’s vital that we be very clear about where our first loyalty resides. 

3. We sang a lot of Patriotic “hymns,” which are mostly confusing.  America the Beautiful is a love poem to the virtues of our country, with an appended prayer for God’s continued blessing.  My Country Tis of Thee, our adapted version of God Save the King, is an even more unabashed song of praise to the nation, though its usually-neglected fourth verse reverses course and acknowledges God as the “Author of Liberty.”  The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” can be interpreted on a variety of levels, most of them apocalyptic.  Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these songs, but in the context of worship, we need to avoid muddling our understanding of who we’re worshipping, and we need to pay attention to the express and implied meaning of the words we sing.

Though we love our country, and I believe it is good and right to do so, it is wrong to worship it.  America is neither the Bride of Christ nor the New Jerusalem, and I become uneasy when we edge toward glorifying our nation, a political entity, in a worship service.  I don’t think we crossed that line last Sunday, but I was reminded how easy it can be, even with the purest motivations.

In the post-Constantine church, a seat of honor was reserved for the emperor in the cathedral, but it was off to the side of the altar, and the emperor would defer to the bishop.  This, to my mind, provides a good illustration of the proper relationship between church and state.  We don’t live in a theocracy, and cannot until God establishes physical rule on Earth.  Until that time, church must not be confused with state.  State should enforce order in society and protect freedom, including the freedom to worship. Church should respectfully and humbly provide spiritual guidance and moral encouragement to state, casting light on corruption and modeling virtue.  When these roles mingle in human society, we end up with god-kings or emperor-popes, and there is much oppression and suffering.  Let’s not be thoughtless as either worshippers or citizens.

May God bless America and all our men and women in uniform, past and present, in and out of danger, wherever they may be.

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