Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Editor's Note: John Thomas will take July and August off from his blog to focus on summer projects. This is his last post until September, when he will resume his weekly blog. Feel free to read through all his posts from this past year, or explore new features on the CTS website.
Church on the Fourth of July
Have you ever been asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag at the time of the call to worship in church? I have and, believe me, I hope it is a “once in a lifetime” experience! We also recited the “pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag” – did you even know there was such a thing? What made the experience even more uncomfortable was that I was sitting in the pew that Sunday morning with a leader of the Evangelical Church in Germany who I was hosting at a national church gathering (the Protestant, mainline congregation was not, fortunately for me, UCC!). Christians from Germany are, understandably, profoundly uneasy with any mixture of religion and patriotism, having seen what can happen when cross, blood, and soil become demonically intertwined. Today most Germans visiting US churches are shocked simply by the presence of an American flag in the sanctuary. As my guest stared at me in stunned disbelief, I prayed that the floor would open and swallow me up.
I was tempted to walk out, but we were there with others, had no transportation of our own for the forty-five minute drive back to our hotel, and given the crowd in church on that 4th of July Sunday, it would have been pretty obvious for us to get up and leave. The rest of the service was fine, including a rather thoughtful sermon on the relationship of faith and politics that gently challenged the assumption that God blesses American in some special way. Perhaps the pastor knew that in order for his well-heeled, conservative congregation in a posh Dallas neighborhood to hear his sermon, he’d need to give the flag a nod as the service began. I personally wouldn’t have gone for the Pledge of Allegiance, but who knows what pressures this pastor was dealing with. Judge not.
These are the Sundays when it would be nice to have a fixed liturgy to fall back on. The texts would be assigned by the lectionary, the prayers prescribed with a simple petition for the President and the leaders of the nation, and little leeway for mischief. Yet even in Episcopal Churches I suspect there is often some well meaning parishioner who comes to the rector saying, “Father, wouldn’t it be nice if on the Fourth of July we. . . ?” (I once had a member who thought it would be nice to change the colors of the candles on the window sills of our colonial meeting house to reflect the colors of the liturgical seasons. That was fine until he showed up with black and orange candles for what I thought was Reformation Sunday but was, in his mind, Halloween! Thank God for his former Sunday School teacher, then in her 80’s, who took him aside and said, “Now Raymond, we’re not going to do that.”)
There was a time in my life when I would have gladly stripped every sanctuary of an American flag and purged the liturgy of any reference to nation. We are citizens of heaven, says Paul, and it is from there that we expect a Savior. True enough. But in fact we are also citizens of this nation. And while there is much to judge, there is also much cause for gratitude. Racism and xenophobia are real in this land, but we can celebrate that opportunity is expanding for many. Our politicians are not pure, but their corruption pales when seen in the light of what many nations endure from their leaders. Most do in fact seek to serve the public good and when they don’t, as we know well here in Chicago these days, they can and do end up in court. Our safety nets for the poor are imperfect, but they are there in ways that simply isn’t the case in many parts of the world. When I drive our interstates I watch for the next rest stop, not a roadside bomb. And when I engaged in civil disobedience outside the White House a couple of years ago to protest the war in Iraq, I was out of jail in time to make my flight home to Cleveland that evening. That probably wouldn’t be the case in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, or many other places in the world.
To sit aloof from and in relentless judgment over our nation’s achievements and betrayals, accomplishments and injustices may feel “prophetic.” But in fact it is hardly Biblical. Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of “pathos” when he spoke of God’s relationship to humanity. “God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. . . . Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment,” (The Prophets, p. 224). For Christians, this pathos is most deeply expressed in the incarnation, and our own stance vis a vis this world ought to express this intimate involvement with all that “affects God, grieves God, gladdens and pleases God,” to use Heschel’s terms. For the Christian, patriotism is not a flag in the lapel or the politician’s ritual incantation, “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.” It is, rather, recognition of our deep complicity, for good and for ill, in our nation’s moral grandeur and tragic failure, a complicity that demands thanksgiving and repentance, gratitude and judgment. Somehow our liturgies on days of national significance need to acknowledge this.
Katharine Lee Bates’ soaring hymn, “America, the Beautiful,” names this tension. The lyrics recognize good that still needs to be crowned with “brotherhood,” gold yet to be refined, and flaws yet to be mended. In like fashion James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” does not shy from “the stony road, the bitter and chastening rod felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet his hymn ends in and almost startling commitment rather than the presumed estrangement: “Shadowed beneath your hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.”
The Puritans turned their attention to the responsibilities of faithful citizenship in election day sermons and public days of repentance. These sober reflections were hardly triumphalistic, yet they ennobled civic life as a profound part of the Christian’s vocation. Perhaps we would be well served to engage the question of the relationship of patriotism and citizenship with faith not just on days like the Fourth of July when the prevailing mood is shaped by bands and fireworks, and when the preacher is tempted either to uncomfortable silence or misplaced civic ritual. On the day the United States invaded Iraq, the national staff of the United Church of Christ gathered in our chapel. What I remember of that day is the hymn we sang:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
(Lloyd Stone, 1934)
For many of us these words expressed the conviction, indeed lament, that the land we love had “erred and strayed like lost sheep.” Yet the hymn unfailingly asserts that this is a land we do love, even as others love other lands. And it captured our heartfelt prayer that, to use Lincoln’s famous words, we would “again be touched by the better angels of our nature.” Yes, better than the Pledge, I think.
John H. Thomas