When I was a teenager I experienced my first (that I can recall) patriotic church service. I remember feeling a little strange about it, but I couldn’t name why at the time. We sang the usuals: The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and America the Beautiful. I wondered to whom we were singing these songs during our worship. Were we singing to God? Is the National Anthem a worship song? If so, what or whom does it worship? It just felt odd to be extolling the greatness of America during that Sunday morning hour that usually focused on our relationship with God.
Flags, of both the American and Christian varieties, had been present on the platform at every church in which I’d ever set foot. Each year at VBS we began with pledges to these flags, and to the Bible. We were trying to cover all the bases, I guess. The specter of America hovered above all things, providing a watchful eye to ensure that whatever we did, it didn’t threaten the all pervasive supremacy of “American values.” America became the fourth member of the Trinity, and the one people seemed most eager to appease.
If you pay attention you’ll discover the liturgy of empire is everywhere. We appease and praise the empire before kickoff, tipoff, and first pitch. We incorporate it into our church gatherings and celebrations of all kinds. It’s so ingrained into the fabric of our lives that we don’t notice it, and to question it not only makes one anti-American, but even worse, anti-Christian. After all, Jesus was a model American, right?
<Insert eye roll emoji here>
This conflation of God and country would be so deeply unfathomable for the earliest Christians. They began their movement around the life of a peasant Jewish rabbi who was executed by the state. But why did Rome execute Jesus? Contrary to the assumptions of many Christians, Rome didn’t execute Jesus because he preached about love and told people how to escape to a disembodied heaven above the clouds. Rome executed Jesus for proclaiming an alternative kingdom, another order, another vision for how the world should be.
The empire rejected and executed Jesus.
As a result the early Christian movement was offering an alternative to the way of empire. They created egalitarian communities around sharing their resources, communities that transcended every cultural and social boundary of insider/outsider. They subverted the theology of empire by taking titles and language that were originally focused on Caesar and the empire (Lord, Savior, Bringer of Peace, Gospel) and wrapped them around Jesus and the kingdom movement, with the clear intention of challenging and offering an alternative to the brutality and dehumanization of empire. The idea of the cross and the flag, the Church and empire, being enmeshed was a foreign concept before the 300s and the coopting of the Church by Constantine.
On January 6, we watched in horror as armed Americans participated in an insurrection against the US government, overrunning the Capitol and resulting in the deaths of five people. As I watched from my couch I couldn’t believe the images that were flooding my screen. A gallows and a cross were standing side by side. A participant held up a Bible as he breached the Capitol. The prayer that followed as the insurrectionists took the Senate floor invoked the name of Jesus. This wasn’t just an act of nationalism. For many, perhaps most, it was an act of Christian nationalism.
As we approach July 4, which happens to be this Sunday, I think it’s important to name a couple of things. First, nationalism of all kinds, but especially Christian nationalism, is anti-Christ and anti-gospel.
They are incompatible. Whatever version of Christianity that can be combined with nationalism and wrapped around the Jesus story is a distortion and disgusting imposter.
Second, humans are capable of holding tension. We are capable of acknowledging that we are grateful to live in America, while also acknowledging the truth about our founding and history, and all of our cultural and systemic injustices. Even then, gratitude doesn’t mean worship. I am grateful to live in America; I don’t worship America, or the flag. I am grateful to live in America, but my allegiance is already spoken for.
This Sunday lots of pastors will feel the pressure to turn their morning gatherings into some type of American celebration. There will be expectations among some of the faithful that they might sing patriotic songs or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My hope is our commitment to the way of Jesus will give us the courage to resist the often subtle demand of empire that we locate our allegiance there. May our churches be outposts of an alternative society, one of equity, justice, compassion, and peace, and not places that further the false narrative that Jesus and July 4th have anything in common. Because Jesus doesn’t celebrate July 4th.