For Sunday July 5, 2015

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

2 Samuel 5:1–5, 9–10 or Ezekiel 2:1–5
Psalm 48 or Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2–10
Mark 6:1–13

This week I'm celebrating two milestones.

On June 30th, Journey with Jesus finishes its eleventh year as a “weekly webzine for the global church.”  This year we served readers in 217 countries.  In 175 of those countries, we had five or more readers.

And on the 4th of July, I'll celebrate Independence Day and the birth of America 239 years ago.

These two celebrations make for an awkward mash up.  Our global readership is a constant reminder that being Christian and being American are two different things.

At church last Sunday I was reminded of how good and natural it is to love your own country.  Krishna described to me how his grandmother moved to America to live with her extended family, stayed here for decades, but then returned to India when she was eighty.

There's nothing wrong with loving your own land.  People rightly prefer their unique ethnic roots, foods, history, language, culture, and music. Homesickness is a compliment to the sights, sounds and smells that we love, and that we miss when we're far from home.

 Persecutions under Nero, ruled AD 54-68.
Persecutions under Nero, ruled AD 54-68.

I experienced this pull of patriotism when I lived in Moscow from 1991 to 1995.  I enjoyed so much about living in that great city, but I also missed many things about America.  There's just no place like home.

The problem with patriotism is that it can lead to nationalism.  Nationalism, as CS Lewis observed, believes that my nation is "markedly superior to all others."  In theological parlance, that's heresy.

Lewis once encountered a pastor who espoused such noxious nationalism.  He asked him, "doesn't every nation think of itself as the best?"

The clergyman responded in all seriousness, "Yes, but in England it is true."

Lewis concludes, "To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid."

The relationship between my pledges of allegiance to both church and state is inherently awkward and ambiguous. We should reject binary ways of black and white thinking about this subject, in favor of the many shades of gray that we find in Scripture and experience.

There's no timeless blueprint in Scripture, only the witness of God's people in different times and places.  In 2 Samuel 5 for this week, David is anointed as God's elect king.  Isaiah described the pagan Cyrus as God's elect servant.  Paul advises believers to "submit to the governing authorities." Peter tells us to "honor the king."  So, sometimes believers co-operate with the state.

But other rulers — Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Nero and Mao — persecuted God's people.  John portrays Rome as the whore of Babylon who devours the saints.  Thus, at other times, believers subvert rather than submit to state powers, as under Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.

Because of this diverse witness of Scripture, believers have related to the state in many different ways.

For the first three hundred years, believers were an invisible minority of 5-10% of Rome's 60 million people.  They were inconspicuous and non-confrontational.  Still, such political invisibility risks cultural irrelevance.

Later, the state persecuted the church, although Candida Moss has argued that persecution wasn't as severe as often thought. By the fourth century the church had its own calendar of martyrs. After the martyrs, the ascetics fled to the desert and spurned authority, both sacred and secular.

When Constantine legalized Christianity, the church enjoyed privileges like tax exemptions, spectacular state-funded basilicas, and the return of confiscated property.  But when co-operation is beneficial, compliance is a temptation.

In the late Middle Ages, the church actedlike a state.  Garry Wills writes, "Popes launched crusades in the Holy Land and Spain, backed inquisitions, empowered mendicant orders, anointed kings, and put whole countries under interdict."

 Privileges under Constantine, ruled 306-337.
Privileges under Constantine, ruled 306-337.

Today we cherish the separation of church and state, which separation includes religious pluralism.  This is one of the best reasons to celebrate the 4th of July:  "Until the ratification of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," writes Wills, "it was unheard of for a state to be without an official religion."

800 years ago this summer, on June 15, 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta.  I still remember the thrill of seeing one of the earliest copies that's on permanent display in the British Library in London.

The Magna Carta repudiates the idea that caesar can act like a god.  No ruler should claim divine rights.  It codified the idea that the rule of law limits the role of government. 

As Jill Lepore has observed, despite all the historical complexities of the Magna Carta, this simple idea has become so powerful that today we think of it not as the grudging concession of a king in one country, but as the inherent right of every human being.

Conversely, God does not act like some caesar — he's not a petty tyrant or tribal deity who favors only his people. 

God created the cosmos.  In Genesis he promised to bless "all the families of the earth."  In Revelation he gathers people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language."  In a clever play on words, Paul says that God is the patera of every patria — the "father from whom every family derives its name."

He isn't the God of Jews alone, or the God only of Christians. God is the father of "every family in heaven and on earth."  Which is why Paul also says that God will redeem not just humanity but "the whole creation."

About a hundred years after Jesus, the Epistle to Diognetus described the believer's ambiguous relationship to the state as similar to that of a resident alien: "Every foreign land was to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers."

As I thank God for JwJ's global readership, and celebrate the birth of America, I'm feeling this awkward and ambiguous relationship between the sacred-eternal and the secular-temporal.

As for my America, I like how Wills puts it: "The America of the founding, we now recognize, was terribly flawed, by slaughter of Indians, enslavement of blacks, and suppression of women, among other things.  And the contemporary United States will someday be seen in retrospect as a plutocracy with impoverished citizens; as a bloated war machine with overkill stockpiles of unusable weaponry; as a place of volunteer armies ground down by constant use, of ruinously expensive political campaigning and clogged non-governing, making ineffectual gestures toward a failing ecosystem, and with a stupor of admiration for guns.  But we still love our country, and we should."

On this essay, see:

Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian; How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar's Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).

Jill Lapore, "The Rule of History," The New Yorker (April 20, 2015).

Garry Wills, The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis (New York: Viking, 2015).

Image credits: (1) and (2)