The Resurrection and Patriotic Idolatry

Image result for United states flag in churchSECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Revelation 1:4.

In the above passage from our second lesson, John of Patmos makes the audacious claim that Jesus is, in addition to being the “firstborn of the dead,” the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” It is clear from our first lesson in the Book of Acts that the “kings of the earth,” or the “principalities and powers” as St. Paul calls them, do not recognize him as such. Easter Sunday finds the disciples hiding behind locked doors for fear of the authorities that are now supposed to be subject to Jesus. Peter and John are charged strictly to refrain from preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name on threat of arrest and punishment. The struggling congregations of Asia Minor to whom John writes were facing social ostracism, commercial sanctions and prosecution for their faith in Jesus. Under these circumstances, we might rightly ask: What real world difference does Jesus’ resurrection make? What good is his Lordship if the world at large does not recognize and respect it? What kind of reign does Jesus exercise over the world?

It is important to recognize that the primary significance of the resurrection is not that God raised Jesus from death. No one in the First Century world doubted that a god could raise someone from death. The radical message of the resurrection is that the God of Israel raised Jesus from death. Had God raised a prominent general, a successful political leader or a charismatic religious figure, the import of the resurrection would be altogether different. As it is, God raised Jesus, the rabbi whose teachings were misunderstood, whose closest followers betrayed and deserted him and whose mission ended in failure. God raised the one who confronted a cruel and oppressive regime armed only with love-and lost badly by every imaginable standard. Absent the resurrection, we could only conclude from Jesus’ story that love fails; that might makes right; that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun; that nice guys finish last; that Caesar is Lord. But in raising Jesus from death, God demonstrates that Caesar is not Lord. God is on the side of love-even when it seems to fail and accomplish nothing.

Jesus’ resurrection turns every hierarchy on its head. The Church’s one Lord and King is Jesus. No monarch, president, prime minister, dictator or governmental unit has authority to require a disciple of Jesus to act contrary to the great commandments, namely, love for God and love for the neighbor. Of course, allegiance to Jesus does not necessarily place the church at odds with the government under which it happens to exist in any given place and time. Government is not evil in itself. It has a role to play in ordering human existence, ensuring that justice is done and protecting the weak and vulnerable from exploitation. As such, government is another of God’s good gifts to humanity and all of creation. Yet, like all of God’s good gifts, government becomes demonic when it usurps loyalty and obedience due God alone. In our fallen world, government has a tendency to do just that. When government demands loyalty or obedience that puts a disciple at odds with his/her duty of loyalty and obedience to Jesus, “we must obey God rather than any human authority.” Acts 5:29.

The relationship between the Church and the Roman Empire was antagonistic from the start if only because of the Church’s assertion that “Jesus is Lord.” There was but one Lord in the Roman realm, namely, Caesar. Roman policy toward religion was generally tolerant. If the Christians wanted to worship a dead carpenter, that was surely their prerogative. Just don’t call him “Lord.” This was not simply a matter of semantics. Though no one in the first century actually believed the emperor to be divine, they all knew he must be treated as such. Loyalty and obedience to Rome was an absolute requirement that no religious duty or obligation could overrule. This, in effect, elevated government to the place of God, thereby putting the disciples of Jesus on a collision course with the empire.

In our American context, the relationship between church and government is a bit more complicated. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids government interference with the free exercise of religion. That affords protection for the church against governmental persecution, but it does not guaranty that the church will not succumb to an idolatrous allegiance to the nation. In fact, there are clear indications that our churches have done just that in too many instances. In my post of July 26, 2017 I argued that a toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant right wing “evangelical” Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. But I don’t believe for one moment that those of us in the “mainline” traditions are immune from this sickness. The ideology of American nationalism has infected us as well, blinding us to our own idolatry.

I strongly suspect that most of us identify more deeply with our American identity than our baptismal identity. The placement of the American flag in most of our sanctuaries testifies to the centrality of our American identity. If you think the flag’s presence is harmless and that it has no religious significance, try suggesting its removal. Whether we can articulate it or not, we have a strong sense that the flag is an important, perhaps essential, ingredient for our houses of worship. More telling still is our collective willingness to sacrifice our children on the battlefield in defense of our country. We speak of one’s death in warfare as the “ultimate sacrifice.” If human sacrifice to appease the appetite of one’s god is considered barbaric, how much more the sacrifice made for something less than divine! Patriotism has become for us a kind of religion and politics a perverse form of worship.

Shaped as we are by nationalistic patriotism, we no longer see its demands upon us as sinful or contrary to the tenets of our faith. Our national and Christian identities have become so thoroughly fused that we are incapable of recognizing the presence of rank idolatry and the incongruities it breeds in our lives. We sing

“In Christ there is no east or west,
In him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love,
Throughout the whole wide earth.”

Yet we see no contradiction between this anthem declaring the universality of Christ’s Body and slogans like “America First.” We listen to the parable of the Final Judgment in Matthew on Sunday and find nothing objectionable in our nation’s closing its borders to refugees fleeing violence and starvation. In our perverse moral hierarchy, patriotism trumps discipleship, the flag flies higher than the cross and the bond of American identity proves stronger than the universal appeal of the communion of saints. We have reduced discipleship to a mere aspect of what it means to be an American. It simply does not occur to us that being a good American citizen might conflict with our being a faithful disciple of Jesus. The Church in America lacks the spiritual maturity, the theological depth and the moral courage to be the Body of Christ for the world and has opted instead to be the house chaplain to the United States.

I am hopeful that mainline American churches like my own will finally grow up, get beyond issuing preachy screechy social statements on this or that particular issue that no one ever reads and, like the Confessing Church under the Nazi regime, address in a public way the root sin of idolatry that is twisting our souls and muting our witness. Martin Luther tells us that “A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Nationalism is heresy. It is incompatible with our confession of one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one holy catholic and apostolic church made up of nations, tribes and peoples worldwide. In the face nationalistic appeals to blood, soil and culture, we need to speak boldly St. Peter’s and St. John’s admonition to obey God above all human authority and acknowledge as King the one who lived and died for others, regardless their citizenship, nationality, race, sexual orientation or whatever part of the globe they inhabit. That is the difference the Resurrection makes.

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that might serve as the sort of prayer we ought to be praying for our nation as a people called out of all nations to be the resurrected Body of Christ in the world.

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
The free?
Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1995 by Langston Hughes, pub. by Harold Ober Associates, Inc.) Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century.

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