Divided Allegiance-The Plague of the American Church

SUNDAY OF CHRIST THE KING

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Prayer of the Day: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Ephesians 1:20-21.

The celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the church year is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. Sadder still is our generation’s failure to learn from this history the dark places to which nationalistic idolatry invariably leads. Saddest of all is the American church’s failure to address the godless ideology of nationalism as it rears its ugly head once again, not only within our nation, but within the very heart of our congregations.

The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform (which has been re-adopted by the RNC as the 2020 platform) states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.”

This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that  “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.”  It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”

This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has morphed into a fascist  style populism appealing to the basest instincts of our population and has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color for the last four years. This administration and its religious minions have mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Stephen Miller have become fixtures in the White House. The replacement of long standing public servants in crucial leadership positions in our government with Trump loyalists over the last week is more than disturbing. This, coupled with the president’s refusal to concede an election that he lost substantially, in terms both of the electoral collage and the popular vote, with the backing/enabling/complicity of the Republican party should concern us all. Whether or not Donald Trump finally leaves the White House in January, the religion of Trumpism will continue to be a toxic force in our country.

What concerns me more, however, is the relative silence of the American church in the face of what can only be described as a fascist deification of the nation and its leader. I understand, of course, that American mainline protestant churches have produced numerous statements and declarations objecting to particular actions and policies of the Trump administration and condemning racism in general. Yet, as far as I am aware, none has named the beast. No protestant church has condemned the Republican party for its idolatrous elevation of the United States to an “exceptional” status. No protestant church (at least none of the white mainline ones) has addressed the hijacking of Christian doctrine and symbols in support of this vile ideology. What we need, in my humble opinion, is an ecumenical Barman like declaration naming the heresies of American exceptionalism and the deification by so-called evangelicals and their leaders of the Republican agenda and Donald Trump.

Voices far more credible than mine are warning the church not to ignore the dangers of nationalist populism. In 2019 the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) published a collection of essays written by theologians, pastors and teachers from around the world under the title, Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism. In the preface to these deeply thoughtful and disturbing writings, Rev. Martin Junge, LWF General Secretary wrote:

“Exclusionary populism unfolds a negative dynamic, which undermines the very fabric and existence of public and civil society space. It perverts basic norms and values of how we want to live together as society and as international community. Therefore, it is vital to jointly address these challenges by scrutinizing its ideological foundations and denouncing its harmful assumptions. Furthermore, the LWF sees the need to articulate with renewed clarity our vision for just and participatory living together, and live out this calling as churches. We need to give an account of the theological perspectives that emerge from the gospel message, which points to God’s compassionate and liberating presence in this world.”  Id. pp. 9-10 (italics mine).

We should be concerned about this new exposion of American nationalist populism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

The difficulty, of course, is that many adherents of American exceptionalism and its racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic ideological children are sitting in the pews of our churches each Sunday (or in front of their computers in virtual worship). I know from experience that addressing white privilege, supporting refugee resettlement, speaking up for our Muslim siblings and saying in no uncertain terms that Jesus is a globalist can cost a church members and financial support-to say nothing of its pastor’s job. It is possible, perhaps likely, that some congregations will withdraw from the ELCA if its leaders begin to unmask the contradictions between faith in Jesus and a hypernationalistic pledge of allegiance to the United States. But is this really a fitting argument for muting our witness? As much as I value unity within the Body of Christ, I would prefer to see a church divided over the gospel of Jesus Christ than united under something less. I am not prepared to sacrifice our witness to Christ’s just peace just for peace in the ecclesiastical household.

We have a long standing tradition in Lutheranism of avoiding political partisanship in our preaching. That is a sound practice in ordinary times. After all, two people who are equally dedicated to addressing racism, eradicating poverty and caring for refugees can have very different views about how that good work should be done. In ordinary times, politics is the business of working out the nuts and bolts of how best to care for our neighbors. These are not ordinary times, however. There is no reconciling “America first” with “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Acts 10:34-35. There is no reconciling preservation of culture based on “blood, soil and race” and the “great multitude which no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9. There is no reconciling Trump’s messianic claim that he is “the only one” who can save us and Saint Peter’s declaration that “there is no other name under heaven [than Jesus] given among human beings by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12. If any of this offends anyone’s politics, they need to get themselves another politics or a another savior.

The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her citizens, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.

Here is a peom by Vechel Lindsay speaking to the hijacking of Christian faith in the name of nationalist violence and oppressin.

The Unpardonable Sin

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost: —
To speak of bloody power as right divine,
And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house,
And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine:—

To go forth killing in White Mercy’s name,
Making the trenches stink with spattered brains,
Tearing the nerves and arteries apart,
Sowing with flesh the unreaped golden plains.

In any Church’s name, to sack fair towns,
And turn each home into a screaming sty,
To make the little children fugitive,
And have their mothers for a quick death cry,—

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost:
This is the sin no purging can atone:—
To send forth rapine in the name of Christ:—
To set the face, and make the heart a stone.

Source: The Congo and Other Poems (c. Macmillan, 1914). Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879 -1931) was an American poet and originator of modern “singing poetry,” verse intended for singing or chanting. Born in Springfield, Illinois, Lindsay was the son of a well to do medical doctor. The Lindsays lived across the street from the Illinois Executive Mansion then occupied by governor John P. Altgeld whom Lindsay admired for pardoning a number of anarchists convicted in connection with their involvement in the Haymarket Affair. He was also a fan of Abraham Lincoln whom he memorialized in one of his poems in which he exclaims “Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all!” Lindsay studied medicine at Ohio’s Hiram College from 1897 to 1900. Much to the disappointment of his parents’ however, he left Hiram to attend the Art Institute of Chicago from 1900 to 1903 and the New York School of Art in 1903. His focus was on drawing, an interest that eventually led him to silent film criticism. At this point, Lindsay began writing poetry and traveling across the United States, mostly on foot. In 1914, he published his first poems in Poetry Magazine where he won recognition in the American poetry community. You can read more about Vachel Lindsay and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

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