American Civil Religion Part 2

Just in case my first post didn’t have the potential of stepping on enough toes…

In case anyone might think otherwise, let me hasten to emphasize that I’m thankful beyond words to live in the United States of America. Many are the privileges that I enjoy because of my citizenship, and I try not to take any of that for granted.

Oh, yeah — and I grew up during the civil rights era, wishing I could march along with Martin Luther King. Over the years since, I’ve engaged in some peaceful protests and civil disobedience (even went toe-to-toe with a sheriff over my constitutional rights) while also believing that sometimes freedom and justice demands a lot more than that. I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the American soldiers who liberated Germany (including my mother!) from the Nazis… and I definitely wouldn’t exist without one special American soldier who was part of the occupation force in the 50’s.

But…

There is always a “but…”

I may have gotten a heavy dose of American Civil Religion in elementary school, but I also got a heavy dose of the Bible from my soldier-turned-pastor father. So I learned about the Apostle Paul, who insisted upon his rights as a Roman citizen. And I also learned about Jesus, who told His followers that His Kingdom was not of this world.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36)

Decades of my life have been spent wrangling with the implications of that verse.

Jesus never preached political revolution or urged that His countrymen throw off the shackles of their Roman oppressors. He didn’t shout, “Rise up!” or “Freedom!” He didn’t urge his followers to remember the great military heroes of their past. He never said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He never told his disciples, “After I rise, let your fight for independence begin!”

As an American, I don’t quite know what to make of all that. Enjoying the hard-won freedoms that I do, and owing my existence to brave Americans who fought and won against tyranny makes me wish I could ignore the questions and contradictions that haunt me.

Sometimes I tell myself that maybe my inability to see Christianity as a battle cry for independence and freedom, to see spiritual revival as political revolution, is because I’m not called to be a warrior.

But then again, none of Jesus’ disciples became warriors or freedom fighters either. They only seemed to defy the government when they were ordered to stop preaching. Even Paul, the Roman citizen, seemed stuck on the message of Christ, crucified and risen. He didn’t use his privilege to fight for religious freedom and national independence for the Jewish people, nor did he urge anyone else to do so.

The early church was full of martyrs who died preaching and praying, not fighting.

Then there are those extremely troubling beatitudes that Jesus preached. They seem not only completely at odds with the civil religion I was taught as a child, but with the entirety of American culture… and especially with the syncretism that has infected too many of our churches.

I don’t know what to do with all that.

Sometimes I don’t even know how to pray.

On days like that, I’m learning to rely yet again on the wisdom of those who have gone before me and on the treasures of the historic church. So I grab one of my prayer books to help me pray Biblically-informed prayers for my leaders, for my country, for the world… and for what truly ails me. I trust the Holy Spirit to intercede for me, as promised in the Bible.

And I become more willing to admit that I am not the one with the answers — and that, all too often, I’m not even asking the right questions.

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