I hate going to church over July 4 weekend. The sad irony is that I was installed as the associate pastor of my current church in Columbia, South Carolina over a July 4 weekend, so it’s hard for me to schedule myself off as the congregation likes to celebrate the anniversary.
I didn’t always hate Independence Day weekends at church. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in a small Georgia town that displayed both a Christian flag and an American flag. It never really bothered me as a child when we sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful” from the Baptist hymnal during church. The idea of God and country were engrained in me from my childhood.
But, I’ve put away childish things and have come to understand that the very idea that America is some manner of “chosen nation” over and against any other nation is deeply offensive. It plays into our ancient ideas about tribalism and “us against them” ideologies.
This weekend, many churches will be taking part in praydailyamerica.com’s reaffirmation of God’s covenant with the United States. Their printable flyer is peppered with quotes from the founding fathers meant to prove their original intent to found America as a “Christian nation.”
Such arguments are problematic for both the left and the right who like to claim the founding fathers as being on one side or the other. Steve Waldman in his book Founding Faith neatly dispels both liberal and conservative arguments over the founding fathers’ views on religion and urges us to stop using them as pawns in our modern day church and state battle. “Instead,” he writes, “we must pick up the argument that they began and do as they instructed—use our reason to determine our views.”
That requires us to put aside our childish arguments and really start to work together to make America a blessed nation—but not necessarily a Christian one, or a Jewish one, or a Muslim one or a place where any one faith is vaunted over another. This will certainly be difficult for people like praydailyamerica.com whose four step daily plan of prayer is quite chilling as it instructs people to “Cry out to God for the USA to have only the foundations of Jesus and for the foundations of satan to be 100% destroyed in the USA right now.” And by “satan” they mean anyone who isn’t the kind of Christian they like.
We also must put away the childish notion that America is “special” and somehow uniquely God blessed because of our great wealth.
As Meister Eckhart proclaimed some 700 years ago:
Some want to see God with their own eyes, just as they see a cow; and they want to love God just as they love a cow. You love a cow because of the milk and cheese and because of your own advantage. This is how all these people act who love God because of external riches or because of internal consolation. They do not love God rightly; rather they love their own advantage.
Those who believe in America as God’s chosen nation appear to see God in this way—loving God for their own advantage—seeing God as the source of our external riches and internal consolation.
In short, those who fight for theocratic ideas in America commit what Karl Barth called the “criminal arrogance of religion.” We equate our own desires with the desires of God and that leads to our inverted sense of values. We see “blessings” as material goods—wealth, health, cars, homes, power and other tangible items. Those who are poor, disenfranchised, homeless or ill are definitely not blessed, and are to be viewed as morally suspect since they may have done something “wrong” to deserve such a horrible fate. Blessings are seen as things that enrich us materially. “We often confuse the meaning of life with success,” writes Dorothee Solle. “In this way we remain at the spiritual level of capitalism, which regards success as the supreme value.”
On this Fourth of July weekend, instead of praying for “foundations of satan” to be wiped from the USA, we might instead dedicate ourselves to praying that our own selfishness and tribalism be wiped from the entire planet. We are only truly blessed when we are out in the world, giving out of our abundance to others who have little. We are only truly blessed when we put aside our thoughts of personal gain, or our thoughts of revenge or triumph over some “evil” that we have identified as the source of our present suffering. As Barth advised: “Let him take it who can, that one must lose one’s life in order to find it, that one must cease being something for oneself, that one must become a communal person, a comrade, in order to be a person at all.”
Until we know and acknowledge that we are all connected in this world, then we will continue to create what Barth called the “No-Gods” of nation, family, military, and capitalism and set them up as evidence of our “blessings” from God. In reality, our freedom is not found in the social order, but in the acknowledgement that God is not on our side, or on anyone’s side. Instead, God is the source of all—the ground of all being—that flows without regard to race, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, wealth, poverty, piety, or morality. God blesses us—be we nation or individual—when we realize we are not living simply for ourselves or for our nation, but for God and each other.
In church this weekend I celebrated five years of service to my current congregation. When we sing songs about how beautiful we find our nation, I urge them to look beyond our human borders and find ways to let freedom ring wherever oppression may be found. It’s in that spirit that I say, “Happy Fourth of July.”