July 4 poses thornier issues for Christians this year
than it used to.
Things are thornier because religion and politics are mixed up
in a new way.
Last January 6, one of the rioters charged into the Capitol
to stop the certification of the election
carrying a sign that said, JESUS SAVES.
What has Jesus Saves got to do
with seizing the Capitol building?
Since the early 1970s,
there has been a movement called dominionism.
In a nutshell it’s an attempt by some Christians
to impose the Kingdom of God by force of law.
The Karl Marx of dominionism,
also known as Reconstructionism,
and as Christian Nationalism was R. J. Rushdoony.
In the 1970s, he called for Christian fundamentalists
to seize the reins of political power.
Around that time, the Ayatollah Khomeini was calling
Islamic fundamentalist to do the same thing in Iran.
That Jesus Saves rioter didn’t come from nowhere.
In a 2006 sermon, Ohio pastor, Rod Parsley, said:
Now this revolution is not for the temperate.
This revolution – that’s what it is –
is not for the timid and the week.
but for the brave and strong who step over the line . . ..
and become disciples of Christ.
. . . . The secular media never like it when I say this
so let me say it twice.
Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! . . .
I came to incite a riot. . ..
Man your battle stations. Lock and load!
Ron Luce runs a Christian youth organization called Battle Cry.
At a rock concert Luce told 25,000 teens,
This is war and Jesus invites us to get into the action . . ..
The new Christian dominion movement has roots
in the distant past.
So let’s look at some history.
II. RELIGION AND VIOLENCE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
Most people assume that religions have always been
murderously intolerant and have caused violence
from the beginning.
Well, there is some truth to that
– but not as much as you might think.
In her study of so-called religious violence, Fields of Blood,
Prof. Karen Armstrong finds religion’s hands are not clean
but religion is usually more of a pretext
than a cause of violence.
The so-called Wars of Religion in the 16th Century
between Catholics and Protestants.
But it turns out there were plenty of Protestants fighting
on the Catholic side
and plenty of Catholics fighting
on the Protestant side.
It was more about turf disputes between new states
as the Holy Roman Empire came apart.
In the 1415, when the English army charged
into the Battle of Agincourt shouting
Cry God for Harry, for England, and St. George,
the French army, charging from the opposite side, was shouting,
Cry God for the Dauphin, for France, and St. Joan.
So, what’s the real role of religion?
When humankind took up agriculture around 10,000 BC,
domination systems so that the elite could own the land
and control the people who farmed it.
Religion provided a justification for that dominance.
The Pharaohs, kings, and Caesars of antiquity
were all gods or sons of gods or consorts of gods.
Statues of Augustus bore this inscription,
Augustus Caesar, the son of God.
Religious institutions supported the wealthy and powerful.
Priests were cheerleaders for monarchs.
All religions existed to serve the king until around 1300 BC
when Moses introduced a God for slaves,
a God who said to Pharoah, Let my people go.
Moses freed his people from Egyptian tyranny
and established an egalitarian society of shepherds
with very little political structure of any kind.
But when the Israelites too up farming,
they wanted a political order like their farming neighbors had.
They wanted a king. That’s what lies behind today’s lesson.
The rest of the Old Testament is a running argument
between the monarchists,
who saw the king as the son of God,
and the anti-monarchist prophets who saw the king
as a usurper and exploiter.
By Jesus’ day, Israel had broken apart and been conquered
Among Jews, there were Roman collaborators
who supported the Empire, good Roman citizens.
There were insurrectionists called Zealots
who wanted to kick the Romans out
and restore the Jewish monarchy.
Others called Essenes wanted to escape both factions
and live in isolated communes.
All these groups wanted Jesus on their side.
The best biblical scholars, both liberal and conservative,
say Jesus refused to join any of those parties.
He wanted a revolution too,
but he didn’t trust political, economic, or military power
to make things better.
Instead, he called for a spiritual revolution of love
lived out in the world.
He called it the Kingdom of God breaking in.
That’s why the Early Christians kept their distance
from the Empire.
St. Paul insisted in Colossians and Ephesians
that our allegiance is to Christ
over any powers and principalities of this world.
In the 2nd century, Hippolytus of Rome,
forbade Christians to serve as magistrates or a soldiers.
Early Christians were martyred not for their religious beliefs
but for their refusal to burn a pinch of incense
to show their loyalty to Caesar.
Then Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion
and that was confusing.
In the Middle Ages, Christianity was so mixed up
with the feudal system
you couldn’t tell one from the other.
Feudalism and Medieval Christianity fell apart at the same time.
Since then, we have argued over the proper relation
between Church and State.
They had not really existed as separate institutions before.
But now they did, so what’s the relationship?
Some places had state sponsored religions.
But the United States opted for religious liberty.
We never precluded religious people from expressing
a moral perspective in civic conversations
about justice and mercy.
Religious voices spoke out on slavery, temperance,
women’s suffrage, war and peace, worker’s rights,
segregation, nutrition insecurity.
That’s gone on from the very beginning.
The 1st Amendment doesn’t prohibit religious voices
in the public square. It protects them.
But it doesn’t conscience the government imposing a religion
or a religion imposing a government.
Then the 1930s changed things. Nationalism was born.
Progressive politics and pragmatic philosophy
combined in a new ideology to unify the people.
They thought religions divided people,
so they insisted religion should be private, individual,
a take it or leave it personal choice.
But pledging our ultimate allegiance to the nation
would bring us together.
What united us and was expected of every citizen
John Dewey, who gave us the decimal system,
was American nationalism’s principal author.
He saw that to evoke the kind of commitment religions
had once done, nationalism needed
to assume the trappings of a religion,
to become the new religion.
So there came to be nationalist rituals
like raising and lowering the flag,
national creeds like the pledge of allegiance,
national hymns, national holy days,
national sacred documents displayed to be reverenced,
national monuments and holy sites,
national saints like Lincoln and the Founding Fathers,
and national martyrs like the war dead.
We’d had some of this before.
But in the 1930s Americanism became
the core belief system expected of all Americans.
Other nationalisms were surging around the world
at the same time,
especially Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan.
In the 1930s,
the America First Committee was formed
espousing American nationalism
and appeasement of fascist aggression in Europe.
A Christian dominionist of our time, Pat Buchannan,
praises the America First Committee of the 1930s
and says we should model our policies
on their monumental achievements.
Religion made a comeback in the 1950s with revivalism.
But in the context of modern nationalism,
some revivalists were quite cozy with politicians
who wielded the real power.
Billy Graham fawned over and served various political leaders
through the decades, most of all Richard Nixon
whom he regarded as the model of a Godly ruler.
Then Watergate disillusioned him
about cloaking political power in the mantle of religion.
Graham apologized for his mistakes,
and when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson
took Evangelical Christianity full tilt into the political arena,
Billy Graham would have no part of it.
All this leaves us with three points from history
that set the stage for today’s challenge:
1. Politics has superseded religion
as our primary allegiance.
Even in churches, people will get along
despite disagreements over religious belief,
but political differences are a deal breaker
2. Religious leaders who deliver their people
for political agendas driven by competition
for wealth and power are relegating religion
to the role it played as a pep squad for the powerful
in Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Rome.
3. Christian Nationalism is directly at odds
-- not just with the Constitution –
but with the religion of Moses and Jesus.
IV. CAN CHRISTIANS LOVE THEIR COUNTRY?
I acknowledge and respect the Christian tradition
that is leery of nations
-- the Amish, Mennonites, Brethren,
and other Separatists.
But I notice that since the 1930s,
when push comes to shove,
many of those folks will choose their nationalism
over their religious faith.
I offer instead some more moderate guidance
from St. Augustine.
He used the metaphor of two cities,
occupying the same space
-- the Earthly City and the Heavenly City.
The Earthly City is governed by self-interest, greed,
The Heavenly City is governed by love.
We easily see the Earthly City in government
but it’s in the Church too.
We see the Heavenly City in the Church when it’s faithful,
but it also makes surprising guest appearances
in the government.
Augustine said government couldn’t create paradise,
but it could keep order and do a bit of good.
He taught that Christians ought to be good citizens,
to do their duty, and whenever possible
to infuse a little love into the world,
even in the affairs of state.
But for Christians to try to impose the Kingdom of God
by way of government
was futile and would only corrupt Christians
because that’s what worldly power does.
Power politics is inherently at odds
with God’s Kingdom of Love.
So, can Christians love their country?
Yes and no.
If we mean a 1930s or 2020s brand of America First,
making nationalism our religion
and treating America like a god,
the answer is no.
Christian Nationalism is an oxymoron.
Charging into the Capitol with a Jesus Saves sign
is a sacrilege.
The powers and principalities of this present age
weaponize God for their own purposes.
That betrays the gospel of Christ.
But love is the first and greatest commandment.
Loving our homeland is part of that.
Think of the Jewish Exiles in Psalm 137:
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
2,300 years later, Sir Walter Scott
echoed the Psalmist.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
Just so, an American Christian loves America,
but what do we love and how do we love it?
1. We love the land, our native land.
America is a place.
America is purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain.
The song says, I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills.
To love America is to see it and appreciate it.
Loving America is seeing and appreciating the place
– but it’s more than appreciation.
It’s stewardship of the land, the waters, the air,
the wildlife, the climate.
We cannot love America and destroy it
at the same time.
Loving America includes a commitment
to the beauty & the vitality of the place.
2. America is also the people who live here.
So crown thy good with brotherhood.
Loving America means loving the people here
-- people of all races, religions,
and gender identities.
It means loving people who are like us
and people who are different.
It means loving Liberals and Conservatives,
Black Lives Matter protestors
and right wingers charging into the Capitol.
We can passionately disagree agree
but still find some spark of good
in each other and wish each other well.
There’s a particularly crucial part of loving our fellow Americans these days
– compassion for those in despair. Here’s why:
Our time is soaked in rage.
One young Colorado man said he supported
a left wing presidential candidate
because he was loud and angry.
In 2016, supporters of that loud and angry
left wing candidate in the primaries
voted for a right wing candidate
in the general election
because he was loud and angry.
More and more, we vote for rage,
regardless of policies.
Journalist Chris Hedges says,
Stories of rage are first stories of despair.
He quotes Fritz Stern’s book on the rise of fascism
in 1930s Germany.
Theirs was a resentment (born) of loneliness.
Their one desire was for a new faith,
a new community of believers,
a world of fixed standards and no doubts,
a new national religion
that would bind all Germans together.
Despair and loneliness underly the extremism of today
as it did German extremism then.
Certainly, extremists have to be restrained
in their violence, sedition, and crimes.
But condemning them as ignorant deplorables
only make things worse.
New York Times journalist Charlie Walzer
has studied internet radicalization.
He says conspiracy theorists are usually lonely people
who feel disrespected.
They buy into QAnon in a desperate attempt
to connect with somebody.
At a Bishops’ meeting with House Majority Whip,
Jim Clyber, last week, he told us the story
of a young veteran who missed military comradery.
so he joined the Proud Boys
-- not because he was a White Supremacist,
but because he was lonely.
Loving America means caring for those folks
and creating a community
where they can find a place.
3. We love the heart of America, our moral identity.
America’s moral identity is as a democratic society.
To love America is to love our core values
of liberty and justice.
My country tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty . . ..
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring.
Many people today, both left and right,
are all too eager to curtail the liberty
of those who disagree with them.
They don’t just want to defeat them in elections.
They want to lock them up the way they do
in Russia, China, and Myanmar.
I understand why people wanted
to see Derek Chauvin convicted; but some
(and I mean White people) were angry
that his lawyer defended him.
Many who love America in a nationalist way
are all too eager to strip America
of its moral identity.
Loving America means loving freedom of speech,
freedom of religion, the right to vote,
and due process of law.
4. The fourth point is that we love the real America,
not a fantasy wonderland.
We don’t pretend slavery, lynching,
and segregation didn’t happen.
We don ’t forget the Sand Creek Massacre
here in Colorado,
the Tulsa Race Massacre,
Red Summer of 1919,
the internment of Japanese Americans,
and the burning of San Jose’s Chinatown.
We don’t forget the 20,000 Nazis
at Madison Square Garden in 1939.
We face the truth of our story,
with both its glory and its shame,
knowing we are all sinners and all saints.
We acknowledge both parts of our story.
Then we forgive, make amends, and reconcile.
That’s how love works.
We don’t claim to be perfect.
We sing America! America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
To sum up, We love America as it is
-- a nation that often gets it right
and sometimes gets it wrong –
and out of love we strive to mend its every flaw.
We love the land, democracy, and the people
- Black and White, left and right,
Christian, Jew, and Muslim,
One nation under God
with liberty and justice for all.