Yesterday being Father’s Day, I naturally got to thinking about my father. I love him dearly, but he is literally the exact opposite of almost everything I stand for. To give you a rough picture of who he is, he listens to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck on his radio daily; he used to be a police officer, then a constable, and now he is a TSA agent. That is only the tip of the iceberg. What often gets me thinking, and the reason I write this post, is the sort of fusion of cultural Christianity and American patriotism that I find with people like my father. In this context, Christianity is not so much a way of life, but more like an ethnic heritage and set of social customs that are merely used to reflect the American way of life.
Though it was my father who got me thinking about this subject, it is something that is found globally. Every empire for the last 1700 years has been turning Christianity, or at least the facade of Christianity, into a religion that can be used to reinforce the imperial way of being. I think a great example of what this kind of Christianity is pretty much any state church in western Europe. Most of these churches have almost lost every single legitimate believer, but a shell of Christianity remains as part of the historical and national heritage. Church is for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and presidential inaugurations, but very little of it is used for everyday Christianity. I also suspect that Mainline Protestantism will be in a similar situation either very soon, or it is already there.
In addition to my father and other members of my family, four other examples of this come to mind — two of them being churches I tried to attend in the past. The first of these was a large Evangelical Free church, and I remember one election season when the church handed out pamphlets of recommended candidates. The second was the the last church that I was a member of. It was a Presbyterian church that was in the middle of leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. During the local election season, the church let a member of the local Republican Party into the sanctuary to gather signatures. The pastor said that he could not speak about it because of “separation of church and state,” but it was obvious who he and the elders were supporting by allowing a specific party into the church.
These were the two churches I have been a member of in the past, but I have also seen this in other churches in my town. One was American Baptist and the other Episcopalian. While investigating churches to possibly attend, I listened to sermons by these churches on their websites. The Baptist church had one sermon that really glorified American warfare — the pastor made a special note of the so-called “Black Robe Regiment” in the Revolutionary War (my former Presbyterian pastor referred to the same “regiment” too). The Baptist preacher also made a specific note to devote a large portion of his sermon to Peter Muhlenberg. It was Muhlenberg who once used Ecclesiastes 3:8 to justify warfare, and strangely enough, so did my former minister in the Presbyterian church. Another example of this was a sermon I listened to from the local Episcopal church. I was lucky — it was the sermon from the Sunday before last year’s presidential election day. The priest talked about his Republican Party membership and how blessed we Americans are. We have all these freedoms, opportunities, soldiers who protect us — we are just a land flowing with milk and honey.
This kind of de facto state Christianity is something that is really rooted in the Western imperial project. It goes back to Rome, and basically every empire since (included America) has mimicked Rome in some way, even down to the architecture. I think that at this point, it is important to remember that it was Rome (partnered with puppet state and religious leaders in Judea) that crucified Christ. In a metaphorical way, empires continue to do this today. It is also important to remember that there were and are political implications to Christ’s message. The fact that he faced crucifixion — a death normally reserved for rebels — shows this. It is this reason that I like the New Living Translation’s depiction of the crucifixion, which states that Jesus was crucified with two “revolutionaries” (Mark 15:27). It is traditionally rendered “bandits,” but the use of the word has changed over the years. In the context of the gospel, it would be like saying terrorist today, since the crime of crucifixion was left for slaves and insurrectionaries (see The Jewish Annotated New Testament, page 93).
The reason that I bring this up is to show the “political” nature of the Kingdom of God. The Indian theologian T.V. Philip said:
Christians are not other worldly. We are not to spend our time thinking of how to escape from the world. Nor are we to be preoccupied with churchly matters. The Church is not the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is about this world, and about our life and witness in the world. It is about politics, about economics and about culture. It is about our environment, about the destruction of nuclear weapons. It is about peace. How are we to fulfil our responsibility in the society in which we live? Jesus said: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. (“Salt and Light”)
If we look at Jesus’ death, and the fact that his teaching had a very social ethic (such as his economic practices, healings, etc.), we cannot help but see the Kingdom as a “political” entity. Even the titles that were posthumously given to Jesus by the early Christians reflect just how “political” they thought he was. The Gospel of Mark opens by calling Jesus the “Son of God,” and this was during a time when Caesar was called by a similar title (“son of a god”), and in addition to this, terms like King of the Jews, Prince of Peace, and even the word “Lord” seem to implicate that he was some sort of political royalty. Yet, as if Jesus wasn’t already paradoxical enough, he was a pretty lower class, working class guy who died a disgusting death meant for slaves and terrorists, all after a very short, almost irrelevant 3-year ministry.
In 1 Kings chapter 22, there is a story of the prophet Micaiah. The kings of Israel and Judah were plotting war and most of the prophets cheered them on (1 Kings 22:12), but it was Micaiah, the only prophet to speak for God, that prophesied against the king. I think that we are in a similar situation, on the one hand, we have the majority of preachers who adhere to that state Christianity, and on the other, we have a few who acknowledge the “political” implications of the Kingdom of God. I also feel that as with money, we cannot serve two masters in this matter. Either serve Caesar or Christ, but one cannot serve both. Dorothy Day once said, “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” And Irenaeus of Lyons said:
the Lord Himself, who did also direct us to “render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s;” naming indeed Cæsar as Cæsar, but confessing God as God. In like manner also, that [text] which says, “Ye cannot serve two masters,” He does Himself interpret, saying, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon;” acknowledging God indeed as God, but mentioning mammon, a thing having also an existence. He does not call mammon Lord when He says, “Ye cannot serve two masters;” but He teaches His disciples who serve God, not to be subject to mammon, nor to be ruled by it. (Against Heresies)
Just as with God and money (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13), there should be a very clear distinction between God and the empires of this earth. With so many today, especially in today’s new Rome, the United States, the message of Christ has been fused into some sort of national mythology. We saw this in the Roman Empire when churches went from painting a shepherd on their walls to painting icons of Christ resembling soldiers and Caesars. In America, we see this in the way Bibles are sworn upon like lucky charms in courts and at presidential inaugurations. We see it with the way churches preach the politics and economics of empire.
I specifically remember one Memorial Day service when the pastor at my old church had all of the veterans stand and be celebrated, but I wonder if Jesus’ nonviolent ethic in the Sermon on the Mount was forgotten on that day. I wonder if the radical class upheaval of the Beatitudes is forgotten whenever we make Christianity — and especially ministry — cost thousands of dollars or when we have churches full of white, middle class Americans. I think that we — the community of believers — are going to have to make a choice when it comes to our loyalties in this short life of our’s. We are going have to either choose the Kingdom or an empire — and in my context, that is the United States. The choice can sometimes seem difficult to make, especially considering how much our national mythology has drawn from and infected our Christian mythology, but I think that the choice can be quite clear when we remember the eternity of the Kingdom and the transience of the empires that exist around us. In all of this, however, I think that the teachings of Christ — the good news to the poor, the hope to the meek, and the love of enemies — are far more convincing the teachings of Caesar.
This was originally posted on my personal blog, but I felt that it also deserved to be shared here. — Kevin.