Which side are you on?
An Independence Day Reflection on Power, Patriotism, and the Church
Please join us in welcoming Rev. Brad Davis to the Accidental Tomatoes Content Team. Brad’s first post is a reflection on the dangers of syncretizing church and state through celebrations of patriotism during Christian worship. Go on and preach now Brad!
Not only is Sunday Independence Day in America, but here in my neck of the woods it’s designated as a “Day of Faith and Freedom.”
There are not one, but two 2-hour church services scheduled to take place on a downtown stage set up adjacent to the county courthouse, where one can be treated to plenty of gospel singing, praying and preaching amidst a sea of red, white, and blue bunting and American flags fluttering in the scorched summer breeze.
The ideology of God and Country on full, symbolism-dripping display.
For those with a keen eye, it’s quite the striking juxtaposition. Quite the illustration of the church getting next to and cozying up with the state, literally worshiping next door to the seat and symbol of its power.
Think camp meeting within a stone’s throw of Pilate’s headquarters on Rome’s birthday (or for that matter January 6, 2021).
The reality is that such activity is nothing new for the Church, nor is it unique. Ever since Constantine claimed he had that divine vision and welcomed the faith into the Empire’s embrace there has been a progressive merging of the two institutions throughout the ages, almost to the point of inseparability…thus the incarnation of the state church in many European nations, and the rise of a hyper-nationalist brand of Christianity here in America.
Don’t believe me? Walk into almost any American sanctuary this Sunday and tell me what you see and hear. Altars draped in red, white, and blue. Patriotic hymns sung with fervor. Praises heaped upon the nation.
If one didn’t know any better, it’s almost as if we are worshiping the state and its power rather than God.
And therein lies the danger.
When we who are called to re-present the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our Lord’s Day worship gatherings instead fall prey to the heresy of Christian nationalism the state becomes our god, and the state’s ideology becomes our sacred doctrines and catechisms.
This is the point where we confuse state power with divine power, or as Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “the nation is always endowed with an aura of the sacred, which is one reason religions…are so easily captured and tamed by national sentiment, religion and patriotism merging in the process.”
Such a merger sees the state colonize—dare I say possess—the faith for its own purposes, using it as another tool in its arsenal to advance the gospel of control, coercion, and oppression.
We who follow the God of liberation suddenly find ourselves in the role of colonizers, firmly co-opted by and upholding the status quo. Jesus would not recognize nor endorse such a radical departure from the revolutionary freedom movement he inaugurated.
Which side are you on?
We that call the Central Appalachian coalfields home know all about oppression. We’re intimately familiar with colonization and the abuse of state power.
Back in the 1930s during the height of the Harlan County, KY, mine wars when miners and their families were struggling to be recognized as human beings and not simply disposable pieces of machinery, labor activist Florence Reece wrote a song that would come to define the era. She called it Which Side Are You On? and declared that you’d better decide where your loyalties lie.
You’re either with the oppressors or the oppressed:
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for (coal operator) J.H. Blair
I don’t know if Mrs. Reece intended it as such, but these lyrics echo the Hebrew prophets’ cry for justice in the halls of power, and they echo Jesus’ cry for justice in midst of an enslaved society.
Conventional wisdom says if God was going to come among us, it would be in a position in close proximity to state power. Conventional wisdom says God would be born into Herod’s court, or into the priesthood so closely aligned with it.
But God doesn’t play by the rules of conventional wisdom.
When God decided to come among us, God did so as a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew born into abject poverty amidst a people existing from below, crushed under the governmental boot of exploitation and oppression.
This is the God of the Exodus, hearing the cries of the people and moving to bring liberation.
This is the God of the Gospels, with Jesus embodying Isaiah’s vision of a society where the poor receive good news and the captives go free.
This is the God of Revelation, where those martyred by the state are given a place of privilege when the kingdom comes in its fullness.
This is the God of the oppressed who has a preferential option for the poor.
This is the God who hung on a cross in solidarity with all victims of systemic and structural sin throughout the ages…all those that have suffered violence at the hands of the state, exhibiting the true power that brings liberation while at the same time disarming the evil powers of this world.
This is God’s kingdom. There are no neutrals there.
But if we who claim to be God’s people have made the state an idol and worship at the altar of its perverted version of power, then we relinquish our claim as God’s people.
When the state ignores calls for justice, wages continuous war on the poor, engages in violent military aggression, and chooses to turn away from the sins of systemic and structural racism, we give full-throated support against the backdrop of complicity rather than stand in solidarity with the least of these as did the One whom we claim to give allegiance.
It’s what Miguel A. De La Torre calls “an outward sign of an inward rejection of the gospel.”
Which side are you on, church? Which side are you on?
There’s an interesting story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus expels a host of demons from a possessed man, sending them into a herd of pigs that immediately jump into the sea and drown (Mark 5:1-20).
After the exorcism the man suddenly finds himself in his right mind. Healed. Made whole. Restored to his intended condition.
The interesting thing to me is that the host of demons is named Legion, the same name given to a military unit of the imperial army of Rome, the colonial occupiers of the Holy Land.
In fact, I find it quite suggestive, as well as informative concerning the current situation of American Christianity, so hopelessly entangled with—and dare I say possessed by—state power.
If this story is, as I suspect, an enacted parable of the ability of God’s dynamic power to liberate God’s people of first-century Palestine from its oppressive occupiers, then there is hope too for the 21st-century American church to divorce itself from Empire.
Through the dynamic power of the cross and resurrection the church can get free from the occupying state power that has co-opted our faith.
Have our minds made right. Be healed. Made whole and restored to our holy call to present a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom rather than existing as an extension of American Empire.
A Day of Faith and Freedom indeed.