A bright and excited eight-year-old girl asked me a favor a few Sundays ago, back around Memorial Day I think. It was about 15 minutes before worship. That’s about the worst time to ask me for a favor. “Can I sing the Star Spangled Banner in church?” I put on my liturgical and pastoral dancing shoes. “No. How about you think about singing American the Beautiful around Independence Day.” She gave me a disapproving facial reply and reluctantly agreed. She then went away. Crisis averted …
I went on to lead worship and forget about her request. Until, this past Sunday – once again about 15 minutes before worship. “Remember, you said I could sing America the Beautiful!” She was really excited and ready to sing her solo. “Ok, let’s figure it out.” Thank God for an adaptable, skilled, and supportive altar party and, flexible congregation. Leading worship sometimes requires about as much flexibility as navigating high-performance military aircraft.
Our young singer was outstanding. She did a lovely job of singing the first verse by herself. The congregation joined in with her on the other verses. God’s Grace was shed on all of us who were there to listen and offer our thanks.
Later on, I invited her and another young worshipper to celebrate Communion with me at the altar. People seemed pleased and inspired. I was nonetheless conflicted. I had to make a decision that I otherwise might not have made.
You’ll note that I declined to allow her to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of singing patriotic songs or nationalistic hymns in worship. I decided that this topic might make for an interesting discussion at our church’s Sunday night Bible and Brews gathering.
Was it ever.
There were 15 or 16 folks there. We were waiting a little bit longer to order our beers and food. “What do you thinking about singing patriotic hymns in church?” I observed that I held the minority report perspective along with 3 or 4 other participants. The majority of that group indicated that they think it is excellent to sing patriotic hymns. “Why can’t we sing to God about our nation?” What is our country without our faith?” Expression of our thanks for God’s blessings upon the United States and the freedoms we experience at U.S. citizens are healthy prayers. Fair enough. And patriotic enthusiasm and nationalistic exceptionalism quickly become comfortable partners.
Cincinnati Urban Promise founder and executive director Abe Brandyberry picked up on this controversial topic. I joined in. The gist is that there’s disagreement on many things about the connections between faith, liberty, and the connections between worship and politics – based upon that sample. Abe says it is ok to have you check out what people had to say on that thread. Add your voice if you want.
Abe nicely facilitated his conversation despite folks having differing opinions. We all agree that fireworks, generally speaking, are cool in a church. Your vestry or church council may have an entirely different take on the idea.
I’ve continued musing about this matter for the past few days. Actually, it is a question that has been on my heart and soul since the time I served in the military.
Earlier today, I attended a 4th of July parade in a nearby town. There were lots of tractors, fire engines, banks, and floats. Children sitting on the curbs and lawns of the parade route totally scored on getting candy. One or two of the floats caught my attention more than the flying tootsie rolls or the polished green and yellow John Deere tractors. The float that I photographed above really got me to thinking. Here’s what I saw.
Six or seven persons in military fatigues re-enacted the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Directly behind them stood a wooden Cross. The text on the rear end of the float is a segment of scripture from 2 Chronicles 7. The background of that passage is the moment in Jewish history when Solomon dedicates the Jerusalem Temple. It is Independence Day for the Israelites as Solomon consecrates the temple and the Lord’s Glory filled the House of The Lord.
Thereafter, the Lord spoke to Solomon. He starkly indicated that the Lord’s people should be humble, pray, repent, and turn from their wicked ways. God would bless Solomon’s royal power as long as he and the people he ruled over maintained their allegiance to the Lord by keeping his commandments and ordinances.
Jesus of Nazareth spent a great deal of time trying to convince his disciples and followers that he was not going to restore The Jerusalem Temple.
In fact, historically and religiously, he cast out the temple authorities who he viewed to be hypocritically devaluing God’s Sacred Space for their own advantage, economic and political gain. In simple terms, he offered his first disciples and us this way of prioritizing our citizenships and manner of worship.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6: 9-10)
I checked out of going to church when I was a United States Air Force officer. In simplistic terms, it seemed hypocritical to me to sing about my love of God on Sundays and then go out and practice how to bomb the hell and life out of enemies the rest of the week. Honestly, there were Sundays I just wanted to stay home or do something else other than worship.
And, then as now, there is a lot about Christianity that I pragmatically and religiously deem(ed) to be scrutable. Don’t get me wrong. It is serious strategic crap when North Korea declares it has the capacity to launch an ICBM. I ‘ve been a tactical aircraft weapon systems officer. I’ve flown in jets and trained for delivering nuclear and conventional weapons. I understand as a U.S. citizen who values the life and death sacrifices veterans have made that I didn’t have to make.
It wasn’t till I left the military and returned to secular life that I found an Episcopal Church where it was ok to wrestle with questions like whether or not war is justified and whether or not nationalistic hymns are beneficial toward creating God’s reign of peace, reconciliation, and compassion on earth for all of humanity.
American Christians value tremendously our national and religious identities. There are millions of believers who profess that the United States is a Christian nation. Is it even possible to be a Christian nation? What measurements are we using? How do we exclude faithful Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus, and other people of faith? Do secular humanists and atheists get to pledge and sing about their patriotism too? What Christianity are we talking about when we profess such a faith. Is it the pacifist Christianity of Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren? Yes/No? Is it a Christianity with a full and discerning understanding of Just War Theory? Yes/No? Does, as The Rev James Martin S.J. suggests, the singing of national hymns in worship guides us towards professing our faith in our nation rather than faith in our savior? (Martin, July 2017) Is there a gap between what we say and who we are?
Every day as a Christian offers more questions than answers, at least for me. That’s why I value gathering with other people to sort them out. Contemplation and trust are great counterbalances to judgment and pride. A true Christian community, at least in my experience, doesn’t develop its doctrines overnight. Anglicans seek to balance their understanding of scripture, along with the Church’s traditions, and the value of human experience. Picking hymns isn’t easy. Most of the time it works out fine. Such trials may then provide us a faithful and reconciliatory forum for discussing issues of war and peace.
I’ll go watch fireworks tonight – understanding that there is no such thing as personal independence in my manner of praying and practicing Christianity. Spirituality is an interdependent and international adventure. My citizenship values many connections even as my allegiance to living primarily as a disciple of Jesus Christ, beginning with Love of God and Love of Neighbor as my aim, and the Beatitudes as my impossible mission objectives.
Blessings along The Way, Jim