Daring to Call it Idolatry: Nationalism in Worship
From Redletter Christians
Several years ago a young bright couple began to attend the church I serve. As I got to know them, I learned that she had been sent to Eastern Europe as a missionary from a nearby mega-church, one nationally known for its leadership among the religious right. Her husband was a Bulgarian Baptist minister. When they moved to the states they began to attend the church that had sponsored his wife. But soon he discovered that he could not worship with that congregation with a clear conscience. As he put it, “Worship there is too much about American patriotism than real worship.”
Nothing in the teachings of either Christ or the apostles calls for love or loyalty to one nation above others. All that is expressly urged in scripture is that disciples honor and pray for governing leaders and obey laws that are not contrary to God’s will. Love and allegiance for any earthly realm is neither commanded nor commended in scripture.
Because of the nature of the church’s identity and mission, patriotic or nationalist expressions have no legitimate place in its worship and ministry. This is not because all forms of patriotism are wrong in themselves. Rather it is because despite the makeup of a particular congregation, the members do not rightly come together as anything but Christians, a people created by God through faith in Jesus Christ.
What we do in worship speaks of who God is and who we are as we live before God and others. Christian worship forms us to be the sort of people who are capable of following no other god but the God of Israel who was disclosed most fully in Jesus Christ. When acts celebrating America are treated as aspects of worshipping and serving God, Christian identity, the nature of the church and the character of God are misrepresented. All this negatively impacts discipleship and undermines Christian unity in a divided world, thereby hindering the church in its ministry of reconciliation.
Simply to speak, sing, pray or employ symbols in ways we designate as being in some fashion “meaningful” is not enough to justify calling what we do “Christian worship.” Worship is our response to what the God of Israel has done for us in Jesus Christ. As such, what we justifiably do in worship must be grounded in the saving actions of God. Our worship answers back to the God who has called to us through the faithful life, teaching, wondrous works, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When worship serves our purposes, when our foremost concern is that our worship is “meaningful for us,” God is inevitably refashioned into our image and the truth of God is turned into a lie. In such worship the Lord is not glorified. Instead we bow before another god, even though the name of Jesus may be frequently repeated. When worship serves another purpose that the singular praise of God or when an ulterior motive has intruded, this unfailingly leads to the celebration of self and our creations. This is rightly called idolatry.
The church is a new creation. The rightful identity of the church is not determined by its place of residence, the complexion of its members or the culture which surrounds it. The rightful identity of the church -and every congregation that is part of it- transcends the divisions and distinctions of humankind. “Here there cannot be Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). When the church promotes the celebration of and identification with local loyalties or incidental characteristics, as occurs with nationalistic displays, it betrays its expansive God-given identity.
Nationalistic expressions in the life of the church present obstacles to both fellowship and evangelism. Nation-centered songs, rituals and symbols implicitly deny that, in the words of the great hymn, “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ the Lord.” Loyalty to Jesus Christ is not enough for those who insist that their nation be given a special presence in the worship and life of the church. They lay an alien cornerstone for the foundation of the church’s fellowship. Regardless of the makeup of a local congregation, the church is multicultural, multiracial, and multinational by its nature. Nothing must be done in the life of the church to suggest otherwise.
The church must ever keep before its eyes Jesus the Lamb whom the angelic hosts praise, saying, “You are worthy … for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). The church cannot faithfully echo the spirit and truth of the clear-sighted angelic worshipers while paying honor or offering special recognition to a single tribe, language, people, or nation.
Augustine observed, “Since you are the Body of Christ and His members, it is the mystery of yourselves which lies upon the Lord’s Table: it is the mystery of yourselves which you receive.” We who are Christians have an identity which the world cannot give. We have a unity that the world cannot provide. These things are not given to us with our birth but with the mystery of rebirth in Christ. When practiced rightfully, eating and drinking at the Lord’s table reinforces our oneness with Christ and our oneness with all others everywhere who draw life from him and this diminished other unities that distract from unity in Christ.
The very practice of communion calls us to a unity far different from the patriotic “United We Stand.” “Because there is one loaf” wrote the apostle Paul, “we, many as we are, are one body; for it is one loaf of which we all partake” (I Cor 10: 17). At the table of the Lord, God draws us from lesser loyalties and local identities to be one new people. The importance of peculiarities based on place, race, or social status is undermined at the table. Both pride in “one’s own” and enmity toward others is challenged as worshipers gather with Jesus for communion.
Rather than sanctifying local loyalties, Christian worship should scrutinize such loyalties in light of the cross. The more national songs and rituals come to the foreground in the church, the more the cross drifts to the background and loses its rightful place as the criterion for all Christian thought and action. In the worship service at a local church, for example, the congregation stood to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States, followed by a pledge to the Christian flag. How can such a practice fail to convey the notion that the two loyalties are mutually supportive and harmonious? Such behavior deals a solid blow to critical, Christ-centered reflection on the limits of national allegiance.
How can Christians be prepared to recognize, when the time comes, a real choice between God and country, if their churches urge the adoration of country along with praise to God? The so-called patriotic hymns are most often songs of praise to a personification of the country and not a means of truly glorifying God. “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing,” or “America, America, God shed his grace on thee.” The “thee” is not God but country. If these are songs of worship, it is false worship. God is mentioned as a supporting figure, a means to bolster the greatness of the nation, which is the real object of adoration in the hymns. We should label this for what it is: idolatry.
Certainly these hymns convey some sentiments that can be rightly embraced by Christians in America. It is natural to want the blessings and protection of God on the nation that we love as home. But we must be diligent not to confuse that which is creaturely -the nation- with the God who alone is worthy of all honor and worship and praise. When we sing of the greatness of America, whether we consciously intend to or not, we suggest that America is deserving of God’s support. As political leaders have said, “America is great because America is good.” These are words of national self-importance and pride of which Christians should be wary. Everything we have from the hand of God comes by grace, not merit.
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian now at Yale University, who watched his homeland in the former Yugoslavia torn apart as nationalistic religious leaders legitimated the ethnic conflict, observes, “Our coziness with the surrounding culture has made us so blind to many of its evils that, instead of calling them into question, we offer our own versions of them-in God’s name and with a good conscience.” The church cannot be the “salt” and “light” of the world that Christ calls for (Matthew 5:13-16) if the distinctiveness of discipleship is lost in a blending of nationalism and piety.
Rather than undergirding national self-importance in worship, it is more faithful to “let the nations know that they are only human” (Psalm 9:20) and they are “like a drop from a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15, 17). All commitment to the nations and institutions of this world is provisional. Even while appreciating the best in the nation and working for its good, a certain detachment is necessary. This is in keeping with Paul’s admonition that “those who deal with the world do so as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31)
Worship is a practice for life in a new realm. The love, acceptance, generosity, and forgiveness that characterize “the realm that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28) is rehearsed in the worshiping community. The story of the self-giving, promise-making God is told again and again in worship. This story contrasts and challenges the story of every tribe and nation. In worship, hope is redirected from the principalities and powers of the present to that which is coming. Rather than sanctioning any present nation, the church, if faithful in worship, practices for what it prays for: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 10).
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”