With flags draped from the ceiling, the drums beating a military cadence throughout, could our worship have been any more wrong?
Our call to worship that 4th of July weekend was “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” After the Color Guard presented the flag, we stood, said the Pledge of Allegiance and then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Our worship set included “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” We even finished the service by asking the congregation to sing along with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” (“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…”).
And through the whole thing I couldn’t help but think how moving it was with flags draped from the ceiling, how well-done the music sounded with the drums beating a military cadence throughout… and how incredibly wrong that we were doing any of it.
Who Are You?
The word that the New Testament uses to describe those of us who belong to God’s Kingdom, yet still reside here on earth is “strangers.” The idea is that our citizenship has shifted to another country, that we have become aliens–people who reside in one country, but whose allegiance, heart and destiny lie with another. The writer of Hebrews says it this way: “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.” (Heb. 13:14, NASB). He praised those who were able to recognize their status here: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.“
Strangers, citizens of another Kingdom, those whose heart is set on another place. Yes–we are to pray for our leaders and seek the peace and welfare of the area where God has placed us, but we need to be exceedingly careful of becoming attached to this temporary residence of ours, even when it comes to its finer qualities.
So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt?
As I read the Old Testament accounts of exile, particularly the story of the children of Israel in Egypt, I’m struck by the picture that God was drawing: His people, under oppression in a country not their own, longing for the one who would come and lead them out to the promised land. I have no doubt, and we can see from their complaints in the desert that the region of Goshen where they resided was nice, relatively plague-free, perhaps less wicked than the areas of Egypt that surrounded, but it was still Egypt nonetheless.
Can you imagine if the Israelites had become so enamored of Goshen that after almost 400 years there, they had begun to write songs about Goshen, pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to Goshen, and had begun to think of Goshen as being the greatest land on the face of the earth (“God Bless Goshen!”… “And I’m proud to be a Goshenite, where at least I’m still plague-free!”). I think an objective observer would have rightly asked, “You foolish people! Are you forgetting that this is not your home?”
While we can appreciate the ways that God has blessed us here in America, to lose sight of our status as aliens, to become enamored of this land in which we live, to forget that someday One will come and lead us out would be nothing less than foolish.
More than just foolish, I think some of the ways in which we celebrate our “Godly American Heritage” in the context of a worship service may even be directly contrary to the Gospel. Jesus said, quoting Isaiah, “My House will be called a house of prayer for all nations…” as He rebuked the temple authorities for falling down on the “house of prayer” part. I wonder if, by allowing nationalistic displays into our corporate worship time, into God’s temple the Church, we are falling down on the “for all nations” part.
No, there’s nothing wrong with patriotism in the sense of rooting for your team and appreciating your country. But when it becomes more than that… For C.S. Lewis, patriotism could be dangerous in that it could serve as a means to wrest man’s focus from where it belongs toward something very temporal indeed.
“Let him begin by treating Patriotism… as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the cause, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce…”
“A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.”
And there it is… What was bothering me so much during that 4th of July service wasn’t so much that we were celebrating America (believe it or not, I actually do have some warm feelings for my country). It wasn’t so much what we were doing, as what we weren’t. We had taken a time that belonged to the worship of God and turned it towards the appreciation of a country, a political system, a flag. We said that we were worshiping God through the singing of those patriotic songs, the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance and the rest, but in fact, by the true definition of worship– recognizing worth–we were worshiping America.
The End of America
It’s not wrong to love our country. We can be proud of our humanitarian efforts throughout the world. No one gives more money and other types of aid to developing nations than the USA. We can be proud that we are slowly coming to live out our creed: All men are created equal.
But even in our more patriotic moments, we shouldn’t forget some of the painful aspects of our history such as our treatment of Native Americans, the damaging effects of which can still be seen today. We shouldn’t whitewash our history of slavery and our support of dictators around the world when it served our purposes. And most of all, we must not forget what America really is. In Adventures In Missing The Point, Tony Campolo puts it this way: “America may be the best Babylon the world has, but it is still Babylon nonetheless.”
We live in Babylon, folks. It’s a world system that transcends borders, is dominated by American-style consumerism and exploitation, and is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. More than that, it’s a system which will someday be brought to a terrifying and glorious end by the coming of God’s Anointed One. Yes, someday Jesus Himself will sweep America, along with all the other babelistic towers we have built, into the dustbin of history.
And, the Bible says, at this the people of God will rejoice. (Revelation 18:20-19:4)
So if we know that someday we as the Church will cheer the fall of America and the rest of the nations of the world, what should be our attitude now?
How Should We Then Celebrate?
We need to make sure that the message of our worship environment–the message people intuit when they walk into our building or sanctuary–is consistent with our doctrine: Our allegiance belongs to Christ alone, we are citizens of another country, and we are looking not to the country in which we live, but to a heavenly one. Probably the best way to do this in the context of the 4th of July would be to honor God and worship Him as the one who brings freedom of all kinds, not the least of which may be freedom from tyranny.
We can thank God for His blessings, ask His forgiveness for our national sins and offer the freedom of Christ to all who are there, American or not.
Expatriate or Ex-Patriot?
I lived for two years in the Netherlands as an “expatriate”–someone who lives as a non-citizen in a country not their own. I learned a lot of things, but most of all, through the homesickness I sometimes felt, even in the midst of loving my experience of living abroad, I learned an excellent model for our time here on earth. We are, all of us who know Christ, expatriates–living for a time in a foreign country. We can enjoy it, but if we ever stop feeling homesick, we are in trouble.
So, next Fourth of July, go ahead and light off some fireworks, thank God for the freedoms you have, enjoy a nice parade or picnic… but maybe leave the Star-Spangled Banner out of the worship set, okay?
Author’s note: This article was first published in the summer of 2003. I offer this article (again) in the hopes that those now planning a good ol’ patriotic Fourth of July Service will think twice… and perhaps instead of singing the Star Spangled Banner, will spend time praying for victims of war and terrorism alike, for our enemies and for peace in our world.
Bob Hyatt is the lead pastor of the Evergreen Community, an emerging community in Portland, Or (www.evergreenlife.org). More importantly, he is the husband of Amy and the father of Jack.