Monday, February 14, 2011

Gestures of Worship: Why We Ought Not Participate in National Symbolic Rituals

I am not a graduate of Goshen College. I got my bachelor’s degree from Messiah College and more recently got my MA in Religion from Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Even so I do care deeply about all educational institutions of the Mennonite church especially in relation to the ways they witness to the peace of Jesus Christ.

Over the course of my life I have been influenced and formed mainly by the teachings of the Mennonite church – chief among them being that the God we worship is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Following from that,we believe that Jesus calls us to live lives characterized by non-violence. God has called us—without the use of force—to obedience, and we are asked to mirror this behavior in our relationships with both those who believe and those who do not.

As I grew in this knowledge, it also became clear that some of my fellow Mennonites were becoming less interested in their own historic peace witness. It seemed to me that these brothers and sisters of mine were overly influenced by Christian radio programs more in line with mainstream Reformed or even fundamentalist theology than traditional Anabaptism. I don’t doubt that other forms of media have had their influence as well. I largely base these statements on my own observations and intuitions, but I do think that coupled with a “natural” tendency to be embarrassed about holding to minority and unpopular beliefs, they could easily tempt someone to shave off those beliefs if they are seen as non-essential.

This tendency that I noticed was one of the reasons that I decided to go to seminary. I wanted to learn what the roots of Anabaptist pacifism were and the many ways that they were being starved of nourishment. I was fortunate to have many wonderful and learned people to help me along my seminary journey. In my final year, I needed to write a master’s thesis and eventually chose to write on the challenge which American civil religion presents to biblical Christianity. I wanted to do this while standing within the Anabaptist tradition. The writings of John Howard Yoder and those influenced by him played a large role in shaping the project.

So the news that Goshen College would start playing the national anthem was disconcerting to me. After having learned more deeply about the convictions for which martyrs non-violently gave their lives and then to articulate those convictions (somewhat) coherently, I felt compelled to write something about our situation and what we have traditionally believed and practiced. What follows are some thoughts on how the gestures and actions performed when the national anthem is sung mirror the gesture and actions performed when people engage in religious worship.

American symbolic rituals (the anthem and the pledge) are not merely songs and poems that are either heard, sung, or recited in unison. They require certain postures and gestures by those present at whatever event is being dedicated. This is even formalized in U.S. law. When the anthem is played or the pledge is recited, American citizens are to stand at attention and face the flag with the right hand over the heart. While it is unlikely that anyone would be arrested for not performing these gestures, the point remains that they are in fact legislated. I have tried to think of other rituals which place similar expectations of posture and/or gesture on the participant, and I can’t think of any other than that which is done in religious worship services. In the national rituals, bodies are oriented toward the national symbol, and the right hand is placed over the heart. This latter gesture symbolizes the pledge of a person’s core being; the heart is seen as the seat of the deepest human devotions and desires. Similarly in Christian worship, we stand and orient our bodies toward the cross or the front of the worship space and devote ourselves to God through prayer, praise, hearing the Word, etc. And here is the reason that Christians should not participate in national symbolic rituals: They look perilously similar to Christian worship, and I would also argue that they function like it in that they form the participants through the corporate memory of a particular sacrifice. In national rituals, the flag symbolizes the sacrifice of millions who have died and killed in the wars of the United States. In Christian worship, the cross symbolizes the fullness of Christ in his self-giving sacrifice on it.

For the above reasons, I do not believe that it is helpful to say that national rituals are “merely symbolic.” They certainly are symbolic, but never “merely.” National symbols are given deep meanings related to identity, ideals, and historical memory. Proposed constitutional amendments prohibiting the “desecration” (usually by burning) of the flag have come close to passage by Congress in the last 15 years. Those protests which involve flag burning are also deeply symbolic. Whether one wants to salute the flag or burn it, the passions it arouses are real. In the current Goshen College situation, it is clear that the people who have been advocating for the playing of the anthem are fervent in their conviction that it is a necessary practice. By all appearances, this is not a matter of preference, taste, or opinion. It should be treated as the disagreement that it is, not minimized as “no big deal.” Minimizing it has the effect of insulting those who believe it is a “big deal.”

I also think that using a song other than “The Star Spangled Banner” would fail to make the overall ritual acceptable enough to overcome its difficulties. Changing the song or the words leaves the postures and gestures intact. A significant piece of the ritual remains—the body language. Sociologists tell us that at least 50 percent of our communication happens through body language. The act of orienting bodies toward a national flag does something to the participants and says something to those who are observing. It says that the flag is the unifying factor in this particular group. Again, this conflicts with our identity as Christians—we are a people unified by Christ alone. Don’t actions speak louder than words? Attempts to mitigate the message of the anthem ritual with subsequent statements and prayers of peace only serve to make the overall ritual confusing and incoherent. It is entirely possible that the mixing of a ritual which has the United States as the object of devotion and a ritual which has God as the object of devotion might lead people to uniquely associate the United States with the kingdom of God. This confusion is already at a problematic level in the United States.

The Bible (at least as traditionally read by Mennonites) does not allow for this type of ritual performance among the people of God. We have tended to hold that our words should be spoken in harmony with our deeds. We have tended to see national rituals as acts which undermine Christ’s call to follow him alone. The apostle Paul urged the church in Rome to offer every part of their bodies as “instruments of righteousness” and their whole selves as “living sacrifices.” Once we have offered our bodies in this way, how much is left to devote to the United States? Or put another way, once we have given to God what belongs to God, how much is left to give to Caesar? Can we develop a formula for how much we give to the heavenly Master and how much we give to the earthly master? We know that we cannot serve two masters. Why are we trying? We believe that the state should not interfere with the business of the church. Why is a state ritual being invited into the practices of a church institution?

On my wall at work, I have a copy of the Prayer of St. Francis. One line reads, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” I am convinced that the place where we are forged as instruments of Christ’s peace is under the cross, not under the flag. Flags have a way of forming citizens and calling them towards behaviors which are antithetical to the way of Jesus Christ. For many American citizens, it calls them to a “baptism of fire” through military service. In contrast, the cross calls seekers of God to Christian baptism, a central bodily practice which marks one’s entry into the new world revealed by Jesus Christ. In this ritual, the call is to follow Jesus and commit to his kingdom and his church. In this milieu people learn to love their neighbors and love their enemies. Is this not a better “hospitality”?

Note: A shorter version of this essay is here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Invitation or call?

Have you noticed that "invitational" is the current buzzword in some Christian circles? It describes a way of relating to the other such that the inviter would like the invited to do or listen to something. It seems to be a correction to un-Christlike ways of relating which involve some form of (verbal but sometimes physical) coercion. For instance: "Accept Jesus as your personal savior if you want to avoid the eternal damnation which you are certainly headed toward if you don't do it right now!" Hopefully, people will see a problem with that way of relating (evangelizing).

Enter the new(er) buzzword: "I invite you to hear my story of what Jesus means to me." This sounds much nicer than the above fiat. But I would argue that something is missing. It seems too watered down. If I get an invitation to a Columbus Day party, I might respond "Hey! That sounds like a blast! I'll bring a dead Indian!" or more likely "Meh. I'll be busy watching re-runs of The Sopranos that night." The invitation gets tossed without a second thought; no biggie, no consequences.

Is that what the call to follow Jesus is? Merely an invitation, or is there more? I think that what we are calling the other to accept ought to be clear. Give them a chance to grasp what it is they might be rejecting and what kind of world is created when the call of Jesus is rejected (weeping and gnashing of teeth?).

I think that "call" is the better word anyway. We can look at Jesus' way of calling his disciples as our example. Invitational? Yes, but also quite urgent and serious - "Follow me and you'll end up fishing for people" and eventually "Take up your cross and follow me."


Universal Moral Grammar... or Babble?

The psychologist Marc Hauser asserts that morality comes from our biology, not our "religion." In this article, he spells out his thesis. I think his reasoning has big gaps and is based on ill-defined terms and popular but poorly-informed history.

Firstly, I wonder what phenomenon qualify as religion. No doubt he throws Christianity, Judaism and Islam into the mix. But I wonder what he would say about nationalism. Yes, I know it's not a theistic religion, but many sociologists note that it certainly functions like one and today is even the most powerful one in America. It's the one religion for which people willingly give up there own bodies in a form of subjection (military service) and, even further, blood sacrifice (dying for one's country). Hauser might have done better to use the term "totalizing ideology." That takes into account nationalism as well as Marxism, capitalism, and any other "ism" which captures people's imaginations in such a way that their lives are oriented by it.

He asserts that religions which "teach compassion, forgiveness, and genuine altruism" are good. I want to know what tells him that these things are good. I'd also like to know what he thinks they mean. Does compassion have a limit in some cases? And I've heard many people (religious and atheist alike) speak as though certain crimes are unforgivable.

If what is morally right does not need to be taught since we get it biologically, then does the same principle apply to truth? If so, then why does anyone need to read Marc Hauser's babble? Apparently, we have already obtained the truth from the oracles of biology.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Constantinian Shift at Goshen College?

The Mennonite posted an article which I submitted to them on their web site. They chose the title "John Howard Yoder's 'irresponsibility'?" even though only 1/3 of the article deals directly with Yoder. There is so much more to be discussed surrounding this issue. I hope one that gets some exposure is the "worship" aspect. What I mean is this: The act of facing the flag during the anthem and placing the right hand over the heart ought to be seen as an act of worship. What other acts do we do or postures do we assume that are totally "non-rational"? When God is worshiped, people will stand for scripture reading, bow their heads, close their eyes, lift their hands, cross themselves, etc. These are all "toward God." I submit that something similar is happening when the anthem is played and people face the flag and place their hands over their hearts (according to the law). Is this not worship "toward the nation"?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Problematizing Pluralism: Some Incomplete Questions

I've been thinking about religious pluralism lately. Patrick's last post helped provoke that. It seems to be a "chic" way of being spiritual in this culture. In fact, religious pluralism might be the ultimate form of political, social, and religious "correctness" that exists. But I have some questions that seek to critique and raise some problems for it.

1. What is it's goal?
I think one of the probable reasons that folks begin embracing pluralism is that it promises to bring peace between potentially hostile religious factions. If for instance Christians give up their claim to the ultimate uniqueness and truth of God, Jesus, and the Spirit, a significant offense to other religious traditions is erased. Conversations can take place without the threat of evangelization. Differences that might be uncomfortable are papered over. Recall the old adage: "Don't talk about religion and politics." Is this the only (or best) way to avoid violence?

Another answer would say that the goal is to "celebrate diversity." It's really an imperative that needs a definition. Is any diversity good? And is the fact that Christians and Muslims have a serious disagreement about Jesus something to make us sing "Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy"? (Perhaps a deep, theological conversation ought to take place where arguments can be made and responded to.) Is this the only (or best) way to avoid hatred?

2. How much pluralism is enough? What about those religions/traditions which we have not encountered yet?
In pluralism's quest to embrace a "wider wisdom" and avoid sectarianism, will it ever reach the point of embracing enough? What if a religious tradition exists somewhere that we don't know about? What if we misunderstand the ones we think we know something about? It also seems that there will always be more out there that we might want to embrace but which we will never be able to know.

3. How does one decide what to reject?
What criteria does one use to accept or reject a practice or tenet of another religion? Can Christian moral reasoning be used to critique the caste system or must the Hindu justification of it stand? Or is there a higher reasoning? If so, where and what is it? Also, what of ideologies that, according to many sociologists, function as religions. Must Marxism be brought into the fold?

4. Does it have a history or text which can describe it? Is there any empirical evidence of its truthfulness?
If pluralism aspires to a higher truth, what signs of this higher truth exist? Is there an ancient promise, text, or revelation which describes its shape and goal?

5. Is there an explanation for the differing threads of pluralist tradition?
B'hai, Buddhist, Unitarian-Universalist, a myriad of other groups... Will the real pluralism please stand up? If these groups are truly pluralist, they should have merged by now. Or maybe there is a "higher, higher truth" above each one of their particular "higher truths."

6. Can it avoid being "evangelical"?
If the avoidance of proselytizing one's beliefs is a goal of pluralism, then it fails miserably on that account. Much has been written and spoken in an effort to show the truth of pluralism. Some of it fervently and passionately so, making it sound like the new "good news.". Doesn't this constitute evangelizing?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Listening to God’s Son: A Sermon From February 22 at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community

When I was a kid and one of my parents used the phrase “Listen to me,” it was usually followed by some kind of statement which I knew required my obedience. It was never said in a way which would have led me to believe that all I needed to do was “listen” and then I could go on doing whatever I wanted to do. It was usually intended that I either stop doing something or start doing something. It certainly wasn’t always done in a stern way. If my mom said that tomorrow morning, my sister and I needed to get up when she called us and help pick strawberries, then we pretty much knew that we were expected to do just that. Listening to my parents meant that some kind of action on my part would need to follow.

The scripture which we are gathering around this morning describes an event, the transfiguration, which most of us probably know is an important one if we want to understand who Jesus really is. Something beyond the everyday happens when Jesus takes three of his disciples along with him up to the top of a mountain. Jesus’ clothing become “dazzling” - probably whiter than Oxyclean or Tide could ever get them. People from the distant past show up and start talking with Jesus. A cloud appears and a voice comes from it, speaking to the disciples with great authority. Then it’s over. And the person at the center of this extraordinary activity says to the others, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw here until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” A strange thing to say given what has just taken place, don’t you think? And why were only three disciples there? Why not more? Why not a big crowd?

All of this strangeness and wonder leaves us asking “what does this mean?” I certainly asked that question. It’s not a bad question. It’s a very interesting question. But it’s also a question that can distract us from what Mark wants us to hear through this story. Sometimes we can get so caught up in possible and various meanings that we forget that God wants to reveal something to us. The question that Mark’s gospel deals with throughout is, “Who is this Jesus?” And that’s what this story is about.

Of course this story is part of a larger story. And earlier in this larger story, we see Jesus asking Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets it right, “You are the Messiah.” “Don’t tell anyone,” Jesus says. Yet Peter’s remarkable confession of Jesus’ messiahship is incomplete. He doesn’t yet understand that saying Jesus is the Messiah requires a commitment to obeying and following that Messiah all the way to the cross.

But why does Mark the gospel writer reveal this truth about Jesus in such a strange and slow way? It seems like Mark could have been more effective if he would simply and clearly present a story which doesn’t play these hide and seek games with Jesus’ identity. The transfiguration is kind of like that. Jesus seems to pull a “now you see me for who I am, now you don’t” trick. And then he says, “don’t tell anyone what you just saw.” If Jesus were a salesman, you have to wonder how successful he would be.

I think our confusion here comes from having a shrunken and tamed understanding of the confession that Jesus is the Son of God. We shouldn’t feel too bad since Peter had the same problem. Remember Peter rebuked Jesus for saying he would suffer and die and be raised again. No, the knowledge and the confession that Jesus is God’s Son is so much more than just mental knowledge or spoken words. It is knowledge that is revealed to us through the things he did and said, as well as through the miracle of the transfiguration. It is bodily knowledge. It is bodily because it reaches out and touches people with leprosy or uncleanness and heals them. It sits down at the same table with sinners and tax collectors and shares food and drink with them. It humbles itself to the point of self-sacrifice. Lamar Williamson says this in his commentary on Mark’s gospel, “There is no way rightly to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die and rise again.” I’ll repeat that. “There is no way rightly to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die and rise again.” Peter and the other disciples had not seen that yet.

The apostle Paul helps us see how this works in Romans chapter 12. This is such a wonderful piece of scripture.

1. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5. so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7. ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8. the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10. love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20. No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In verse 2, we see the word “transformed.” That is how biblical scholars have translated the Greek word “metamorphoo.” The word “transfigured” in Mark is also translated from the same Greek work “metamorphoo.” Paul wants those who hear this message to be transformed into the kind of people who do the things that he lists later on in chapter 12. When you are not conformed to this world and trapped in its ways of thinking, and when you are transformed by renewing your minds and encountering the fullness of Jesus the beloved Son, then you are able to discern what God wants and become obedient to that in the body of Christ. You can serve the Lord. You can be patient in suffering. You can bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, feed your enemies. You can overcome evil with good. Can we see how this is not being conformed to this world?

More importantly, do we see how the confession that Jesus is the Son of God is something which we must believe in our hearts and minds, but also in our mouths, and our arms and hands, our legs and feet? We believe this with the whole of our bodies, and that is one very critical way in which we act as witnesses for the Son of God and his kingdom, and his rule, his way of living.
Back to considering the transfiguration. What keeps us from hearing the message in this story? What keeps us from being gripped and shaped by it? Perhaps it’s the blinding light. Maybe it’s the presence of these Old Testament characters or the odd idea that Peter seems to blurt out of nowhere. Or maybe it’s our over-familiarity with it. We know this story – it’s about Jesus flashing his glory for us. It’s about his power and authority finally being made visible. Those things are true enough, but we can still get tripped up by the fact that this happens in the presence of only three people who are told to keep quiet about it.

The Word of God (and by that I mean the scriptures and the person of Jesus) won’t let us remain in our confusion or our misunderstanding anymore than Jesus allowed Peter to remain in his confusion and misunderstanding in chapter 8 when Jesus said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Understand this, you who just confessed that I am the Messiah: I am going to be crucified and then be raised again. Your human understanding is misleading you. You need divine understanding. I am calling you to take up the cross and follow me to where I am going.”

Today, we Christians sometimes try to understand things in the Bible by dividing them up. Then we say that we like this part over here, but we don’t like that over there. We want things to conform to our way of thinking. That’s understandable. There are many hard sayings and teachings and stories in there. I would suggest that we have a hard one here before us today which we might be tempted to divide up: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” If these words of God are split up and sorted and sifted through our own understanding, our Christian faith becomes weakened. For instance, if we say Jesus Christ is the Son of God with our mouths, and do not do what he calls us to do, then our witness is inconsistent and we become hypocrites. If we say that Jesus might not really be the Son of God, but we still ought to do what he says, we have removed the authority from the one we want to obey. If Jesus is just a really good guy, then he becomes one teacher among many, many other teachers. And what would make Jesus a better teacher than the others?

Now I don’t want to pick on the Christians “out there” who do what I just described. I want to pick on us. And I’ll use the best example I know of – me. It can be easy for me to get caught up in the finer theological points of who Jesus is with respect to the Trinity, and Christology, and ecclesialogy. Debating and discussing that stuff is a lot of fun for me. And I think those are good things. But I can forget to do what I am talking about. I can forget that I have neighbors who I barely know. I can forget that the poor and the weak and the lost are not far from my house.
And sometimes, but not as often, I can get caught up in the “listen to him” part, wanting people to obey Jesus even if they don’t know who he is. I can ask “why don’t those people over there do what I think is right?” I can be tempted to think that people have to do what Jesus taught even if they don’t believe he is God’s Son.

But the transfiguration story crashes into those tendencies and exposes them as misleading and untruthful. I am a follower of Jesus, God’s Son. We are following Jesus. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” He has loving authority, and it is completely trustworthy. This Jesus will faithfully lead us to places we would never have planned to go. He suffered. He was crucified. He has been raised to new life. He is the Beloved. He loves us. And his transfiguration calls us to be transformed into listening followers of Him, who is the Son of God. Amen.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On faulty thinking and basic amentality

Sentimentality poses the most insidious threat to Christianity in modern times.  The earth-shaking truth of the gospel is seldom heard in clarity by anyone, save those who silence their minds amidst the cacophony of competition to true Christian discernment.
Sadly the gospel itself seldom has more competition to deal with than on Sunday morning, for where two or three are gathered, so five or six opinions seek to rule the day.  
Applied Theology (in the professional pastorate) has a unique place among the professions.  For we have learned that anyone who can read can think theologically.  
Further, humanity is of the opinion that the deepest truths of the world are somehow up for interpretation based on a variety of factors that vary from individual to individual.  
I agree with Stanley Hauerwas, who has argued that one of the best things that could happen to North American Christians would be if the Bible was taken out of their hands.  
We don't appreciate that which we get for free.