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.


Anonymous said...

Well done, LeVon. You are carrying through with the vision that drove your studies. Thanks for this thoughtful post.
--Gerald Shenk

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