The annual cycle of our national “high holy” days has begun. The liturgical gap between Pentecost and Advent gets filled each year with observances that force us to grapple with questions about the legitimacy of patriotism in the sanctuary.
Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving all make their demands on our life of worship.
And since the events of September 11, these nationalistic impulses are even stronger. So what shall we do with days like these as people of faith?
Should we adamantly ignore them as temptations which can dilute our primary allegiance to the kingdom of God? Should we uncritically observe them, blurring the distinction between the claim of Christ and the claim of Caesar? Or should we try to approach them as the celebration of a natural and legitimate allegiance that can actually serve our higher call as Christians?
A few years ago, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were in town for a concert. This band, with its legacy of social protest, has become rather patriotic of late. American flags have been featured prominently in their performances, patriotic songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” have been added to their repertoire.
David Crosby explains: “Here’s the deal: We criticize administrations and their policies very, very firmly, but we are staunch believers in this country and the Constitution and democracy.” I find myself wishing that our position on patriotism in the church could be as nuanced as this observation from an aging rock star.
I have colleagues in ministry who regard any expression of patriotism in the life of the church as proof of idolatry, reference to the flag or national pride in the context of worship being condemned as the kind of thing that led to the state co-opting the church in the days of Nazi Germany. I have other ministerial colleagues who indiscriminately wrap their faith in red, white, and blue, seemingly incapable of making any distinction between the claims of Christ and the claims of country.
I have very specific connections with and commitments to my family, my church, my country, and my world. And while I suppose that these particular relationships could serve to isolate me from other responsibilities, I am not persuaded that they must.
In one of his wedding prayers, Malcolm Boyd asked that God bless the couple “with a concern for others that is nourished by their mutual concern.” This phrase honors the legitimacy of a particular relationship while at the same time linking it to a larger context. I would like to think that the legitimate passion I feel for my native land can work, too.
Hymn 722 in the Chalice Hymnal, “This Is My Song,” begins with an honest celebration of “my home, the country where my heart is” in the first stanza. It continues with the reminder that “skies are everywhere as blue as mine” in the second stanza. And then in the third stanza it concludes with the prayer that “in peace may all earth’s people draw together.”
The progression of this hymn transcends the simplistic divide of my colleagues and delivers us to a kind of nuanced patriotism that is worthy of the church. DBS+