When Calendars (and Loyalties?) Collide

It’s happened again. Last weekend we celebrated both Pentecost and Memorial Day. That’s an occupational hazard for us Christians. We live by two different calendars. One charts the rhythm of our physical, earthly home. The other charts the rhythm of our spiritual home in the Christian year. Sometimes they overlap, as with Christmas and Easter. Sometimes they run into each other head-on. Patriotic celebrations and church celebrations claim the same calendar square. Both compete for our limited time, attention, and resources. This collision often triggers a struggle in our churches. Do we pick one and ignore the other? Can we meaningfully observe both in the same service without thoroughly confusing the congregation? Where’s the balance between being a distinctive “set-apart” people of God and being good citizens participating fully in the life of the community who are also followers of Jesus–“little Christs” as Luther put it? Does it matter? Why?

Because of the First Commandment: “I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-2) Governments from Egypt to Babylon to Rome to Nazi Germany to 21st-century superpowers routinely demand the ultimate allegiance that we understand belongs to God alone. The church cannot be the church unless we maintain a certain detachment from the government of the country we love. We will pray for our country and its government. We will be loyal, responsible citizens. We will follow Paul’s advice to “…be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1). We will heed Jeremiah’s advice to exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…and pray to the LORD on its behalf…” (Jeremiah 29:7). But we will not be silent about actions and policies that hurt people and make a mockery of God’s will. When the apostles were ordered to be quiet and stop preaching about Jesus the Messiah (their second offense!), they replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)

“Being subject to the governing authorities” doesn’t mean automatic unquestioning acceptance of “the governing authorities'” every action. I suggest that our best contribution to the governments to which we’re subject is a) responsible participation as we’re called and gifted, and b) prayerful constructive criticism that calls for integrity, honesty, responsible stewardship of resources, a view toward long-term goals and the good of the entire cxommunity, and special care for the most vulnerable members of society. We dare not identify too closely with one political faction because we know so well that all points on the political spectrum are occupied by persons who are children of God but also flawed human being–like ourselves.

So, practically speaking, what do we do when Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or Independence Day collide with our Christian calendar? Foremost, let the worship team clearly understand its purpose in those particular services and plan the whole service toward that end. Otherwise the service becomes a camel (a horse designed by a committee) and has minimal or even negative impact. We can certainly acknowledge the occasion with music. We can gratefully remember those who have died serving their country and those who are serving now, even as we pray that the prophets’ vision of the end of war and violence (Isaiah 2:1-5; Micah 4:1-5) will be realized in our time. We can preach about some of the themes I’ve touched on. We can educate our people toward a more sophisticated understanding of Christian citizenship. In the case of Memorial Day and Pentecost, I think we acknowledge Memorial Day but focus on Pentecost. It’s the one Christian feast day that hasn’t been hyper-commercialized into triviality. It’s also a foundational experience we’re still learning to celebrate fully. Our Pentecost game needs work!

I think we need to keep plenty of distance between God and Caesar. Caesar will always try to co-opt God for Caesar’s purposes which are not always God’s purposes. For that reason I urge restraint regarding patriotic activity in worship. Here are some suggestions:

  •  The Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t belong in a worship service. It takes us too far toward Caesar and we can’t always recover. Presenting the colors is probably appropriate, expecially by the church’s Scout troop.
  • Hymns like “America the Beautiful” are certainly appropriate and helpful.
  •  I think an extended patriotic musical program at church muddies the water and dilutes the church’s prophetic stance. Let the community choir do it at the park, the school, or a concert hall.

I’m hearing murmuring voices even before I post this. Remember what we said earlier. This isn’t about politics. It’s about idolatry–“no other gods before me.” A god or idol is anything to which we give the loyalty only God deserves. Governments routinely demand that loyalty. First-century Rome declared its emperors divine. Nazi Germany tried to make the church an arm of the government. Dietrich Bonhoeffer led the resistance and helped organize The Confessing Church. Read Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. 

If I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, my work here is done–for the moment! Colliding calendars raise the issue of competing and often conflicting fundamental loyalties. Let’s talk. What do you think about some of these issues? How do you resolve these conflicts–or are they issues for you?

2 Responses to “When Calendars (and Loyalties?) Collide”

  1. 1 Lois May 31, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    This is something we all struggle with – I wonder why we even have flags in the sanctuary?

    • 2 soulmanlv May 31, 2012 at 4:35 PM

      Good question. I could live without flags in the sanctuary. Might help clear up the question of our primary loyalty. My quick Wikipedia research discovered that the Christian flag originated in 1897. Some Methodists (wouldn’t you know?) helped promote it starting around 1907. It represents all of Christianity or “Christendom”. Trouble is “Christendom” is fading fast. It’s probably been at least a couple of decades since it made sense to have that flag.

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