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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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The 4th and the Lord’s Table

http://sharpiron.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/american-jesus.jpg?resize=282%2C395

Like many other United Methodist churches, we will celebrate Communion on this first Sunday of the month.  Of course, it is also the 4th of July, a time for many Americans to drape themselves in the red, white, and blue, enjoy small explosives (called fireworks), and sing songs about their love of America.

Christian pastors and theologians disagree over what kind of challenge the 4th of July and the celebration of Christian worship represents.  Is it a conflict of competing political orders? Is it “The Kingdom” vs “The Flag”?  In North American evangelical circles, a renewed interest in Anabaptist ecclesiology has led many to see this – rather simple – bifurcation as the story of this Sunday.

I don’t buy this though.  Augustine spoke of natural forces by which our “bonds of affection” would create earthly loyalties in the civic arena.  The City of Man is not to be confused with the City of God, but it too, has its place.  For me, then, the issue becomes one of rightly ordering our loyalties.  And granted, in the modern West, this is a difficult task.  One reason I am wary of those who worship government authority is a theological conviction that we should not expect from the State what God alone can provide (for instance, eternal security, comfort, and peace).  The goods of the state are always contingent and apt to fail, and we should treat the state as such.

The details of this, when it comes to doing church, are where the devil lies.  Some churches turn their Sunday morning into a full-scale patriotic celebration (and think nothing of it).  Others will make a point to do nothing remotely patriotic in the interest of loyalty to Jesus or love of being counter-cultural (some think that these are the same things).  I’m trying to trod a middle path…though I like to think I’m being a bit ironic by using a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on a day when we celebrate our independence from Britain.  I think we can and should recognize what the people in the pews are celebrating, join with them when we can, criticize it when we should, but all the while try to keep it about Jesus.

The peaceful life of families and communities that we all appreciate would not be possible without the political “sword” that Paul speaks of in Romans 13.  At the end of the day, the sword of order that is a gift of God’s love is wielded by flesh and blood, men and women who have made and continue to make great sacrfices so that we might be able to worship, love, party, sleep, and die in peace.  People like my friends George, David, Alicia, and Trish.  Their service, and that of our forebears, deserves praise – but not the same praise that is reserved for God alone.

I think an example of this “middle way” is found in the communion liturgy for tomorrow that has been suggested by the United Methodist Church.  Perhaps this makes me a “company man,” but I think they struck the right tone and balance here.  What do you think?

A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day

Hoyt Hickman and Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
Ruler of all nations, Judge of all flesh,
you have placed us, your people, in this land made rich
with rivers, forests, mountains, and creatures great and small.
Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation
an opportunity beyond measure
to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.
Here you continue to call your people,
freed from the law and baptized into Christ Jesus,
to be a sign of your reign in all the world.
For such a place, such a vision
and such a calling we give you thanks,
praying we may ever join afresh the dreams you set before us
as we join with your people in every land on earth
and with all the company of heaven
in your unceasing praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Above all we give you thanks
for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ,
who sends us into the world
to declare the good news of your kingdom
to every creature:
Justice to all peoples,
good news to the poor,
release for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
and freedom for the oppressed.

On the night before he was arrested and sentenced to death
by the authorities of his own nation,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples,
and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”

When supper was over,
he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples,
and said, “Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the covenant
poured out for you and for many,
for the forgiveness of sins.”

And so we remember and proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We pour ourselves out before you in praise and thanksgiving,
a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.

So pour out your Spirit
on us and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make Christ known to us in the breaking of this bread,
and the sharing of this cup.
Renew our fellowship in him,
that we may be for the world his body
poured out for the world
at this time in this nation,
and at that great banquet in the fullness of your new creation
where justice flows like rivers,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
where none shall hunger or thirst,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

By him, with him, and in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty God,
now and ever. Amen.


Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org Used by permission.

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