Monday, May 30, 2005

God and Country

We had an "incident" at church yesterday.

It was during morning announcements. These are pretty free-form in our congregation; anyone who wishes can stand up and talk about upcoming church or local events, or about situations in their own families or our extended community suggesting prayer and/or other compassionate action. This particular morning the pastor and some of our laypeople involved in our local interchurch organization had been promoting various Memorial Day remembrances at local cemetaries and churches, when another layperson suddenly stood up and more or less scolded the worship committee for having no patriotic songs in the hymns of the day; this individual compelled our organist (who'd included patriotic songs in the prelude music) into hastily switching the last hymn of the day from a hymn connected to the themes of the Scripture lessons to "America the Beautiful." Lutherans, even in our congregation, are generally not into public displays of negative emotion, least of all in church; there was some uncomfortable squirming in the pews.

Now, I like this person. As far as I know, this person is not a wild-eyed, nationalistic crypto-fundamentalist. And our church has, over the years and over the wars, seen many of its members serve in the military; that's how it goes in rural communities; so friends' and loved ones' military service has real meaning. But...we'd already heard patriotic music in the prelude. We'd gotten out the old sanctuary flags for the day. We'd just learned about, I think, three different public observances of Memorial Day in the community. We have a permanent display of past and current members in the service in our fellowship hall. What more do you want?, I thought. I also wondered, if God forbid some civilian church member had been killed abroad while doing important humanitarian work, there'd be this same outpouring of pride, support and desire for honoring that individual.

There are maybe a couple of different dynamics going on here. For one thing, most laypeople -- the ones who don't have a spiritual practice that follows the lectionary -- live in a different "time," if you will, than clergypeople and others of us who order our spiritual lives around the Church year. I don't think that a lot of laypeople follow the thematic connections from Sunday to Sunday and from season to season, partly because they don't attend church every week to pick up where each Sunday's lessons leave off, and partly because they don't really understand what the lectionary is and does. (Which begs the question, Why aren't we doing a better job explaining it to them?)

Also, many laypeople do not seem to possess the historical knowledge base that would help them understand why, especially in Lutheran churches, there has been a move over the past few decades to disassociate ourselves from real and metaphorical flag-waving in church. How many American Lutherans, for instance, know anything about how the Nazi Party infiltrated the German state church in the 1930's with the aim of expunging all things Jewish from the Christian story and instead insinuating Hitler's nutty mix of nationalism and revisionist paganism into the theology and practices of the church? How many know about the swastikas waving in Lutheran church sanctuaries back in the Nazi times? How many Lutherans even know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church?

And...I understand that families whose sons and daughters have served the country -- families who've suffered the sleepless nights, anxious days huddled around radios or televisions or computer screens, and in some cases that dreaded knock on the front door -- want attention paid. Veterans themselves -- people who've in some cases experienced terror and horror and pain that most of us can't imagine -- want attention paid.

But how do we square all of this with living in a reign that is not of this world, that crosses the boundaries of nations and political ideologies? How do we as the Church serve soldiers and veterans and their families in a way that is compassionate and respectful, yet does not suggest God's special benediction on a particular nation or a particular military action or on war as a human activity?

I thought we'd come up with a pretty good answer at our church -- recognizing our veterans on an ongoing basis outside the context of worship; participating, with other churches and community members, in Memorial Day observances outside the course of Sunday worship; including special prayers for military persons and others touched by war in our Prayers of the Day. What more do you want? At what point does "remembering our brave men and women" turn into an exercise in Kaiser Kurios?

If I were a pastor, or in another position where I had to decide how to "do" the Sunday before Memorial Day, how would I do it, with all this in mind? Good question; I don't have a good answer yet.

11 comments:

Andy said...

My church, which doesn't follow the lectionary, does tend to live in the other time that you mentioned. The Sunday before the fourth of July is particularly brutal and causes me much tongue biting. Somehow though, we managed to completely ignore Memorial Day.

Perhaps a way to address the problem is to take a page from the playbook of the early church and co-opt Memorial Day and present a related Christian message (rememberance of martyrs?) while also offering a patient nod to the secular meaning.

*Christopher said...

I remember after 9/11, our priest switched the sending hymn to America the Beautiful, to which I strongly objected on several theological grounds. We sang it anyway. I stood outside while we did so.

When I visited my partner's family in Germany, the Cathedral in Hanover had on display an apology to the Jewish people, the first time the Hanoverian Lutheran Church had done so. Among the pictures were images of the WWII bishop of Hanover celebrating eucharist with Nazi soldiers as altar helpers. Breathtaking.

It seems that some adult ed classes around this would be helpful in many churches to clarify feelings and why people disagree about this.

Purechristianithink said...

I arrived at church last fourth of July to find that one of the older ladies in our church had moved the American flag that usually sits quietly in its corner to the front and center of the sanctuary. I moved it right back. This is the same dear (really) woman who can't understand why we wouldn't want to have Halloween decorations up in the fellowship hall for the entire month of October, and a huge Christmas tree in the chancel starting December 1. I think part of the problem is that Christianity and American culture were conflated for so many years that it is very difficult and painful to unbraid the strands, as it were.

Tom in Ontario said...

I looked through Sundays and Seasons from the past few years to see if and how that publication dealt with Memorial Day. As far as hymn suggestions, none that have any patriotic slant to them. In the prayers they have one petition each year making some mention of what the next day is about.

May 26, 2002 The Holy Trinity

"That the peoples of the world may open their hearts and minds to one another and earnestly wage peace."

May 25, 2003 Sixth Sunday of Easter

"Gracious God, in the risen Christ you befriended the world. Guide those who provide safety and protection through military and other forms of public service, and bless all communities with a deep desire to serve the common good."

May 30, 2004 The Day of Pentecost

"Come, Holy Spirit, and inspire us in remembrance of those who gave their lives on battlefields for the sake of freedom. Lead us all to be generous with our lives for the sake of others."

May 29, 2005 Second Sunday after Pentecost

"Help our nation to remember those who have sacrificed their time and lives to protect this country's freedoms. May we honor their memory by seeking to build a more just and peaceful world."

I think that's enough. If one wanted to do something more to mark the occasion then maybe an ecumenical remembrance service on Sunday evening at the community's memorial would serve to do so.

Our Remembrance Day here in Canada always falls on November 11 and there is a community remembrance ceremony at the cenotaph. There is always a clergy person involved. When November 11 fell on a Sunday I was asked if we could display the flag in the sanctuary. I relented but only for that day.

Rob leduc said...

A good reason for not allowing "announcements" from the floor at all. At my current church, all announcements must be given to the Sr. Warden in advance of the service. Only the Sr. Warden (or their designee) does the announcing. And annoucements follow the dismissal so they are not part of the formal liturgy. Most of them get printed in the order of worship so people can carry them away with them (depending on when they are reported).

This year we incorporated the holiday at the offertory by the priest announcing the intention for the Eucharist as including a remembrance of all those who have given their lives to the service of their country and for all of the grieving mothers. There was a nice connection between this memorial and a reference to the anamnesis which I can't reproduce here. It was definitely not jingoistic in tone. There was no other reference to the day and no patriotic music.

Sometimes it helps to learn a verse of America the Beautiful not usually included in major hymnals (or becomes conflated with another verse):

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America, America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

Not a lot of folks seem to know that verse. I've sung it with great effect following a crowd singing the more familiar verses.

LutheranChik said...

Thanks, everyone.

My frustration with this situation, again, is that IMHO we respect our servicepeople, past and present, plenty, and we have encouraged people via our announcements and our church newsletter to get involved in the various Memorial Day observances in the community. What more do they want? I just don't understand this compulsion to mix church and state, and to coopt what is supposed to be a worship service for themes and events that are not an appropriate focus of worship. What is it I'm not getting here?

Pf2144 said...

In reference to the above response by LutheranChik, I would say that people's desire to mix church and state comes from:

A. The idea of church as the central gathering place for local communities. For many, there is really no where else *to* celebrate these holidays with a group other than perhaps family and a few close friends.

B. The confusion between conservative politics and religion. This drives me absolutely crazy in a general sense (Though I actually enjoy a good patriotic hymn in church on patriotic holidays -- sorry folks. ;)). To too many people Christian=archconservative. There are Christians who believe this and thus claim I'm not a real Christian because I voted for Kerry in the last election and then there are liberal secularists who refuse to get to know me because they assume I'm archconservative who will automatically hate and condemn them just because I am a Christian. I find that moderate and liberal Christians are very misunderstood as a group.

On a side note, Christopher, I love your blog -- you should really open comments to people who don't have accounts with the website that hosts you, though! I read it all the time and enjoy the beautiful and poetic material you have, the brother-making liturgy was particularly good; but I can never comment because I don't have a blog on that website!

bls said...

I actually don't have a problem with patriotic songs in Church once a year. And Memorial day is a day to remember the dead - and what's religion for, if not for that?

Patriotism is a human emotion - if it's an emotion? - and religion is supposed to deal with all of life. So I say, bring it in - and make sure to sing that final verse that rob leduc posted.

As pf2144 said, Church is - or used to be, anyway - the community gathering place. It was where the "big things" were dealt with, and war definitely qualifies there. This isn't so much the case anymore, so I suspect this person was probably making a sort of half-political, half-emotional statement. But at heart, for me, this kind of thing isn't mixing church and state.

LutheranChik said...

Again, I think among some of us Lutherans there's a real sense of discomfort when it comes to flag-waving in church. After WW I many German Lutheran congregations felt compelled to place flags in the sanctuary and otherwise demonstrate to their communities that they were "real Americans"; and, of course, the Nazi times, which show what happens when truly evil people coopt both patriotic and religious symbolism.

Now, I once went to a Memorial Day service at a UCC church that was respectful without being jingoistic...an ex-Marine, Vietnam-vet friend(one of the more pacifistic people I know) who sings and plays guitar did a very moving solo of Joel Mabus' "Touch a Name on the Wall" during the time allotted to special music in that congregation, and then I think the congregation sang, "America the Beautiful" at the end of the service.

I just don't want a Sunday of "USA! USA!"

Pf2144 said...

I agree with you on that much, we don't want to become a pep rally for whatever the country is doing at any given time simply because it is our country. The church generally operates in a different sphere. I think the via media approach is to maybe have a hymn and a quick prayer on patriotic holidays, but make sure the sermon focuses on the lectionary. I was very impressed by our rector refusing to bow to popular pressure and preaching about the Ascension on the Sunday closest to Ascension, even though it happened to be Mother's Day. Christ comes first.

John

bls said...

"I just don't want a Sunday of "USA! USA!""

Well, no doubt about that. But a solemn holiday to remember war dead really isn't, to me, that.

Of course, the jingoism definitely does exist in places. It seems to be hard to find a good "happy medium" line on this these days, actually. In the secular world, too.