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From Our Archives

Debie Thomas, Hometown Prophets (2021); and Debie Thomas, Origin Stories (2018).

For Sunday July 7, 2024

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)


2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48 or Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

This Week's Essay

This week I'm celebrating three happy milestones. First and foremost, both my wife and daughter were born on the 4th of July, so we'll celebrate their birthdays, complete with complimentary fireworks.

Then, on June 30th, Journey with Jesus finished its 20th budget year. When I launched JWJ on June 23, 2004, I called it a "weekly webzine for the global church," which tagline still appears at the top of every page (see above). That description was purely aspirational at the time — I had no clue whether we would even survive, much less reach a "global" audience. But 20 years and 13 million page views later, global is exactly what we are. Every month JWJ serves readers in 130 countries. About 33% of our traffic comes from outside the United States. London is our top city for readers. For our 20th budget year, we served readers in 205 countries and 10,892 cities (Google Analytics). 

This global readership continually reminds me that being Christian and being American are two different things. The Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan thus observed the paradox that there's never been a country where the gospel has been altogether impossible, and there's never been a country where the gospel has been entirely compatible.

And that leads me to a deep and complicated ambivalence about the third milestone this week, when on the 4th of July I'll celebrate Independence Day and the birth of America 248 years ago. America's national holiday always challenges me to consider the complicated relationship between the sacred-eternal and the secular-temporal, between my pledges of allegiance to both the church and to the state, and between the city of God and the city of man. The challenge is to understand America Biblically rather than the Bible Americanly (insert your own country here!).

For Christians, caesar is not divine. We honor the state but we don't worship it. This sounds simple and obvious, but it was a deeply subversive idea in the early church, for in the robustly polytheistic Roman Empire the deification of emperors was the default practice. The staunchly monotheistic Christians paid dearly for denying that claim with two centuries of persecution, for the Christian desacralization of the emperor was a seditious threat to the Roman state. In fact, some historians like Edward Gibbon have blamed the rise of Christianity with the fall of Rome.

 I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag.
I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag.

One of the main criticisms against the early Christians was that they were "atheists" because they refused to bow down to the divine caesar, to participate in the cult of imperial worship, and that they made the subversive counter confession "Jesus is Lord" (= caesar is not lord), and practiced what eventually was branded an illegal (= non-state) religion. The simplest Christian confession is thus fraught with economic and political implications.

By extension, it is Christianity that gave us the idea of a distinctly secular state, as opposed to theocracies like ancient Israel and modern Iran, or claims about the "divine right of kings" that is not accountable to any human authority. And if the state is secular and not sacred, if caesar is not divine, then it deserves our love and limited allegiance, yes, but also our loyal opposition rather than our uncritical obedience. Ultimate and unconditional allegiance belongs to God alone.

It's good and right to love your own country. People rightly prefer their unique ethnic roots, foods, history, language, culture, and music. Homesickness is a compliment to the sights, sounds and smells that we love, and that we miss when we're far from home. I experienced this pull of patriotism when I lived in Moscow from 1991 to 1995. I enjoyed so many things about living in that great city (founded in 1147), but I also missed many things about America. Whatever your origin story, there's no place like home.

The problem with patriotism is that it can lead to nationalism. Nationalism, as CS Lewis observed, believes that my nation is "markedly superior to all others." In theological parlance, that's heresy.

Lewis once encountered a pastor who espoused such noxious nationalism. He asked him, "doesn't every nation think of itself as the best?"

The clergyman responded in all seriousness, "Yes, but in England it is true."

Lewis concludes, "To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid."

The relationship between my pledges of allegiance to both church and state is thus inherently awkward and ambiguous. We should reject binary ways of black and white thinking about this subject, in favor of the many shades of gray that we find in Scripture and history. Consider the following different nuances.

There's no timeless blueprint in Scripture for the relationship between church and state, only the witness of God's people in different times and places.  In 2 Samuel 5 for this week, David is anointed as God's elect king. But Isaiah also described the pagan king Cyrus as God's elect servant. Paul advises believers to "submit to the governing authorities." Peter tells us to "honor the king." So, sometimes believers co-operate with the state.

But other rulers — Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Nero and Mao — persecuted God's people. John portrays Rome as a terrifying Dragon and the whore of Babylon who devours the saints. Thus, at other times, believers subvert rather than submit to state powers, we confront rather than co-operate, as under Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.

 4th of July Parade.
4th of July Parade.

For the first three hundred years, believers were an invisible and insignificant minority of Rome's 60 million people. They were inconspicuous and non-confrontational. Flying under the radar was safe, but it also risked cultural irrelevance.

Later, the state persecuted the church, although some historians now argue that persecution wasn't as severe as often thought. Perhaps it was more local and sporadic than systematic. Nonetheless, by the fourth century the church had its own calendar of martyrs. After the martyrs, the ascetics fled to the desert and spurned authority, both sacred and secular.

When Constantine legalized Christianity, the church enjoyed privileges like tax exemptions, spectacular state-funded basilicas, and the return of confiscated property. But when co-operation is beneficial, compliance is a temptation.

In the late Middle Ages, the church acted like a state.  Garry Wills writes, "Popes launched crusades in the Holy Land and Spain, backed inquisitions, empowered mendicant orders, anointed kings, and put whole countries under interdict."

Today we cherish the separation of church and state, which separation includes religious pluralism. This is one of the best reasons to celebrate the 4th of July: "Until the ratification of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," writes Wills, "it was unheard of for a state to be without an official religion."

Over 800 years ago, on June 15, 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta. I still remember the thrill of seeing one of the earliest copies that's on permanent display in the British Library in London. The Magna Carta repudiates the idea that caesar can act like a god. No ruler should claim divine rights. It codified the idea that the rule of law limits the role of government. 

As Jill Lepore has observed, despite all the historical complexities of the Magna Carta, this simple idea has become so powerful that today we think of it not as the grudging concession of a king in one country, but as the inherent right of every human being.

Conversely, God does not act like some caesar—he's not a petty tyrant or tribal deity who favors only his people. 

God created the cosmos. In Genesis he promises to bless "all the families of the earth." In Revelation he gathers people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language." In a clever play on words in Ephesians, Paul says that God is the patera of every patria — the "father from whom every family derives its name."

He isn't the God of Jews alone, or the God only of Christians. God, says Paul, is the father of "every family in heaven and on earth." Which is why Paul also says that God will redeem not just humanity but "the whole creation."

About a hundred years after Jesus, the Epistle to Diognetus described the believer's ambiguous relationship to the state as similar to that of a resident alien: "Every foreign land was to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers."

As I thank God for JwJ's global readership, and celebrate the birth of America, I'm feeling this awkward and ambiguous relationship between the sacred-eternal and the secular-temporal.

As for my America, I like how Wills puts it: "The America of the founding, we now recognize, was terribly flawed, by slaughter of Indians, enslavement of blacks, and suppression of women, among other things. And the contemporary United States will someday be seen in retrospect as a plutocracy with impoverished citizens; as a bloated war machine with overkill stockpiles of unusable weaponry; as a place of volunteer armies ground down by constant use, of ruinously expensive political campaigning and clogged non-governing, making ineffectual gestures toward a failing ecosystem, and with a stupor of admiration for guns. But we still love our country, and we should."

On this essay, see:

Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian; How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar's Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).

Jill Lapore, "The Rule of History," The New Yorker (April 20, 2015).

Garry Wills, The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis (New York: Viking, 2015).

Weekly Prayer

Crazy Quilt

From Jane Wilson Joyce, Quilt Pieces (Gnomon Press, second printing, 2009).

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
is cracked. California is splitting
off. There is no East or West, no rhyme,
no reason to it. We are scattered.
Dear Lord, lest we all be somewhere
else, patch this work. Quilt us
together, feather-stitching piece
by piece our tag-ends of living,
our individual scraps of love.

Jane Wilson Joyce (PhD University of Texas, Austin) is the Luellen Professor Emerita of Classics at Centre College in Kentucky. A classical scholar with wide-ranging interests, Joyce regularly taught classes in Latin language and literature, ancient epic and lyric poetry, Greco-Roman drama, classical mythology, and creative writing. This poem comes from her book The Quilt Poems (1984).

Dan Clendenin:

Image credits: (1) The Ethics and Society Blog and (2)

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