They say you should never drive while you’re angry. The same probably goes for writing. And while I recently learned “not everything needs to be barked at,” sometimes some things do.
I stay in touch with a lot of Christian groups online, mostly on Facebook, because I like to be engaged with relevant issues. And today, in one of those groups, someone posted this video along with the comment that Christians need to “Stand Up!” and take back our country for Jesus.
(You can watch just his short speech uninterupted here.)
The back story here is that the school district had banned public prayer when it started receiving complaints that too many social functions were being opened with sectarian prayer. So this student, given the opportunity as valedictorian to exhort his fellow students, tore up his approved speech and instead subjected the audience to his testimony and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
What’s wrong with a little prayer? Absolutely nothing. Prayer is a wonderful thing. Unless it’s when you are flaunting your faith, rubbing other people’s noses in it. Or when you’re imposing your religion on other people who don’t share it. Remember Jesus’ own words about people who make a big show about praying in public? In America, we honor religious practice; its protection is enshrined in our constitution — and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t open public ceremonies and official events with prayer. Because it excludes people, people who don’t pray that way or believe the same way — and that’s neither the American nor the loving thing to do.
This is an ongoing thing here in “God’s Country.” Some Americans feel threatened by all the radical shifts occurring in society – whether it’s the bold embracing of “sin” (like abortion or gay marriage: oddly never about greed or oppressing widows and orphans), or when white Americans feel their majority slipping through their fingers and their beloved country being overrun by people of a different color or who speak a different language. Some of this we can try to be patient with as the remnants of a dying culture still grasp with withered fingers to keep their hold on civic affairs. We can even pity them. Yes, it must be difficult watching this younger generation embrace their gay and lesbian friends, where the word “queer” is no longer used as an insult, where Spanish is heard more often on the streets than English, and when you walk downtown you are no longer surrounded by familiar white faces. Change is hard. But it’s not always bad – as your kids know all too well.
Unfortunately even churches get in on the act. Same deal: we might forgive their overzealous approach to certain social issues when we consider their life-sucking religiosity and narrower code of morality. Okay, that was a bit harsh. How about, when we take into account their particular set of beliefs about right and wrong? Aren’t churches in the business of trying to stop sin and create a more godly culture? Umm, yes – although that is a completely unbiblical mandate for the Church. Forcefully controlling other people’s lives was never a mission of Jesus.
Nevertheless, churches continue to promote social and political agendas, endorsing political candidates, hosting “pro-American” programs – everything from inviting disgraced politicians like Tom DeLay to speak at their churches because he supports a conservative agenda, to even handing out guns as a way to increase church attendance. (Yeah, that really happened.) And these churches, with their political endorsements, are in direct violation of law which grants them the coveted tax-exempt status provided they stay out of the political arena. But let’s ignore that technicality for now. Many churches have embraced patriotism, equating being a good (conservative) American with being a good (conservative) Christian. Somewhere along the line, we’ve confused “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” equating God with Caesar.
In doing so, we’ve painted God as a white, heterosexual American male. Ya know, even that can be tolerated to some degree. God is big. He created EVERYTHING and everybody, in infinite varieties of shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, and I’m sure he doesn’t mind if we relate to him best when we think of him as “similar” to us. So if I walk into a church with stained glass windows depicting a black baby Jesus, hey, that’s okay – at least as okay as painting that Middle Eastern Jew as a blond-haired, blue-eyed man. I’ve seen Jesus with almond eyes in Eastern Orthodox churches, and with distinctly Asian features painted by Korean Christians. When it’s done as a way of better connecting with God and out of genuine affection for him, I’m sure Jesus loves it.
But when we start doing this at the expense of other people who don’t quite fit our vision of God, or who don’t quite hold the same codes of holiness we do, when the exercise of our religious freedom makes other people feel left out instead of lovingly included, I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t smiling about it.
And that is exactly what that young man did in his valedictorian speech. He defied authority and potentially offended so many people in that audience who don’t subscribe to his version of faith. “Yes,” I commented on that man’s post, “I’m sure the Jewish students especially appreciated this. Imagine if that had been a Muslim student, defying school rules, and reciting a prayer from the Quran.”
Guess what? America does not belong to just white, Protestant Christians. And I’m not speaking theoretically. I have Jewish and Muslim friends, and I would never insult them by reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a ceremony celebrating their accomplishments. (Honestly, knowing some of them, they probably wouldn’t mind so much, giving me grace to express my faith as suits me.) And I wouldn’t slam my Christian fist into the stomachs of my Buddhist or Hindu friends by usurping the opportunity to offer encouraging words about their future and turning it instead into a testimony about how they should turn their lives over to Jesus.
Do people still ask “WWJD?” I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t do any of that.
And on a purely patriotic level, America was founded as a safe-place for people who don’t subscribe to “official” religion. Remember the Pilgrims? Puritans who fled England because they were persecuted for not following the official faith of the throne. Remember the Statue of Liberty? Holding up her torch “beside the golden door,” welcoming those who sought freedom. And here we are, even in our “Houses of God,” waving flags, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, voting ministers into political positions and inviting politicians into our pulpits, making better Americans (“Christians”) out of those who may not want to be Christians.
“This land was made for you and me,” we were taught to sing in elementary school. “This land is your land, this land is my land …” It belongs to all of us – by historical roots, by Constitutional right, and I believe by the favor of God. We can never please God by offending others, by using our faith to slap them across the face, by using our privileged positions to ram our beliefs down their throats. By giving our salvation testimony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a high school commencement meant to honor other people besides just us. Because our public institutions and civic functions — even if not our houses of worship — should be places where people are made to feel welcome and included, not where they are treated like they are unimportant or don’t even exist at all.
“This land is your land”, but it is not “your” land. It doesn’t belong to you exclusively, nor is it yours to impose your beliefs on others. That’s just selfishness and ignorance. It’s not American. And it’s certainly not Christian.
Photo credit: CJF20 on Flickr, cc
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.