As someone who believes that Jesus meant, without equivocation, what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, I am struggling to feel at home in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. After spending more than a year here, it’s clear to me that this diocese has largely made its peace with the sword, rhetorical denials to the contrary.
Case in point: Recently the diocese met for its 161st Diocesan Council. Here’s the graphic posted on the diocesan website.
Note the military uniforms and the U.S. flag on the right of this graphic. I learned from my rector’s post-council sermon that the council invited uniformed representatives of the U.S. military to “post the colors,” a ceremonial presentation of the U.S. flag.
I learned from the blog for the council that one of the activities organized for attendees of the council was a tour of Fort Hood:
“This tour will be a great opportunity to see inside the Nation’s largest military facility and hear about it’s mission from the experts. Members of Fort Hood’s Public Affairs Office will be leading the tour.”
The Bishop spent a great deal of time talking about Christian formation without breathing one word about the imperative to train our children in the path of nonviolence and peace. To be fair, the word “peace” appeared in his address twice, but it was used in an ambiguous way.
Sir Francis Drake, however, was quoted approvingly and liberally and was romanticized by the Bishop, who described him thus:
Sir Francis Drake was an adventurer and a legal pirate, raiding Spanish ships with permission out of Portsmouth. He was a friend of Queen Elizabeth and a strong Anglican. Optimistic and courageous he withstood storms of every kind as he circumnavigated the world.
Drake was also a slaver and a participant in the massacre of 600 Irish men, women and children who had surrendered to the British at Rathlin Island. These are only two of his most notorious crimes. He was not a romantic “Christian” hero. Drake was a bloody butcher.
The last thing the world needs right now is Christian formation that turns out “strong Anglicans” like Francis Drake.
The diocese’s insistence on paying homage to the U.S. military, the neglect of nonviolent love in Christian formation and the luminous appearance of Francis Drake in the Bishop’s address are symptoms of this particular Christian community’s inability to diagnose and correct our culture’s obsession with violence, domination and those who wield them.
Did you know that Roman soldiers used to honor their standards with sacrifices and prayer? An early Christian walking into the diocesan council meeting would have probably reacted with horror at the sight of Christians welcoming a flag veneration ceremony into a Christian meeting. And if you think this flag ceremony is a totally different animal than a Roman ceremony, well, make sure you reconsider that question the next time you place your hand over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. (When was the last time you placed your hand over your heart when you said words in church? Do you do that when you hear the Sermon on the Mount read aloud? Why not?) Sure, there’s no bloody animal sacrifice on the altar of the banner, but then again, there’s no animal sacrifice on the altar of our temples anymore either. In its place we have a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Think about that in the context of a flag ceremony.
A flag ceremony has no place in a Christian gathering. We should pledge allegiance to the Slaughtered Lamb and no other. What happened at the Diocesan Convention, both in terms of the flag ceremony and the integration of military veneration and sightseeing into the itinerary, represents an erasure of prophetic distance required between Christians and the kingdoms of this world. The United States of America is no more a Christian nation than it is a wheel of cheese. Calling any nation that spends more than $700 billion on “defense” each year a “Christian” nation is a category mistake. There is only one Christian nation: the Kingdom of God. That nation transcends all lines drawn on maps and rejects the sword in favor of the cross.
This conflation of the affection one feels for the nation and the love due only to God is frequently the result of the inability of much of the modern church to differentiate between things which a church member perceives as “good.” But our veneration of the relative good in the nation (dare I say “power” or “principality”?) is a function of our fallen nature. It’s a dangerous affection, especially when it is confused with universal values and transcendent good, because it has the potential to transmute our spiritual need to serve the common good into a different form of egoism (nationalism) disguised as selflessness. This is why the call to serve a Kingdom of God / Body of Christ (in which there is no Jew or Greek) is so radical–service to a transcendent absolute good resists the seduction to the well-ornamented viciousness of patriotism.
The early church understood Jesus’ teachings against the use of violence to the extent that a person would be rejected for baptism if they would not give up the use of violence, even in service to the state. Hippolytus’ apostolic tradition (c. 200) includes the following:
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.
As late as the year 250, Christians like Cyprian still held to this rejection of war and its trappings:
Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder–which is admitted to be a crime in the case of the individual–is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless–but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!
I would give anything to find a faith community that could maintain this clear moral perspective.
In a diocese where Francis Drake is lauded as a “strong Anglican,” where the warrior profession is paid respect and where the flag of one of the kingdoms of the world has a place of honor in our Christian gatherings, those of us struggling to get our church to take seriously Jesus’ clear, unequivocal teachings on violence and love are unambiguously on the margins.
Note: I know that this blog post could be read as a pointed attack on the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. That is certainly not my intention. These attitudes are widespread among the diocese. I assume few protests were lodged about the flag ceremony or the tours of massive pieces of a massive war machine. Those of us who many would label as “peace activists” are constantly cautioned to go slow, to be diplomatic, to think carefully before we speak to our brothers and sisters, and rare is the instance when those who disagree with us on these issues are urged to do the same. We are constantly subjected to patronizing head-patting in the form of “wouldn’t it be nice if the world worked that way” preaching and commentary. Militaristic, nationalistic features of the diocesan council and included in the Bishop’s address were certainly not new. I mention them here not as unique or particularly egregious examples but as instances of a far larger pattern in our community.