This is NOT Independence Sunday

In some U.S. churches, at least some Methodist churches (and I suspect others), this Sunday’s bulletin will announce that Sunday, July 5, 2009 is Independence Sunday—perhaps along with something else (like the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost), or perhaps not.

But it is not Independence Sunday, because that liturgical day does not exist, or at least should not exist. “Independence Sunday” is an American invention, an example of American civil religion: the inappropriate Americanizing of Christianity and Christianizing (in some vague, superficial sense) of America.

The misnaming of the Sunday nearest July 4 is a theological mistake in at least three specific ways. First, it nationalizes a calendar (the liturgical or church calendar) and a day that belong to the entire Christian church. “The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost” or “The 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time” or simply “The Lord’s Day, July 5, 2009″ is theologically appropriate because each of these is inclusive, universal, catholic. But “Independence Sunday” is exclusive and parochial. When we come as Christians to worship God, even on the Fourth of July weekend, we come to celebrate our oneness with people from every nation, tribe, and race, and to recommit to a divine mission that includes all peoples. There may be appropriate ways for Christian individuals and churches to acknowledge their particularity as Americans or Iraquis or Koreans, but hijacking the Christian calendar and liturgy is not one of them.

Second, “Independence Sunday” robs not only the Christian church, but also, and far more importantly, the Lord of the church. It takes the focus of worship off the Triune God who liberated Israel in the Exodus and then came to rescue wayward humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, substituting—however subtly (or not!)—a national deity who is usually thought to have chosen America and poured special blessings on the American people as Americans. Sunday—every Sunday, no exceptions—is the Lord’s day, the day devoted to the adoration of Jesus as Lord and to communion with him. Centering on anything or anyone else negates the very reason for the gathering and transforms it into something else, something alien.

Third, the language of “Independence Sunday” misleads both Christians and non-Christians into thinking that one’s true identity and freedom are given to them by one’s nation state. It will not suffice to say something like “We celebrate our freedom as Americans but also, and more importantly, our freedom from sin because of Jesus.” Why is this insufficient? Because comparing the two trivializes the latter, the one that really matters. Why do these words not make “Independence Day” language in church appropriate? Because the use of “we” in “we celebrate” erroneously suggests that there is something as significant, or almost as significant, about the assembled group’s identity as Americans as there is about its identity as Christians.

The custom of singing songs and offering prayers about peace, justice and similar topics on the Sunday nearest July 4 may be a good thing—if they are appropriately interpreted by the pastor in non-nationalistic and non-militaristic ways. In my experience this is seldom done. (But at least it’s better than blatant nationalism.) A church can do this without either misnaming the Sunday or misfocusing the worship service.

I have not said anything about the use of American flags in church, on “Independence Sunday” or any other time, but for all the reasons noted above, the position I would argue is probably obvious.

At Christmas time I posted that Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday, but this other liturgical error may be far more harmful, at least for Americans. So… Happy Fifth to all! Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, that is.

PS For ideas about celebrating Independence Day (the national holiday), see what Shane Claiborne and others have to say.

9 Responses to “This is NOT Independence Sunday”

  1. Amen!! Thanks for this needed reminder!

  2. MJG says:

    Thanks, Henry. Happy Fifth!

  3. T says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    Don’t hold back. Tell us how you really feel!

    I grew up in churches with both flags in the sanctuary and in Christian schools where I said a pledge of allegiance to the US Flag, the Christian Flag, and to the Bible every morning. I think it was early college where the idea that this might be problematic started to be more than a fleeting question in my mind.

    As a lawyer, I am at least somewhat aware of how badly governments can do their job (and the real human cost of that), and am very grateful for so many things the American system does well, flaws and all. I would like people in this country to better appreciate and understand those things, even thank God for them and pray and work for improvement. That said, I agree with your post. It reminded me of when I heard Tom Wright say that the biggest problem with the enlightenment was that it offered a rival eschatology to the one based on Christ. We can’t encourage that in our worship.

  4. MJG says:

    T,

    Thanks. Writing a post like this does not mean one is unappreciative of the good in America. It’s simply being truthful about not confusing our loyalties and priorities. The myth of American “exceptionalism” makes that very difficult for American Christians to do.

  5. Chad Holtz says:

    Hey Dr. G! Great word. Thanks for this.

    And I have to also say thank you again for your Revelation class. It has (and still does) deeply impact me. The class I am teaching at church will finish up next week. It has been eye-opening – both I and they have learned much.

    Regarding the 4th, I have written two posts about it. One is Happy Interdependence Day which is here: http://chadholtz.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/happy-interdependence-day/

    and the other is about pledging allegiance to the flag which is here:
    http://chadholtz.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/i-pledge-allegiance/

    both of which were heavily influenced from what you taught me in our Rev. study. Thanks again and I hope we cross paths again soon.

    peace,
    Chad

  6. Dr. Gorman,

    Forgive me, I am a recent Divinity graduate but we never crossed paths while I was there. I appreciate the post; of course, being around the Duke environment this is exactly what one would expect. And that is not to say I wholeheartedly disagree.

    I would only like to add that this is difficult work in the trenches of flesh and blood churches. This is my first appointment, and I’ve known for a long time that UMC Churches in the South are basically Baptist, but being responsible for worship makes it far too real. The reality of ministry in the local church involves compromise. They want to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” so I insist on “God of Every Nation” or “This is My Song.” I used the communion liturgy from the GBOD Worship site designed for last Sunday, which includes both thanks for the country we live in and prayers for forgiveness, for justice, and for peace. It would be worth your viewing, I thought it was largely theologically sound.

    Interestingly, by your logic we shouldn’t recognize events like Father’s Day or Mother’s Day – but what does it say that Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter are also national holidays? I’m not sure if this makes America “exceptional,” but it is not the norm everywhere. I’m not sure what more liturgical churches do; if one is accustomed to Catholic Mass, they probably never have to question whether or not the Priest has a problem with Fathers or Mothers or Independence Day. But in the South especially, those of us in the pulpit week to week don’t have the luxury of sacrificing everything on the altar of theological (Hauerwasian/Yoderian) purity.

    Besides, if I’m not mistaken, there is something Biblically and theologically sound about recognizing the need for and good of the political “sword.” Honor the emperor, submit to the authorities, etc. The clearest to me is Jeremiah’s letter in Chapter 29.

    As Dr. Smith once said in a sermon at the Divinity School, “As pastors in America, you will probably never have to face martyrdom or persecution, and you should thank God for that.” To be sure, being an American has its own temptations and problems, but being an American also means being free to be as anti-American as one wishes and not suffer harm. For that, if nothing else, we can be thankful.

    I’d love a reply – these are the conversations I most enjoyed at Duke.

    Grace and Peace,
    Drew McIntyre
    Pastor, West Bend UMC
    westbendpastor@triad.rr.com

  7. MJG says:

    Chad,

    Thanks for stopping by! Come back. I read a number of your posts and am so glad you are using your Revelation course not just to teach Rev but to form minds and hearts to follow the Lamb. Keep it up. Your advice is very pastoral, and we need blogs that are helping people in leadership figure out how to move people along, slowly, by exampe or by silence, etc. I will come back to your blog.

    Drew,

    We did not cross paths because I was only at Duke this past term as a visiting prof. Your post has a lot in it.

    You are absolutely right that this is tough in the trenches; believe me, I have gone through it with pastors for two decades. Chad and his readers have some good pieces of advice; pastors need to talk out the practicalities.

    I know the communion liturgy and agree that it’s pretty good. (I’m Methodist.) And I appreciate it when you (and others) “balance” certain hymns with others. That’s better than nothing. As for Fathers Day, etc., yes; we should not, in my view, allow those days to receive liturgical names or to dominate a service. That said, let’s be honest that those events are far more benign in one sense since they usually do not compete with God for allegiance (though see CS Lewis in The Four Loves on the dangers of too much family love).

    I am grateful, as you are, for the blessings of living in a developed Western democracy. But even Dr. Smith (my friend and respected colleague) would admit, I bet, that there was at least a grain of truth in the words of Tertullian to the effect that the blood of martyrs is seed for the church. Many people believe that it is easy to be a Christian in the U.S. But maybe it’s too easy—and therefore, ironically, very hard.

  8. Libby says:

    Great post, Dad!

  9. MJG says:

    Libby,

    You’re so perceptive! Makes for a great father—daughter-in-law relationship!

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