Civil Religion at Christmas

It should come as no surprise, especially in this country, that even some of those who try to keep Christmas a “religious” occasion, rather than a purely secular one, cannot refrain from re-making Christmas into a celebration of civil religion, even of the militaristic kind.

Let me give just one example.

One of my favorite biblical texts that is often read in Advent and associated with the gift of peace, both present and future, that Jesus the Prince of Peace provides is from Isaiah 11:

1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent I heard a beautiful musical setting of this text that was, unfortunately, ruined by an interpreter’s brash and inappropriate connection of these words to current U.S. military action around the world. (Thankfully, this did not occur at my church.)

Making this sort of militaristic connection comes so naturally to most Americans that it hardly seems odd or wrong to them. They do not realize that in so doing they are denying the very claim they make, and probably have in some of their Christmas cards: that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Or, to put it more forcefully and in line with Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, the book of Revelation, etc.: Jesus, not Caesar, is the Prince of Peace.

I will be the first to admit that currently we do not see Isaiah’s vision realized in its fulness. But that does not mean that U.S. military action is the way to achieve the peace that Jesus promises and provides. (Even writing that self-evident truth seems so odd, yet so necessary.) Rather, the church–not the military–is called and empowered by God to be beacons and agents of Christ’s peace.

Preachers and other interpreters of God’s word, here is a word for you at this time of year and in this season of world history: resist the temptation, especially this Christmas, to betray the Lord with a militaristic heresy. Preach Jesus, not Caesar, as the Prince of Peace.

2 Responses to “Civil Religion at Christmas”

  1. paul says:

    Amen Michael! I recall listening to a message that Greg Boyd gave at his church on this issue and how he lost a good chunk of his congregation. (messages were subsequently published as “The Myth of a Christian Nation”).

  2. MJG says:

    Yes, Paul–a good book. (Greg and I were in grad school together, BTW.)

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