Repository of the Sacred: Independence Day and the Dependence

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When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s to late. – Frank Herbert Dune

Today, one really has to wonder what it means to free and if we can ever truly be independent. It’s a tough question for Americans. So, I’m not going to start there.

Dune was my favorite book for a long time, and in part it was because it was a new experience for me to see any critique of politics. After a while, you can start to see the holes in his theory in Dune. It is after all a work of fiction. His quote here attempts to pithily take on religion and politics as a blinding agent and while it misses the mark, it is not a bad place to start.

You see human beings are creatures of worship. For me a Christian, I believe we are made this way, but it is something that just about anyone can sit back and observe. Worship probably requires a definition, and I’m sure Webster’s does a decent job saying that it is an expression of reverence and adoration – usually within religious rights and acts of devotion. But I think it’s clear that worship extends beyond the realm of a church service.

As I found out in researching my piece on piety a few days ago, worship can often be unthinking.

This is where Frank Herbert gets it wrong. He assumes that the only type of unthinking worship is that which occurs within the bounds of religion. However, unthinking worship (reverence and adoration) occurs within the political realm. Frank Herbert with a rather narrow view of the momentum of history puts planets into feudal fiefdoms and believes that unthinking worship occurs only within the bounds of religion. So, he continues on in the insane belief that you can keep church and state separate.

Of course, what happens when you separate church and state? Here I have to touch base with William Cavanaugh and Peter Maurin. Maurin, a friend of Dorothy Day, believed that by separating the church and the state you created a businessman’s state. Cavanaugh takes it a step further in his analysis by recognizing that in creating a common space for human expression that is supposedly secular but dependent upon the state. The state then becomes a repository of the sacred, the holy.

As we celebrate independence today, we see this played out with displays of civic worship. There is a difficulty here because the state itself is not the locus of the Holy for most individuals. Most of us argue and disagree or are frustrated with our government even when we respect the enormous task of governing 300 million people on a shoestring. The focal point is rather the narrative of the nation state, the distorted history (all histories are distorted in the telling) and ritual practices that comprise the idea of a nation. That is the object of worship, and it is a community unto itself that rewrites other narratives to become the dominate self understanding.

Of course I’m writing this in Texas which is it’s own ontological category. This means that the identity of Texas is primary even to identity as Americans despite the fact that Texas is only state among states.

But today I’m really only worried about what it means to be free or independent and what dangers that poses for American Christians celebrating “Independence Day”. First, it is a remarkable thing to know that we are in a way the first and there are quite a few questions that still existed for a fledgling nation beyond the declaration of independence. Two failed constitutions and federal government structures were amended, and arguably we fell apart for a third time during the (un)Civil war which largely occurred because of our mutual dependence. Second, Christianity declares a radical dependence and humility (at least in my mind) that needs to be thought through.

So there are two fundamental problems I want to highlight beyond the call to have no other gods before God…:

1) The Kingdom of God – The kingdom of God transcends the nation state. Worship of one particular act of separation of two supposedly Christian nations is lamentable, it means that we cannot get along despite both being part of the kingdom of God. This oversimplifies way too much, but remember that allowing one nation state to lay claim to our loyalty beyond all other claims of loyalty fails to see the kingdom of God as the reality. Collapsing the kingdom into the nation state or in other words equating the two also falls into a dangerous category that excludes those who disagree with us politically.

2) Love of God and Love of Neighbor – No American that I know likes to be dependent upon another. We love our independence politically, individually, physically, and any other type of format. No American in other words wants to be told what to do, recognize authority unless the directly consent, or even have someone make them a sandwich unless they can pay them back for it. This creates a very transactional mode of being where we exchange goods and services. It also means that we can be generous because we like being benevolent credited publicly or enjoyed privately. However, the love of God and the love of neighbor declare something radically different. The worship of God occurs within community, the Church, the hub of the love of God and neighbor. Independence is not something to be coveted, it actually breaks up the witness to Christ in the Love of God and Neighbor.

It is very easy to say we worship God at church and put God first, but in practice the worship we offer on independence day stands in contrast to the worship of God and Christ – dependence of God and one another in community. It also reinforces something fundamental to the sacredness and the honor of the nation state, the willingness of people to sacrifice or die for its sake. So, celebrate the 4th of July perhaps, but recognize the celebration of communion is a call to thankful sacrifice in Christ’s service.

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About Sean Smith

Husband, Father, Pastor, Swimmer, Writer, Reader, and attempted Adventurer!
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