Holidays, civil religion, and injustice

November 27, 2010

culture / theology

In light of Thanksgiving yesterday, Black Friday today, and the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons, and maybe to a greater extent than normal because of the impending birth of our first child, I’ve been thinking about the connections between these holiday seasons, our prevailing civil religion, and injustice. I find it fascinating to see the opportunities and struggles that we have these days if we would seek a better way, and I want to spend some time with this.

In these thoughts, I’m coming from a specifically white and American context. I’m confident that the civil religion of this context is practiced, to some extent, by most people in that context whether they choose it, have positive feelings about it, or are aware of it at all. I’m even more confident that this civil religion is not synonymous with Christianity, even though most people, whether they are people of faith or not, see the two as the same.

Wikipedia has a useful article on civil religion, and though there are volumes written about it from a theological, political, or sociological framework this is as good a place to start as any. In its simplest sense, a civil religion is a set of beliefs that are embraced, practiced, and yet not official, in a country that doesn’t have its own established religion. It is primarily used to promote the interests of the State by getting its citizens to feel like those interests have virtues above and beyond politics or economics or whatever.

I’m not interested in saying that countries shouldn’t have civil religions. I don’t care either way. My issue is with the syncretism that most American Christians practice, and I want to expose this when possible and examine ways that we can get out of it. To clarify, I don’t think it’s possible (nor has it ever been done, to my knowledge) to practice a religion that is free of syncretism. The goal is to examine the parts of American civil religion that are antithetical to seeking first the kingdom of God through following Jesus, and see them as the heresies that they are.

This topic is something that I spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about, as do many others within the broader emerging church, but this is not new. Within church history, it dates back at least to the time of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the post-Constantinian Roman Empire, preferring to seek God in the desert rather than wealth and power in the cities. Since then there has always been a remnant that has sought to see following Jesus as submitting to an entirely different kingdom that is, itself, antithetical to the kingdoms of the world in what it desires, the means by which it seeks to get those desires, and the ways it affects those who follow it.

From that perspective, there is a serious problem with American holidays. Most of them serve, often as their sole purpose, to promote our civil religion. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day do this in blatantly obvious ways, and that would be fine if it weren’t so endorsed by the church. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard folks compare the deaths of American soldiers, “sacrificing for our freedom,” with the sacrificial death of Jesus, who died for his enemies – regardless of your preferred atonement theory. It doesn’t end there, as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is itself used to co-opt the legacy of a man who constantly sought to promote nonviolence, to the point of death, in order to promote the violent interests of the State.

The bigger holidays are not immune to this. Thanksgiving is, in essence, a celebration of the beginning of our unjust takeover of our land because we felt its inhabitants weren’t human. Black Friday (and the ritual of standing in line on Thursday, which I think will soon become Wednesday and Tuesday) and Cyber Monday are ways for us to intensify our already insane addiction to owning things, which is encouraged because it fuels our economy. Christmas is much the same.

Now again, none of this is new either. But the thing that strikes me as important to talk about is the massive fear that Christians have about Halloween, while desperately supporting the other holidays, especially Christmas. Yes, it has Celtic and other pagan roots. Yes, it’s deeply important to folks who believe different things. But really? Why does that holiday have to get all the attention? And why doesn’t it get attention because most of the candy and chocolate that is sold during that season is made by slaves?

This is the issue: it’s because most Christians don’t have a problem with America’s civil religion. As a whole, the church in America has such a lack of prophetic critique that it will support any holiday that serves the purposes of the State, especially if it can get a few irrelevant mentions of the birth of Jesus devoid of its social and political consequences, and it will fight any attempts to break the connections between Christianity and American civil religion.

We who would like something better than civil religion need to make something better. We need ways in which we can let “our thankfulness for our blessings move us to repent of the ways those blessings have come (and still do come) at the expense of others” as Julie Clawson said yesterday. We need to stop rewriting history, as Eugene Cho said, and instead figure out how to create other ways to express thankfulness.

And finally, as Advent starts, we need to remember that “the story of Christ’s birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.” I’m thankful for Advent Conspiracy giving us something for that. Let it change the world.