I entered the church to preach. It was a nondescript building. A steepled church situated on green space, one of the largest in town. The building could have been on a postcard if someone was selling postcards of churches. I took a deep breath and paused, settling myself as was my ritual before preaching. After reading the scripture, I would begin my message.
I tried to focus on the clock on the back wall but was distracted. I had never been to this sanctuary before, and I thought about the cryptic message of the district leader at the end of our last meeting. “If things ever don’t seem right, don’t wait. Let me know sooner rather than later.” At this moment, I wondered why no one had told me about the pictures and if this was part of what he was talking about. Featured prominently on either side of the clock were soldiers in uniform. The photos were large. Even from the pulpit, I could make out the facial features of all the soldiers in their military headshots. There were at least a dozen of them, and I would learn the soldiers in the photos were both living and dead. The montage of pictures seemed more prominent than the cross that took up a considerable portion of the front of the church. Flanked by the American and Christian flags, the cross seemed paltry compared to the nationalistic themes present. I tried not to look at the pictures while I preached, but my eyes continually went back to them if I looked ahead.
I’m from a military family. I know the words to patriotic songs and sing them with gusto. Growing up, I always loved the Fourth of July. I loved the fireworks and everything the holiday stood for. My military upbringing had always been about the things that bring us together as Americans. For many, the songs and our faith brought us together; We gathered not just on the Fourth of July but regularly throughout the year as we celebrated those that served at every possible chance. My earliest memories of worshipping in the church are memories of one of the chapels I attended on base as a child. Back then, there were never questions about other faiths. It didn’t concern us if people believed something other than the Christianity we practiced or didn’t believe anything. We didn’t worry about atheists because, as the military saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I’ve constantly been reminded of this connection between Christianity and Nationalism, faith and the military and war. I’ve watched the news and listened to debates about Immigration, place, belonging, and welcome. I have the luxury of dedicating vast portions of my day to thinking about what it means to build peaceful communities and work on peace-building coalitions. It’s both a luxury and a privilege to devote time to this type of work.
As I’ve gotten to know more and more people across my state, I realize that I come from a fair amount of privilege.
I come from a two-parent household. My parents were married for 45 years until my mom died. I’ve never gone to bed hungry. I’ve always had a roof over my head. I have running water and clean clothes. I am American. I realize that even the poorest in our country still have more benefits than the world’s poor. Our country’s wealth is partly due to the extraction of resources from other countries and our aggressive approach to peacekeeping and colonialism. It’s a more extended conversation than I have time for in 800 words, but the scripture is clear. “Thou shall have no other Gods before me.” It’s the first of the ten commandments, but the one that feels forgotten, especially when Christians place country before God. I confess. I’ve never heard anyone say they place country before God, but I’ve seen it implicitly in speech and through actions.
When having lunch with one of the church leaders, I’d later ask about the pictures on the wall in the sanctuary and be told, “this is how we brought people back to the church by honoring the military.”
I wondered aloud how someone from a war-torn country might view the pictures and asked if everyone was welcome. As we ate lunch, the church leader said the only immigration policy they supported included shooting anyone that was “illegal” crossing the border.
He repeated it and added, “we just need to kill them all.” His picture was one of the ones on the wall.
“Help me understand where God’s love is in that.”
He was at a loss for words. I didn’t have much else to say either. We ate our sandwiches in silence that was only broken by the clock that was ticking. I was struck by the absurdity of the cuckoo clock as it chimed. I wondered if I was safe and was beginning to understand why older clergy didn’t go to parishioners’ houses alone. You learned a lot about people from their homes. People felt freer in their homes and were more likely to say and do those things they wouldn’t say anywhere else. I thought about the irony that no one even knew where I was.
As we sat eating our sandwiches in silence, I remembered that I’d traveled to Coptic Cairo a few years earlier. Coptic Cairo is the place believed by many biblical scholars to have housed the Holy family as they were attempting to flee Herod. It’s a reminder that Jesus, at one point, was a refugee in another time and place and that his parents had to take their young child and seek safety in a strange land. It’s a reminder that they found safety and a refuge from those people/things that would seek to kill them. They were asylum seekers before there was a name for the status and the paperwork that went along with it.
The thing about Christian Nationalism is that instead of welcoming the stranger as scripture calls us to, it serves to ostracize and can and often instill fear. Christian Nationalism erases the culture and histories of people who are living in our midst, some of them refugees from those situations in their lives that would seek to destroy them. The thing about Christian Nationalism is that it breeds Xenophobia, and the Xenophobia it produces creates hate.
The pictures brought Christian Nationalism to the forefront of every program held in the sanctuary. I am a Pastor, a follower of the way of Christ, and I believe that I live in the greatest country on the face of the planet. It’s time for us to recognize that while patriotism can be a good thing, Nationalism has no place in the church. When we allow our focus as the church to be on Nationalism instead of on Jesus, we forget that it is our responsibility to make disciples and welcome the stranger.
By Rev. Dr. Michelle Lewis