Exiles and Citizens, (July 4th) – 7/4/10 – Jeremiah 29:4-7, Daniel 3

Earlier this year Goshen College in Indiana made the controversial decision of choosing to play the national anthem before sporting events on campus.  The specific decision was to play an instrumental version of the anthem, followed by a prayer.  The controversy for many, before this, was that Goshen wasn’t playing the national anthem at any sporting events.  In 2008 a local man attended a basketball game on campus and later asked the college athletic director why the national anthem wasn’t played.  The athletic director told him about Goshen’s policy, that it was committed to being a good citizen but that it felt the national anthem celebrated a violent aspect of the nation that the college did not wish to support.  This man then contacted various talk show hosts and the issue was picked up by the New York based Mike Gallagher show, eighth in the nation in audience size, who challenged the college and encouraged listeners to call on the school to have the policy changed.

The college had already been discerning the policy and, after continued meetings and conversation arrived early this year at its current policy – an instrumental national anthem followed by prayer.  Which has led to continued controversy, only now mostly from Mennonite/Anabaptist minded circles.  Here are a couple statements offering opposing views:

Goshen College President Jim Brenneman said this:  “We are a college owned by Mennonite Church USA, and we have a diverse student body that comes from 40 different Christian denominations, several world religions, 35 states and 25 countries and all races and ethnicities. We believe being faithful followers of Jesus calls us to regularly consider how to be a hospitable and diverse community…. Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another….We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus — the ultimate peacemaker — loving all people of the world.”

An online petition, titled “Resistance to the national anthem at Goshen College,” initiated by the Anabaptist group Jesus Radicals says this: “At the heart of the national anthem is a message that glorifies war and violence for one nation’s benefit. These themes are inherent in the words themselves—”the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”— and they are inherent to the ways in which the anthem is used to inspire patriotic fervor. The very habit of playing the song before sporting events arises out of the World War II era, when baseball became a stage for nationalistic displays. The fact that the anthem has since become a pre-game ritual for most sports should not distract Christians—especially those who are committed to Christ’s way of peace—from the anthem’s meaning or its history.  In an attempt to be “hospitable” to American patriots, we believe Goshen College’s decision rejects a higher call to be a transnational body that resists the boundaries set by nations.”

This year the fourth of July, the day that we honor and celebrate the creation of our nation, falls on the day of the week that we honor and celebrate our Creator.  Whether than wishing you simply a Happy Fourth of July, I would like to wish all of us a Conflicted Fourth of July!  Because, as we take our faith to heart, our allegiance to the way of Jesus, our citizenship in the kingdom of God, we recognize that this raises difficult questions that put us in a conflicted position regarding our citizenship in a nation state.  And this is something that would be acknowledged by both sides of the above debate.  Each one recognizes this inherent conflict, or tension, between faithfulness to the way of Jesus and the worldwide fellowship that he called into being, and our status as members of this country with the rights and responsibilities that this involves. 

The college plans to review the policy in June 2011, so if you have strong feelings or a constructive suggestion send them a letter.

The conflicted nature of citizenship is one that is borne out throughout Scripture.  This comes to the fore especially during the time exile – after the children of Israel had come up out of Egypt, had had their own nation and king for several centuries, and then are carried away into exile, living under the control of another nation – first the empire of Babylon, then Persia, then the Greeks and Romans who were running the show during and beyond Jesus’ time.  During this extended period all of these questions about what it means to be faithful to God within the state become front and center, and it becomes a significant theme that gets visited repeatedly in the biblical record, with multiple perspectives given.

What I’d like to do is look at two passages that highlight the pull going on here.  Both of them come out of the experience of exile, but offer different kinds of counsel. 

The first is from the third chapter of the book of Daniel, the story we call Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the Fiery Furnace, but is just as much about King Nebuchadnezzar and the Golden Statue.  

The first half of Daniel chapter three revolves around the presence of this massive statue that Nebuchadnezzar has erected.  (V.1) “King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits (about 90 feet) and whose width was six cubit (about 9 feet); he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.”  The king sent for all his officials and governors across the empire to be present at the dedication of this statue.  And when they gather, the herald proclaims, (V.4) “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.”  We’re not told exactly what or who this was a statue of.  From ancient historians and modern archeologists we know that the ancient world had various giant colossi that were both forms of art and symbols of imperial authority.  The text isn’t concerned about that part of the detail – whether it was a statue of the king, a god, or something else.  What we know is that this statue is huge, it is beautiful, shiny, it is to be worshipped.  For all the far flung peoples of the vast empire it is meant to inspire the kind of awe the leads to allegiance.  Which is what worship is.  Awe that leads to allegiance.  This is the same thing we do in church when we read Psalms that speak of being in awe of the wonders of God.  It’s not a matter of if we worship, but what we worship.  The king demands worship of the statue, and unanimity is required.  Dissent will not be tolerated.  Should anyone choose to not worship in this way, they will be killed in order to make it a unanimous crowd.

Because this statue does not have a specific face, of Zeus, or Bel, or Jupiter, it enables it to be this broad symbol for what the Bible refers to simply as idolatry.  And this story presents the empire, the state, as an object of idolatry.  It’s never just about the golden statue.  It’s never just about the flag or the anthem or any other object or sign.  It’s about allegiance and awe and worship and what we gather around that unites us.  King Nebuchadnezzar says, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”  So in this kind of setting, dissent is perceived as a great threat, because it cracks the façade of the absolute righteousness of the cause of the empire.  

Well, as every Sunday school graduate knows, Shadrach, Meshac, and Abegnego refuse to bow down.  In their own words, when they are facing the flames of the furnace, they say, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let God deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

As it turns out, God does deliver them, and the king undergoes a conversion – sort of.  The king sees that they have miraculously lived through the flames, is in awe of this, and makes a decree: “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins.”  So, he’s convinced that there may be a power greater than his own kingdom, but he’s got a ways to go on the whole nonviolent love thing.

The nation-state holds tremendous potential to be an object of idolatry.  Where we put our trust.  Our worship.  Something for which we’re not only willing to give our own life, but take the life of others in order to uphold.  Take great caution, this story seems to be saying, but also have hope.  Even torturous flames cannot kill the witness of those who choose to serve a higher power.

Another perspective comes from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah had his career during the time when the Babylonian exile was happening, so he is prophesying and writing right in the midst of all this turmoil.  He’s still in Jerusalem himself, but he knows that his people are being carried away and that their world has been shattered through this experience.  And so he writes them a letter – from Jerusalem to Babylon, addressed to the elders, the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar has carried off into exile.  And his words, his counsel, has a decidedly different tone than that of Daniel.  To those longing for their homeland, to those wondering what to make of this life they have now been forced to live, Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  The word translated here as welfare is the Hebrew “Shalom,” that beautiful word that can mean peace, salvation, health.  Shalom is holistic well-being, personal and communal.  Seek the shalom of the place where you are, for in its shalom, you will find your shalom. 

The stark contrast of separation between the empire and God’s faithful in the Daniel story here becomes a picture of integration.  You cannot separate your own well-being from the well-being of the place of which you are now a citizen. 

The exiles are to invest in the health of their new city, and to do this for generations to come.  Build houses.  Develop real estate.  Make an investment in the neighborhood.  Plant gardens.  Improve the soil of your backyard.  Invest time and energy into the earth.  Have children.  Raise them up.  Give them education and meaningful work as adults and then give them in marriage and they will also have children, and raise them up.  If there’s one thing that makes you want to invest in the shalom of the neighborhood it’s having relationship with children who will inherit this world that we give them.

Jeremiah says, make a home in the heart of the empire.  Live such that the shalom of your family is inseparable from the shalom of the city.  We might call this being a good citizen.  Patriotism at its best.  Loving our neighborhood and doing what we can to make it a better place.           

And so we have these two pieces of counsel from scripture.  The caution of idolatry from Daniel and the encouragement for shalom-seeking from Jeremiah.  We are given this dual identity being both exiles and citizens.  Not at home, yet at home. 

We started by talking about the national anthem, so I’ll move toward a close by mentioning the pledge of allegiance, on which Anabaptist minded Christians also have various practices.

By way of offering an example, in trying to navigate this dual identity, the practice that I’ve come to adopt goes something like this:  When the pledge is being recited I stand respectfully with others, look at the flag, but do not put my hand over my heart.  As others are saying the pledge I remain silent but do pray for our country and for the world.  And then I do say the last part of the pledge along with everyone else “with liberty and justice for all,” which feels like a kingdom of God kind of principle with which I can fully agree. 

You may have another practice, or you may not have thought about it much.  I encourage you and your household, your friends, to talk about this and how it relates to your faith in God and this tension between being a citizen and being an exile.  

I leave you with the work of reconciling these two pieces of counsel; Daniel and Jeremiah.  Not just regarding the national anthem or pledge, but in all related matters.   Being in a conflicted position, always needing to check in with scripture and one another and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to how to be both a Christian and a citizen of a superpower nation.       

Happy Conflicted Fourth of July.