Sunday, July 6, 2014

Letter to my pastor

Dear Father Shaun,

You were not at Mass this morning; and a guest priest presided.  But as the leader of our parish, I must address this to you.  I hope you will share it with other members of the staff, even though what I am about to say may not be well-received.  I am writing you with a grievance about today's Mass, and what I say, though it will be unavoidably pointed, is offered in the spirit of Christian fellowship and with personal rancor for no one.

As I approached our church building, I noted the American flag flying on the grass in front.

Perhaps I should say that one of the reasons (there were obviously others) that I was attracted to St. Mary's and to the Catholic Church was that when we moved here, I had visited a dozen local churches in search of a liturgical home.  In every case, except the Catholic Churches, there were American flags posted in the sanctuaries.

At St. Mary's, not only was there no display in the sanctuary of this war banner, we conduct Mass in two languages to accommodate the many people here whose ancestors, both as Indians and Latin American mestizos, were attacked by men with guns who killed under that banner in order to expand "America" "from sea to shining sea."

This brings me to the reason I walked out of the sanctuary during the gathering hymn, which was "America, the Beautiful."

We gathered singing:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine!

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Like people at ball games, no one wants to be the one who refuses to stand for that other patriotic stand-by, our national anthem, because almost everyone has subscribed to the civil religion that is "America."  And so I walked out.  I doubt anyone even understood why.  They probably thought I'd left something in the car.  If I had it to do over, perhaps I'd have stayed and simply faced to the rear with my head bowed in silence.

My wife noted afterwards, when I was grousing about American nationalism, that the congregation includes a lot of veterans.  True enough, including me.

In fact, I am one of the few veterans that was a member of the armed forces for more than three or four years.  I made a career of the Army.  I "did my job" under the stars and stripes in Vietnam, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people, in Guatemala, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people, in El Salvador, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people, in Peru, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people, in Colombia, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people, in Somalia, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people, and in Haiti, where America the Beautiful waged war on poor people . . . and a few other places as well.

As a veteran, I have inherited a great deal of public esteem, because our shared god is America, and our most sacred liturgy is war.  Our saints are men with guns who wage war.

More times than I can remember, when people learn that I retired from the Army, they will say, "Thank you for your service."  This is interesting, because none of them knows what I actually did.  I am merely an icon through which they can pay homage to their god, America the Beautiful.  No one ever says, "Thank you for burning peasants' houses down," or "Thank you for calling artillery in on a position using the cries of a child to adjust fire," or "Thank you for training death squad members," or "Thank you for unleashing death on a stadium full of refugees to kill one skinny man with a machine gun," or "Thank you for being able to make a child or an old person fall apart and cry at the mere sight of you with your uniform and weapon."

I guess this is what she meant when Katherine Lee Bates wrote the term "liberating strife."  She finished her song in 1913, just before America the Beautiful, led by Woodrow Wilson, sworn in by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who had run on an anti-war campaign, entered into that war to secure an Allied victory at the behest of American bankers who feared an Allied defeat would prevent repayment of their war loans.

Christians killed Christians in that war.  A lot of Christians killed a lot of Christians, because the nationalisms of Christians had come to trump their devotion to the Prince of Peace.  Nothing new there.  The church, in its devotions to powers and principalities elsewhere and before, had led Christians to slaughter fellow Christians; but during both World Wars, Catholics killed Catholics, and military chaplains on both sides co-signed the killing . . . just as they had in America the Beautiful during the American Civil War, when Catholics killed Catholics.

As in my own case as a veteran of several "conflict areas" (areas where my nation brought conflict to them), this history ought to lead us to repentance and to constant meditation on that repentance.  I was a sinful man, product of a sinful culture; and we have been a sinful church.

This is precisely why our uncritical participation in national holidays like Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day, which invariably celebrate American war makers, are such a dangerous syncretic heresy.  What we are saying, when we ignore facts like that "A thoroughfare for freedom beat... Across the wilderness! was a highway paved with the corpses of African slaves, Indians, and Mexicans (for example) . . . what we are saying is, "Blessed are the war makers."

Where Jesus held a mirror up to the principalities and powers, and to a culture predicated on domination and violence, the church -- when it sings America the Beautiful and hangs American flags on the lawn -- is throwing the veil of our national mythology over that very mirror.  How can the church be the body of Christ when it behaves like a Sadducee, a loyal servant of the state?

This is at least partly understandable among many Protestant confessions, since Protestantisms were the spiritual accomplices of modernity, of classical liberalism, and the emergence of the American nation-state as the godhead of a civil religion.  But why would we, as Catholics, with vast majorities still living in countries where that very American nation-state dominates through its violent surrogates, contaminate our liturgy with the mythologized narrative of the American civil religion, and today we displayed that red, white, and blue idol on the lawn?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his essay on the co-optation of Catholicism by Americanism, points out:

[This] is what I call "the New York Times Catholics." These are Catholics, usually clergy, a New York Times journalist has learned to call after the Pope has issued an encyclical or given a speech that seems offensive to American sensibilities. They call a Catholic, whom they have previously identified as a critic of the church, to have confirmed that whatever the Pope has said, Catholics in America are not required to obey, or even if they are so required, Catholics will not take what the Pope has said seriously. From the perspective of the New York Times, therefore, a good Catholic is one that would be regarded by the Vatican as a bad Catholic. . .   . . .   . . .

. . . So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity to avoid conflicts that cannot be resolved.

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, "Christian." A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.

But a church formed capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may well think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to that task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop Francis George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume that there is no essential tension between being a Christian and being an American. As a result Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their "faith" clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned.

We are, as Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh notes, more American than Catholic, as evidenced by the fact that most Catholic soldiers went without complaint to the Iraq war, even after it was condemned by the Pope; most American Catholics said little about it; and American Catholic clergy reassured Catholic soldiers that they could outsource the morality of the war to the American government.

Jesus is Lord; but I'll obey President Bush.  I won't suffer a stigma for my faith; but I'll die, and even kill, for the United States of America.  Are Catholic members of the US Armed Forces now obeying President Obama by directing drone strikes?  If so, will other Catholics declare them "heroes" simply because they wear a uniform?  I think we both know the answer is affirmative.  By submitting to this civil religion called American patriotism, by subordinating our "religion" to the nation-state, how can we claim continuity with courageous Christians like Perpetua and Felicity, who went to their deaths before they would bow before the imperial idols?  Have we become that risk-averse?  Are we worried about membership rolls ahead of the truth?  Is this the way of the cross?

Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle wrote:

In an era of Western ascendancy, the triumph of Christianity clearly meant the triumph of the states of Christianity, among them the most powerful of modern states, the United States. Though religions have survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith. Still, in the religiously plural society of the United States, sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.

I am not suggesting that we kill for the church (quite the contrary, ours is a Sovereign who forbids us to kill for Him).  But this is what we mean when we say "civil religion."  This is what Cavanaugh meant by his book title about this very phenomenon:  Migrations of the Holy.

We are not the American Church.  We are the Catholic (all-embracing) Church.  This posting of flags, and this singing paeans to a mythical and propagandistic account of the nation, have no place in our church.  This is a form of idolatry, and a volte-face from our responsibility as Christians to speak truth to power.

That our community, which is dominated by white nationalistic farm families, is caught up in this idolatry, is not a reason to go along with it.  It is an opportunity to confront it with the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth . . . which were provocative even to an execution then, and which will be provocative now.  The way of the cross involves certain provocations.

Today's reading from Zechariah included a reference to a king who rides in on an ass.  A provocative irony, no?  And when Jesus did precisely that, it was done as a parody of the Passover parade of Roman warriors (a warning to the Jews of Jerusalem during a restive holiday), astride their war horses on that same Sunday.  Then a dusty prophet rides in to accolades on the back of an ass.  The joke wasn't lost on the Jewish crowd; and it surely wasn't lost on the Romans and Herodians.

Where were we today when we sang "O Beautiful for patriot dream"?  I don't think we were throwing fronds in front of our dusty prophet and his little mount.

I hope we will reconsider this in the future.

Yours in Christ,

Stan Goff


  1. Terribly, awfully true, Stan. I wish you luck, my may need it. Your place of residence seems to have some uncomfortable resemblances to the place I grew up in.

    Went to a Quaker service 2 weeks ago here in Eugene. They worship in silence, unless moved by God to speak. Makes you think about what you are saying, if you do speak. I didn't see an American flag anywhere. They are antiwar as a matter of common belief.

    From what I was told by Chuck Fager, this is a more liberal meeting house. Still sorting it out, but want to go again. It's hard to be spiritually on your own these days.

  2. Thanks for this great letter. Found it via a friend who shared on facebook and am sharing it now myself. Sorting out loyalties to the state and loyalties to God is always a tricky business that most lack the courage for. Have you followed John Dear at all? He is a great voice on this. I did not know about the other parade going into Jerusalem that day. So thanks also for the history lesson.

  3. PS---the article by Stan Hauerwas was extremely illuminating. I had to laugh at the comment about Catholics swearing allegiance to "some guy in Rome".

    I think the thing about proving you are more American than regular Americans can apply to other agendas, too. Read a book recently called, "Brown Skin, White Masks", about expatriate Muslims here in media agitprop, in service to the agenda of the American Corporate Empire.

    I think Muslims (perhaps the more "rootsy" ones) have a profound thing to say about power, in reference to not charging interest (usury) on loans.

  4. Thank you for this. To simultaneously support war and preach peace is madness.

  5. The resemblance of the nationalist anthem to a hymn is far more than coincidental, even to the praise of the "alabaster cities undimmed by human tears" -- surely a co-optation of the visionary City of God? Syncretic heresy indeed. It brings to my mind the contrarian Jewish Orthodox position that the attempt to impose a prophesied Jewish State on the world, by worldly means, is in itself a heresy; the objection is presumably theological and to do with the sacred nature of prophesy, but the immediate lesson seems to be that the State so easily becomes an idol which supplants the love of G-d. Illich too objected to atted to modern attempts to reify, quantify, and bureaucratise the loving community... Anyway Stan, it's always a pleasure to read your prose... passionate sincerity and well-read scholarship ably combined.