It’s that time of year again. The hot time. For one week every August, Holmes County breaks out of its shell. For a meager $5 you gain entrance to a whole other world than the one that normally exists. Sure, that $5 doesn’t really go very far–you still have to pay for just about anything else you want to do–but for Christine and me, $5 to watch a couple of hours of motocross is money well spent.
So we found ourselves on the bleachers last night, slowly baking as the sun set on another hot Ohio day. I knew we were in for a treat though, as the racers took their preparatory laps around the dirt track. Ear plugs were on sale for a dollar, but why would you want to muffle the sound that shakes the bleachers? The dust hung in clouds and the bluish exhaust mixed in the air–it was a perfect mixture of stink, dirt, noise, and speed. We fully intend to go every year we live here!
So after the racers had their chance to familiarize themselves with the track, the maintenance crew always comes out to smooth out the ruts and level off the places that need leveled off before the actual races begin. My favorite part of this is the water truck. They spray the course down right before the races to try to keep the dust down.
It’s a nice thought.
So it was getting close to race time. The water truck made its way off the course, the bulldozers were done, the racers were off the track and just waiting for their classes to be called.
It’s that moment right before something really cool is going to happen–you know?
It’s that moment that’s almost sacred–it’s like the world takes a deep breath of exhaust-filled, dusty air right before plunging into something else.
I experience that moment every Sunday right before I preach.
It’s the same moment on every pastoral visit I make–right before the person opens the door.
Last night it was right before the racers would start their engines.
A lot can happen in that moment.
In this particular moment, we were invited to stand, to remove our hats, and to direct our attention to the flag as they played the national anthem over a loudspeaker.
I stood as I usually do. I’m an American, I can respect the traditions we have, and I have nothing against having a flag at a fair. Hearing the national anthem is an expected part of what it means to go see Motocross. I’m fine with that.
But then the guy had us bow our heads for a prayer.
You might think it odd that a pastor had a problem with that.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for prayer. Prayer is probably the most formative thing a Christian person can do. I have a high respect for prayer and I think we could all benefit from nurturing an attitude of constant prayer like Paul talks about.
Prayer binds us to each other and to God. It’s an important method of discernment.
It has transformative power to heal, to reconcile, and to form our identity as Christian people.
But what happened last night gave me pause.
Combining prayer with the national anthem–it should make all Christian people uncomfortable (not just us Mennonites). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcends and consumes national borders and barriers of all kinds, across humanity. Combining expressions of national identity with expressions of faith creates something I want no part of. I don’t want a Christianity that is so closely linked to the USA, because I think it ceases to be Christianity. It becomes something like civil religion. And civil religion (you could argue ANY religion) is capable of some pretty twisted things.
Every Christian must keep the question before us: Which story is most formative? Is it the story of our national conquest? Or is it the story of Jesus Christ?
I really don’t think it can be both.
Therefore I feel some tension when the national anthem–a song celebrating the conquest and violence that birthed our nation–gets combined with prayer–an action that emphasizes the subversive, self-sacrificing Love of Jesus.
I feel the need to remind us all that America is not the church. Red, white, and blue are not the colors of the church, and the cross is not a flagpole. Faith is more than a decorative touch for weddings, funerals, and the occasional motocross event.
How can we worship a middle-eastern man on Sunday, and bomb one for the sake of ‘national security’ on Monday? Is God NOT our peace? Is Christ NOT sufficient for our salvation and security?
Now you, dear reader–you might disagree.
You with theology different from mine–you have an excuse and I’d be glad to hear it and glad to have a conversation.
But you fellow Mennonites who seem to be wearing the flag more often, reciting the pledge of allegiance more often, who seem to be making peace with military service–you fellow Mennonites who seem to be more ‘proud to be American’ than you are of being distinctively Christian–how can we talk?