Faith in the Public Square
April 1, 2007
Palm Sunday, in the Christian tradition, celebrates Jesus' “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The Gospels picture a crowd hailing Jesus as Israel's deliverer from Roman occupation, but as the story continues, we discover that the crowd has misinterpreted the signs. Jesus, it seems, has a different mission, one that calls into question the whole premise of a “triumphal entry.”
Instead, Jesus dies on an imperial Roman cross. Christians, including me, are tempted to skip over the dark clouds of Good Friday to the triumph of Easter, for we would prefer good news to bad, victory to defeat, winners over losers. Indeed, in some sectors of the Christian community, there is a growing preference for the “muscular Jesus” to the “gentle shepherd Jesus.”
As a nation we like to celebrate the winners, the heroes, the strong and the powerful. We want leaders who will lead us to victory, whether the game is basketball, war, or the economy. And so, we're tempted by “triumphalism,” which, as theologian Douglas John Hall writes, is that tendency afflicting all world views, whether religious or secular, to see themselves “as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting of their adherents unflinching belief and loyalty” (The Cross in our Context, p. 17). You are, as they say, either with us or against us, and any hesitation will be taken as a sign that you're really not with us.
When religious people enter the public arena they often come in under a triumphalist guise, what historian Mark Toulouse calls “priestly faith.” This “priestly faith” is a distorted form of religion that merges the religious with the national agenda to such a degree that they become indistinguishable. Thus, nation becomes confused with church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.). It's the type of faith that celebrates America as a “Christian nation,” and takes public symbols and fills them with religious, indeed, with Christian meanings.
Consider for a moment an issue that has gotten people riled up in recent years: the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. This phrase wasn't in the original pledge, which dates back to the late 19th century. It was added in the mid-1950s during the early days of the Cold War, as a response to a perceived threat from the “Godless Communists” of the Soviet Union (my, doesn't that sound dated?). Congress also changed the national motto from “E Pluribus Unum” (from the many, one) to “In God We Trust.” In so doing, the American government declared that we are the godly ones.
Advocates and practitioners of this “priestly faith” first infuse public symbols with religious meaning and then declare that these meanings “represent the only true way of being both Christian and American” (Toulouse, God in Public, p. 82). Popular during the ‘‘dark days” of the 1950s, when school children practiced “ducking and covering,” this “priestly faith” has made a rebound in recent years. Now, however, the “enemy” isn't the “Godless Communist,” but is instead the “Islamofascist Terrorists.” With this change of enemies, the generic Judeo-Christian God of the 1950s requires further definition. Now the battle isn't between the godless and the godly, but between adherents of two different Gods - Christian versus Muslim.
Too often, religious faith is merged into a nationalism that distorts our faith traditions, so that they become tools of national interests. If we're to find any semblance of peace in an ethnically and religiously diverse nation and world, then we must find a different way of living faithfully in the public square. Triumphalism inhibits our ability to listen to the voice of the other, because to such a mind, the other has no value to us. If one stands outside the circle, they must be assimilated, shunned, or if necessary destroyed.
Palm Sunday, when seen from the vantage point of Good Friday, is ultimately a dead end. And, if we believe we must win at all costs - whether the conflict involves religions, rival gangs, or nation states - we will destroy ourselves. The “triumphalist” way has been judged by God and has been found wanting. This means that we must find a different way, one that is humble and ready to listen to the other.
April 1, 2007