BOWING TOWARD BABYLON: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America. By Craig M. Watts. Foreword by Michael Kinnamon. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Xi + 183 pages.
Walk into the sanctuary of the typical American church and you will find an American flag somewhere in the room. It will probably be found in the chancel. It’s possible that you’ll find a flag in the room, but not a cross (too religious). You might even see one flying on a pole outside the church, with the “Christian” flag flanking it, a step lower than the national flag. If you grab a hymnal, you will find several national songs. find a hymnal, you will likely find a few patriotic songs as well. If you go to church on Memorial Day or Fourth of July, it’s possible that you’ll experience a patriotic themed service. But is this appropriate? Or is it a nationalistic subversion of Christian worship? As you can tell from the title of Craig Watt’s book Bowing Toward Babylon, he believes that these nationalistic elements are expressions of idolatry that displace God from the center of worship, and therefore have no place in Christian worship.
The author of the book, Craig Watts, is a Disciples of Christ pastor who serves a congregation in Coral Gables, Florida. He is a leader in the Disciples Peace Fellowship, and has by his own admission strong Anabaptist leanings. He is also a student of liturgical theology. In this book, he brings these concerns together into a strongly-worded, no-holds-barred, prophetic call to the church, calling on it to change its ways. Thus, Craig asks the question: “How can the church be true to its God-given character, message, and mission when it emphasizes national identity and pride in the context of worship?” (p. 5).
I had the privilege of reading a substantial portion of this book in manuscript form. I’m not sure how helpful my comments were, but I was challenged then, and I was challenged once more as I read the book in its published form. I must confess, as well, my own struggles with the question of the appropriateness of certain displays of national pride in worship. Unlike Craig, I’m not a pacifist, and I probably have a higher tolerance for patriotic displays in worship than he does (he has zero tolerance!). So, for example, while I am uncomfortable with having American flags in the sanctuary, I must admit that flags have been present in the sanctuaries of the church's I've served. I’ve even accommodated an occasional patriotic song. Perhaps the reason I’m reticent about pushing this too far is that one of the biggest reasons for my resignation from my first parish, was that several people in the congregation felt that I failed to properly address the 9-11 tragedy. That is, we didn’t sing patriotic songs the Sunday after the attack. I preached on healing and reconciliation to a congregation that included several people who wanted to celebrate American power. I expect I’m not alone in failing to rock the boat, but I do feel challenged by Craig’s prophetic challenge.
Craig is no nationalist! However, he makes it clear that he is not trying to denigrate personal patriotism. He even allows that some forms of patriotism are compatible with an individual Christian's experience. That doesn't mean we should be turning Christian worship into a forum for celebrating national pride. When we gather for worship, we gather to offer praise to God, and nothing should displace that praise. It is a question of loyalties. Craig reminds us that the Christian community stretches well beyond national boundaries, and therefore, we shouldn’t erect barriers that would hinder persons from other lands to experience God’s presence in our churches. The danger is that when we celebrate nation in church, we send a message that nation comes before Christ.
The use of the metaphor of Babylon is most appropriate. The Babylonian Empire carried the ancient kingdom of Judah into exile and destroyed its Temple. Then, in the first century, Christians used Babylon as a symbol for the Roman Empire, which crucified Jesus and persecuted the early church. Whether we like it or not, according to the author of the book, the United States is a Babylon. Like previous versions of Babylon, the American empire seduces us away from our loyalties to God and God's people. Therefore, this is a worship war worth fighting.
Watts begins by describing the danger of nationalistic idolatry (Ch. 1). This idolatry emerges when devotion to nation pushes aside devotion to God. A good example is the phrase "America First.” The book moves on to questions of idolatry and identity. That is, who is God and who are we? It's a reminder of the essential nature of worship to the life of the church. Worship forms us into disciples of Jesus. When nationalism seeps into worship, our worship becomes distorted and we become malformed as Christians. As Craig puts it: "Worshipers are too often formed into people who are American Christians rather than Christians who are united first of all, not with those with the same nationality, but with those who share their faith in the God revealed in Christ no matter their nationality" (p. 48). Watts then deals with the question of location and place, recognizing that there will be local variations, but also arguing that locale is secondary to unity across national lines. He makes the distinction between indigenous forms of music and language, and taking actions that honor in worship "one race, ethnic group, or nation over others" (p. 66).
Having raised some pertinent questions about nationalism and location, Craig moves to the more practical expressions of nationalism. He starts with national holidays. Nationalistic holidays, like Fourth of July reinforce national identity, and that may be okay, but when celebrated in worship, nationalism takes on a religious identity by aligning God with nation. From holidays, he moves to the flag, which he calls the "banner of Babylon." In this chapter, he helpfully shows how the flag came to be placed in churches, and how it has come to be reinterpreted as a Christian symbol. Then there is that famous pledge, which was devised by a Baptist minister, with the intention of glorifying the flag and instill patriotic values. There were several attempts at writing such a pledge, before Francis Bellamy came up with the one we know today (though the phrase "under God" wasn't added until the 1950s). Bellamy believed that churches could be an important contributor to the development of national unity and patriotic duty. What I didn’t realize was that Bellamy believed that it churches would be one of the best places to teach the pledge. While Bellamy was a Christian Socialist, he also had nativist tendencies. Craig offers us the tragic story of how Jehovah's Witnesses and others were persecuted, even beaten, because of their refusal to say a pledge they believed was idolatrous. Craig, being a Disciple of Christ pastor, as am I, notes that many non-creedal churches, like ours, will not recite the ecumenical creeds, but then have no problem saying the Pledge of Allegiance in church. From the pledge, we move on in chapter seven to "singing the songs of Babylon," or nationalistic songs in church. As this is a book about worship, he reminds us of the power of song to reinforce values and beliefs, thus when patriotic songs, many of which carry militaristic values, are sung in church, those values are reinforced. That is, God is aligned with those values.
The closing chapter focuses on the two sacraments of baptism and eucharist. These are the signs that should form us. These signs transcend national identity and national boundaries. While he admits that they are the "least marked by the subversive influence of nationalism," that doesn't mean that they've not been made use of on occasion for that purpose. This concluding chapter makes uses of these two signs as reminders of where our devotion, as Christians, should be focused. Focusing on the Eucharist, it is a bigger table than that of Babylon. It is a Table open to all, no matter their nationality or political leanings. He writes: "The Eucharist demands that worshipers accept and extend a welcome that overcomes the alienation that separates peoples. The Eucharist requires radical sharing in a selfish and acquisitive world in which competition for food and resources leads to destructive competition. . .. The Eucharist allows no place for the sort of suspicions that justify preparations to do violence to people some national leaders perceive as threats. Instead we come to the Table and engage in a celebration of peace" (p. 167).
This is not light reading. By that I don’t mean that it is dense in its prose. What I mean is that it will make most readers very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable, and I am in general agreement with much of what Craig writes in this book, though I don’t share his Anabaptist leanings (I tend toward the realism of Niebuhr). I've also made accommodations that Craig would not approve of. Nonetheless, this is a book that clergy need to read, and really anyone concerned about the integrity of Christian worship should read it. It is a strong and prophetic book that requires careful reading, and as historian Richard Hughes writes in his endorsement found on the back cover, we need to “internalize this book.” That is, unless we’re comfortable with the church being the religious arm of the American empire. It is good to be reminded that credible Christian worship should focus our attention and our allegiance toward the one who transcends boundaries and borders. In order for this to happen, the nation cannot be an object of praise in church, for God is the God of all the nations.