Making the Golden Calf Jealous

Jason Micheli —  June 26, 2017 — 9 Comments

And here I caught flack over bringing a goat into a worship service. Dr. Robert Jeffress somehow managed to shoot off fireworks in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Then again, to call it a sanctuary misleads, for it’s evidently not the God of Jesus Christ First Baptist “Church” worships. At the very least, Jeffress isn’t monogamous.

This past Sunday Jeffress’ ‘church’ celebrated Patriotic Sunday, a display of devotion to an idol that could make the golden calf a jealous god.

Many Christians wrestle with whether sanctuaries should have flags in them all as the primary belonging of the baptized is to the Body of Christ to whom by faith we pledge our ultimate allegiance.

For Patriotic Sunday, First Baptist ‘Church’ handed worshippers flags to wave during the service. Fire works shot up from the floor. Flags festooned the walls and, on the altar wall- you know, where a freaking cross might go, the presidential seal.

Baptists like Jeffress often seem obsessed with whatever # of the 613 commandments is the levitical stipulation against same-sex intercourse, which is ironic given that they broke the first and most important commandment with an abandon that would’ve made the golden calf jealous.

Consider Jeffress so prioritized this expression of idolatry that First Baptist celebrated Patriotic Sunday not on the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend (when few attend worship) but on the Sunday before the long weekend.

Most Christians, even those who have little problem with a flag as part of the furniture in the sanctuary, aren’t as promiscuous in their fidelity as Jeffress’ tribe at First Baptist ‘Church’ in Dallas. Still, Independence Day is a delicate time for Christians not because love of home and heritage is contrary to Christian confession but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service (“Freedom isn’t free”) can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

I’ve experienced enough patriotic liturgies at baseball games to bet the house that many in Jeffress’ house of ‘worship’ last Sunday were crying sincere tears. I’m sure it was a profound and moving religious experience for them. That’s the freaking problem.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger of patriotism for Christians: it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

Why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

It’s just this kind of equivocation that produces a ‘church’ like Jeffress’ First Baptist in Dallas and makes possible an idolatrous display like Patriotic Sunday.

It’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for Christians that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free (past perfect tense) from the present evil aeon” (present tense).

Paul uses the language of time all the time.

According to Paul, the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation. Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time: the New Aeon inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

No wonder he didn’t celebrate Patriotic Sunday on the 4h of July weekend.

Dr. Jeffress doesn’t seem to know what time it is.

Jason Micheli

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9 responses to Making the Golden Calf Jealous

  1. Same old refrain, Jason. Teaching our children the Gospel does not preclude teaching them to also respect our country and what the American flag represnts.

    • Cynically, perhaps we may be suffering P.C myopia here of projected “golden calf” symbolism.

      The UMC celebrates and honors in our worship services: 1st time visitors; graduates: H.S, AA,AS,BS, MS & DDM. We honor Mother’s on Mother’s Day & Father’s on Father’s Day. We honor VBS teachers after their harrowing week. We honor: new and retiring Ad Board members, clergy staff, organists, visiting missionaries.

      In addition, we celebrate: Hispanic Heritage Month, Laity Sunday, Peace with Justice Sunday, Heritage Sunday, Native American Ministries Sunday, Older Adult Recognition Day, Asian/Pacific-American Heritage Month, One Great Hour of Sharing, Women’s History Month, and Black History Month.

      Through Discipleship Resources, Discipleship Ministries specifically provides liturgy, suggested hymns and prayer resources for Independence Day to recognize God’s blessing for us to live in this country. Additionally, we recognize the sacrifice of individuals that assumed the military service responsibility to protect our nation.

  2. Thought provoking post, thank you! Re equivocation, it seems to me more complicated than inculcating our teenagers to patriotism vs suffering for Christ. That is, if faith is a gift, the best we can really hope to do as parents is teach, lead, love by our own flawed example & pray that faith and belief flourish in our children’s hearts. Otherwise it’s a service born in pleasing (or being compelled by) parents, not out of a heart’s desire to suffer for Christ.

    I don’t at all consider my children’s American convictions non-negotiable, unless by that you mean it is non-negotiable that you are an active force in your own citizenship. Unlike in our life of faith, where the direction of gift flows one-way, from Christ to us, I hopefully teach my kids that the role of American citizen is of necessity more transactional, and requires a healthy dose of skepticism. Rights AND responsibilities. We may be called to military service, and we also fund our government, we vote, we advocate for others when injustice occurs, we stay informed, we are active members of an imperfect democracy run by humans. Pride, honor & love of country don’t preclude paying close attention. Sometimes misuse/overuse of patriotic symbols has the effect of communicating “It’s all good” when by nature it can really never be all good.

    I am glad not to see or hear an overt focus on patriotism in my church. And frankly, I’d also be glad not to see In God We Trust on our currency, or “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance, where it’s been only since 1954.

    (Speaking of, I really enjoyed Garry Wills’ 2007 book, Head and Heart: American Christianities. An overview of influences of Christianity & American politics on each other, from Puritans to George W Bush.)

    Thanks again!

  3. Baptists, above all, are supposed to get the whole separation of church and state thing.

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