I’m a Quaker. Quakers are probably the lowest of the “low church” tradition; historically, we have tried to avoid any kind of ritual or repetition. Our worship is based on waiting in stillness for the Spirit to move. If such a miracle happens during worship, then we might move. I love the simplicity and silence of Quaker worship. And yet, I’m a bit of a confused Quaker because I also love liturgy. Because of this love, I sometimes attend mass at a Catholic church or monastery.
Though I have experienced mass many times, I’m still pretty clumsy when it comes to keeping up with the movements and motions of the liturgy. I try to be a subtle Protestant but I find myself frantically flipping through the pages of the prayer book, trying to find the right place. I’ve definitely mastered the sign of the cross and more often than not can almost fire back “and with your spirit,” “thanks be to God,” or “Lord, hear our prayer” at the right moment. The part that I still struggle with, however, is knowing when to kneel and when to stand.
Sometimes the motion of kneeling or standing up feels intuitive and happens almost naturally as I join the community in the spirit of the moment. Other times, it feels abrupt, surprising, and awkward. It also gets confusing when the movement seems to be optional; when I look for guidance from the cradle Catholics around me, they are doing different things. I tell myself to do what is most appropriate or meaningful for the moment, but I’m afraid of being irreverent or causing distraction.
Oddly enough, I’ve had a similar feeling recently as the country debates its own liturgy.
The NFL, long the provider of patriotic but mostly non-political entertainment, has become a lightning rod for the stormy political polarization that defines our national discourse these days. Many people watch football as an escape from “real life,” taking a break from the bills and the boss and the kids. It can even take on a pseudo-religious quality: the individual protects their Sunday Sabbath against all intrusions. On the holy day, they enter the sanctuary of living room or man cave, holy elements of beer and nachos in hand, and observe the sacred rites of game day godliness. The whole experience is cathartic, providing a release and respite from the demands imposed on them in the workaday world. Then the activists came and hijacked the whole system. The arena of athletic competition has become the arena of social struggle. The issues of racial tension, police violence, and the quest for equality have moved from the rest of the week into the sacred spaces of game day–“the abomination that causes desolation.”
The battle lines have been drawn. It was up to the players to choose whose side they were on; it was up to the fans to choose whom they would serve. With or against, ally or enemy? Across the country, we asked ourselves: Would I stand or kneel? At least, I asked myself that question. It was mass all over again. I recalled the Shakespearean lyrics from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down.
I am feared in field and town.
Goblin, lead them up and down.”
As far as football and sanctity go, I have no dog in the fight. Being a Buckeye, I follow Ohio State and cheer them on; but I’m not much of a football fan otherwise. As far as racial injustice goes, I admit that I am largely removed from the brunt of its impacts–directly or indirectly. I have friends who have been profiled and I don’t doubt for a second that there is bias and violence that needs addressed. I also have friends who risk their lives as cops and I believe their risk deserves respect and their traumas need taken seriously. Some will roll their eyes, accusing me of purporting a safe centrism and proposing a false equivalency. I don’t believe that is the case but I’m tired of playing that game and will say simply that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. However or whenever we got on, we are all in the same boat now.
Two values inform my internal wrestling. One is the value of solidarity: based on the belief that justice is indivisible; when one person or population is struggling, we have a moral responsibility to stand (or kneel) with them. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have a long history in the United States–black and white alike–and there is nothing unAmerican about it. There is a reason that peaceful protest is protected by our Constitution. Without men and women using protests of various kinds to raise consciousness and prick consciences, we would be much slower in our moral and spiritual formation.
The second value is patriotism. Patriotism is a value for which rural folks are often mocked. Based on media caricatures and biting social media comments (never read the comment section!), one would think most people in rural communities walk around like a character from Talladega Nights, hollering “shake and bake” and “these colors don’t run.” As I’ve admitted repeatedly, there are certainly people that fit the stereotypes of rural America; I could probably dig up some pictures. When their trucks pass by, I can’t breathe for 24 hours, have to visit my ear doctor, and the polar ice caps lose a precious inch or two. I always wonder if they’re trying to compensate for something; I’m not sure the flags, smoke, and noise pollution have much to do with patriotism.
There was a time when I believed that patriotism was driven by something more sinister than insecurity or ignorance. I saw it as a form of idolatry. Being a Christian, shaped by my Quaker tradition as well as the semi-separatist notions of Anabaptism, I saw commitment to country and commitment to Christ as being incompatible. If the church of Jesus Christ is truly a “catholic” or universal community, how can it be divided by something as arbitrary as a nation-state? If my allegiance is with the kingdom of God, how can I pledge allegiance to any other political entity, especially if it may ask me to do things that contradict kingdom values? Needless to say, I wasn’t wild about saying the pledge of allegiance, singing the national anthem, or even having the American flag in a church building.
To be clear, I believe these are important questions and they have been live ones for a long time in religious history. I still think nationalism and syncretism are real problems in American Christianity. However, I no longer see patriotism as a value in contradiction with my Christian faith. I don’t see loving my country as being any more in contradiction with loving God then loving my family, my state, or…loving my neighbor. Yes, Jesus warns us against forming unhealthy attachments and binding loyalty oaths to neighbors, families, and countries. We do well to be vigilant of these destructive tendencies. However, it is worth noting that the social contexts in which Jesus was speaking usually took for granted the importance of clan, tribe, family, and village ties. Without this broad base of social capital, they would not have been able to put into practice the systems of social welfare and restorative justice provided by the Torah and demanded by the prophets. In my estimation, those community bonds and stabilizing, ethical commitments are on the decline in the United States. We have many things that tear us apart and the practices which used to reunite us and repair our divisions are less valued than ever. We are not in a moment when we can take for granted the spiritual, social, and political capital that makes social justice and community flourishing possible in the first place.
At this point, though, I can hear John Lennon singing in the background. You may be singing along. Imagine a world without borders or religions or anything worth killing or dying for…it’s easy if you try. Due respect to Sir John, it’s not that easy. And I’m not sure it should be. In attempting to love everyone and everything, we end up not loving anyone or anything in particular. The universal only has meaning if it has reality in the local and particular. Most of us know the path of border-less, boundary-less “free love” leaves a trail of wreckage in the lives of actual people who require commitment, loyalty, presence, and stability. History provides a cloud of witnesses who were victims of collectivist movements that abstracted justice so broadly that it dissolved individuality and absolved personal violence.
Catholic social teaching holds this tension by holding on to tenants of both solidarity (identifying with the oppressed and suffering across the world) and subsidiarity (solving problems in the most local and relational way possible). Similarly, social scientists talk about the importance of both bonding social capital (bonds that hold local and like-minded people together) and bridging social capital (bonds that bring together people with differences). We need both. And patriotism is a natural and strategic mechanism for keeping us close to home in our moral reasoning and helping us form firm enough social ties to take on worthy projects and come to aid of the other. Author and apologist G.K. Chesterton put it this way: “The fundamental spiritual advantage of patriotism is this: that by means of it all things are loved adequately, because all things are loved individually.” Patriotism is about loving adequately by loving individually, particularly.
In other words, when patriotism is right-sized and rightly ordered, it is an expression of solidarity. Solidarity of nation and neighborhood, people and place. The more we affirm this bond through our common life and shared rituals, the more we are reminded that every person matters and we are all in this together. We can stand in solidarity, sing the song together, because we believe in America’s promise not its perfection. We can kneel, protesting for solidarity, because of America’s promise not its perfection. The liturgy can be confusing, boring, offensive, moving, inspiring. Whether we kneel or stand, maybe we should learn from the Protestant-dizzying liturgy of the mass and incorporate something new:
“Peace be with you.”
“And also with you.”