Friday, November 11, 2005

Reflection on American Civil Religion

On the day my wife and I celebrated the rite of ordination, we certainly recognized a distinct transition in our lives--but the future also remained a mystery. I am not one to complain about how seminary did not prepare me to do certain task. I believed that the task of the seminary was to prepare us for theological study and reflection. Spiritual and theological disciplines comprised the majority of our learning, while the practical applications served as a supplement.

Days of observance such as Veteran's Day and Memorial Day represent a struggle for me as a resident theologian. In Sioux Falls resides many clergy who can serve as a chaplain of American Civil Religion--so I have not been asked to lead any services on these days of rememberance. Leading Services in American Civil Religion was not a class in seminary--but I was asked to participate as a pastor in services in smaller towns. I can see why the presence of clergy is important in attaching meaning the work of the State. The government calls upon women and men to sacrifice their lives for the good of the State, without the possibility of debating the integrity of their mission. I have noticed that people seek meaning and respect in such matters of life and death, and recognizing the presence of God is important.

While serving in a large country congregation a few years ago, I was asked to lead services on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. Theological perspective or tradition does not seem to matter in the context of American Civil Religion, only the presence of clergy and a "short prayer" or "a Bible reading." It does not matter that I am a Lutheran, nor am I asked to share a sermon that interprets a particular text for the life and faith of a particular community. American Civil Religion is its own entity with its own set of rules. At one time or another, many clergy have been given a lesson from a veteran about etiquette with the U.S. Flag--in my first congregation, a veteran gave me a booklet on flag etiquette. To my knowledge, this etiquette has not been a subject of theological debate, only a set of rules to be accepted and followed. I feel uneasy about this kind of participation in American Civil Religion. As a pastoral theologian, the gifts I bring to interpretation are valued. This does not necessarily mean the congregation is called to agree with what I share in my sermon, only that as a community of faith we are called to enter into the questions that the word of God presents.

Earlier this week a member of the congregation I serve, a practitioner of American Civil Religion came to my office to question something that I said in my sermon. Actually, it wasn't really a question, it was a statement that my use of the word "hell" in my sermon was "inappropriate." This was not a matter of discussion. Supposedly "a lot" of people had been talking about this. My use of hell was to convey the fury experienced in what appeared to be an unfair action by God. I believe that the tradition of lament in the biblical witness deems the use of hell as a faithful representation. In American Civil Religion, the word "hell" has no place. Hell is not vulgar--it does not inappropriately depict sex or defecation. Hell represents fury and torment. To say the use of hell is inappropriate is a statement of American Civil Religion. To the practitioner of American Civil Religion who came to my office, I would not apologize, nor would I acknowledge "a lot" of people who didn't like my use of hell. I asked him what he thought. He said hell was inappropriate in church. At least we clarified that thought.

Hopefully at some point the community of faith can talk about the why.

P.S. Pat Robertson has taken another leap into the public attempting to dictate the direction of American Civil Religion. I do not mind participating in American Civil Religion that seeks meaning. I reject American Civil Religion that is abusive. To say Pat Robertson is abusive is not a revolutionary statement, but when he makes an idiot of himself, it is good for a laugh.

Pastor Elihu

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