It is all too often the practice among religious folk to try to throw a lasso around God in an effort to make the wildness and wideness of the divine contained just enough to make God somehow comprehensible by our finite minds. The idea of a lasso around God makes for an image of a variety of prescribed circles each representing a different tradition: an Orthodox circle, a Catholic circle, a Presbyterian circle, a Methodist circle, a Unitarian circle…OK that one is probably more an abstract squiggle, but you get the picture. Sometimes we forget how much overlap there is between these circles, sort of like a Venn diagram. That common area is often so much larger than the narrow differences outside the commonality. Yet it is those narrow areas of difference that cause us so much grief as we focus on what separates us instead of where we might converge.
Of course, we also draw other circles in our lives that define how we make meaning. We have circles of ethnicity, culture, family and nation that help us define who we are. All of these are bigger than ourselves, yet none of them are as big as the God circle, since even if there were a circle big enough it would be the biggest circle of them all. But that indefinably large, indeed infinitely large circle doesn’t do much for our sense of control. Boundaries make control possible and control offers the hope of security that our natural (and not unfounded) fears push us toward. So is it any wonder that we often attempt to design a Venn diagram that puts the God circle within one of these others? This is what Tex Sample was talking about on the video shown on this week’s episode when he pointed out that prophets never allow God to be a subset of a larger story. Specifically, this week we looked at Amos’ rant against the government that got him kicked out of the country (or at least told to leave).
The commingling of church and state is strong temptation. It feels so good to be in the majority and to have the power and historically commingling church and state has been an efficient and successful way of achieving just that. All too often, religious liberty in America has come to mean the freedom to practice Christianity (formerly only Protestant Christianity). It is always difficult for the majority to see how its influence becomes oppressive. Blue laws in this country made it easy to practice Christianity but they did nothing to help Jews or Muslims and in subtle ways made it more difficult for them not simply by creating the image that all Americans were Christian but by singling them out as being out of step. Public prayer seems to be such a blessing when the one praying shares your views, but as Christians in Hawaii can tell you, it feels a bit different when that prayer comes from a Buddhist, the majority religion at least in parts of that state. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander as they say. It is not too surprising that those who were persecuted for their religion founded a country where they were free to practice their own and sadly created for the most part state sponsored religions, albeit outlawing them in principle. The expectation that religion will be represented in our government with prayers and slogans on our money and references to God while pledging allegiance to a flag is evidence that we have all but made God a subset of the bigger story of American civic religion. Imagine a modern day Amos interrupting a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to call the people to serve God and all of God’s creation first before any consideration of a nation, let alone its flag. Surely, such a prophet would receive an eviction order similar to the one Amos received, likely with the words “America, love it or leave it!”
The time to resist the commingling of church and state is far past (perhaps by a couple of centuries). We are sorely in need of a prophet or two to remind us that God is much larger than the small circles we create to contain divinity, certainly larger than any national story, no matter how holy or chosen we think ourselves to be. We need to put down the lassos and accept that we will never find a way fully to contain God and instead of feeling out of control, we can be grateful that we are loved by this wild and powerful God.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com