On July 4th I will be attending the annual party at my son and daughter-in-law’s home. They will be serving up smoked chicken and spare ribs while fireworks from neighboring towns inscribe a nearly 360° circle around their backyard. While we are waving our flags with differing degrees of enthusiasm, one member of my family will not be with us: my sister the Jehovah’s Witness. As much as we’ve tried to persuade her that the holiday is just an excuse for the family to get together, she will not give succor to patriotic fervor. By partaking of our celebration she feels that she risks having her attendance misinterpreted as an endorsement. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the trouble with patriotism is twofold: 1) it tempts us to equate God and nation, and 2) it provides a sacred cover for violence.
God and nation are not the same, my sister believes. When a government’s demands come into conflict with God’s, Witnesses obey God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and service to others and that the early Christians refused to become soldiers and fight in wars. In emulation of that dedication to serve God and not governments, Witnesses not only refuse to celebrate national holidays but they are conscientious objectors to military service.
Patriotism and Public Sacrifice
By not accepting our invitation, my sister appears to be taking Paul’s advice to the Corinthians quite seriously when he counsels them against participating in the patriotic acts of their day: public sacrifices.
I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of the demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20-21)
Paul’s counsel continues with wise advice to accept invitations to dine at the homes of others and “eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” Then he warns:
But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Corinthians 10:28-30)
Our gathering will be an eclectic mix – among the guests will be conservatives and liberals, churchgoing Christians, lapsed Catholics, agnostics, flag-waving patriots, libertarians, and past and present armed service members. All of us will be giving thanks (or not) for various reasons and, as I said, we agree with Paul here – we do not think we should be denounced for our own exercise of conscience.
A Trick Invitation?
And yet, what if our annual invitation to my sister is some sort of trick to win her endorsement of our ritual table? Like the ancient host testing the allegiance of his guest by openly declaring the sacrificial source of the meat he is serving, are we testing my sister? Would her presence ease our consciences a little bit, assuring us that we can participate in patriotic rituals without it having an impact on our allegiance to God? If that is case, she must refuse to eat for the sake of our consciences and I would be disappointed if she acted any other way.
As a proponent of mimetic theory, I argue constantly that we exist in relationships with the world around us and that those relationships form, mold, and affect us in ways we are rarely conscious of. Though we make constant appeals to our personal liberty and strength of character, we are nevertheless shaped by everything around us including violent movies, misogynistic song lyrics, sports rivalries, political divisions, fan obsessions, scandals and gossip, and reality TV shows that encourage us to derive pleasure from the misfortune of others. In all these things we are schooled to the ideas that violence is justified, hating others is how good people have fun, and success consists primarily of being sure someone else is voted off the island. Patriotism adds a sacred gloss to our violence, boosts our feelings of moral superiority over others, and encourages our vision of success as keeping everyone else off our island. Is our Fourth of July barbecue not the modern equivalent of Paul’s table of demons? Nourished only at the Lord’s table, the commemoration of the state execution of an innocent victim, would we not be schooled in a different perspective?
We Are What We Eat and Where We Eat It
Some in my family take umbrage at being compared to demons just because we are eating smoked meats in the context of a ritual remembrance of founding violence. I will try my best to keep my conscience clear by participating with a spirit of thankfulness, but the question remains whether a deeper witness is called for. My sister long ago gave up the pleasure of a lip-smacking barbecue as part of her commitment to peace. Perhaps this Fourth of July, it would be good for all of us to wonder if we are partaking of the wrong table.
Image: 4th of July barbecue, Morgan Lane Photography / Shutterstock.com