By John Page
When I first read the book of Judges, I marveled that the Israelites kept turning to Baal in a recurring cycle of apostasy, tragedy, repentance, deliverance, and back to apostasy. It was so obvious to me what their problem was, having the benefit of a carefully edited narrative specifically designed to drive home the point. Why couldn’t they see as clearly as I could that turning to Baal had disastrous consequences? And why turn to Baal anyway?
God had rescued the Israelites from Egypt and led them to the land promised to them. For 40 years, these people had been wanderers and herders, and understood that God was responsible for protecting and providing for them during their sojourn. When they took possession of Canaan, they no longer needed to wander, and farming became necessary. But, how would wanderers and herders learn to farm? Well, by asking those who already knew the art, the indigenous Canaanites.
If we could ask a 13th century BCE Canaanite farmer for guidance in growing and harvesting crops, we would be told that the life and passions of Baal were indispensible to producing a bountiful harvest. Baal was “lord” of the land, and only by his successful victory over his nemesis and sexual union with his beloved could the land produce its bounty. This is what the newcomers, the Israelites, would have learned.
Many Israelites would not have seen a problem with worshiping both the Lord of their rescue, wandering, and military victories, and the lord of the land, Baal. The two “lords” presided over different realms, as it were, and what would be the harm in honoring each in their respective realms? In modern parlance, we might say that they “compartmentalized” God, effectively placing limits on God’s reach and claim upon their lives.
Of course, compartmentalizing God is something we’re very good at in our own generation, and recognizing this human tendency helps explain the cycle, beginning and ending with apostasy, which we observe in Judges. It also invites us to be aware and cautious as we ourselves navigate life through “realms” of our own arbitrary construction.
Civil religion presents our generation with a tempting invitation to compartmentalize God, as Baal worship did in the 13th century BCE. Once God is compartmentalized, civil religion is free to lay increasingly greater claims upon our lives, our commitments, and our conduct, until the will and purpose of the living God is supplanted by the will and purpose of the lesser god of civil religion. The god of civil religion may even be able to successfully masquerade as the living God.
So, what is civil religion? Historically, secular rulers appeal to “higher powers” to legitimize and sanctify what are otherwise personal or parochial ambitions. A mythology is constructed that links the self-interests of individuals or communities with divine purpose. Once linked, self-interest becomes divine will. Caesar worship and the mythology of Rome is an obvious example from antiquity, and it played an important part in the persecution of Jesus and the followers of Jesus’ Way.
Roman authorities correctly understood that the Way of Jesus challenged the absolute claims civil religion made upon Roman citizens and subjects. The apostolic claim that “Jesus is Lord” implies that there can be no other lords before Jesus. The apostolic claim is much more than the compartmentalizing “Jesus is lord of my life”; the apostles asserted that Jesus is Lord of all creation, to whom all other lords must be subordinate. Clearly, those other lords would not be happy about this, and persecution followed.
Despite the persecution, Christianity spread and became more popular (not so much because of the brave witness of those tortured and murdered by Roman authorities, as romanticized Hollywood films present it, but because of the risky self-sacrificing service that Christians offered to those in need, especially during pandemics that ravaged cities of antiquity). Persecuting Christians lost popular support, and Roman rulers adapted to the changing political reality. So did civil religion.
The old civil religion of the Roman pantheon gave way to a new civil religion, popularly known as Christendom, which incorporated elements of Christianity. A mythology of Christendom was constructed linking political and social ambitions with divine purpose and will. A wholly secular program of self-serving conquest and control became a holy mission. And of course, violence, injustices, neglect, and atrocities that attend such holy missions were excused and justified by citing divine will.
Christendom, like any other civil religion, is not the Way of Jesus. Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Whereas civil religion pursues an entirely self-serving agenda, the Way of Jesus demands self-sacrifice for the benefit of the vulnerable and those in need. Whereas civil religion promotes the interests of a distinct community at the expense of others when necessary or expedient, the Way of Jesus regards all of humankind as God’s own and expects self-sacrificing love for friend and enemy alike. Whereas Christendom glorifies war, might, and conquest in pursuit of self-interest masquerading as holy mission, the Way of Jesus glorifies peace makers willing to sacrifice themselves and their own self-interests for the sake of Christ, the Lord.
Christendom is all around us in the United States. Scan news headlines over the past few weeks and consider the role that Christendom and its self-serving mythology play in the angry and hateful words and conduct surrounding discourse over the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, over the persons and intentions of our elected leaders, and over aliens living among us. What “god” is being worshipped in all this? Where is the Way of Jesus in this? How has Jesus’ lordship been compartmentalized and constrained, even among those claiming to be Christian?