“Beside the rivers of the Potomac we sat and wept at the memory of our homeland, leaving our conga drums by the palm trees…. ‘Sing,’ they said, “some Mambo.” How can we sing our rumba in a pagan land? Mi patria, if I forget you, may my right hand wither” (Ps. 137).
Hispanics in this country are a people in exile, even for those born within the boundaries of the United States. Some are here by conquest (Mexico and Puerto Rico), others as consequences of gunboat diplomacy (Central America and the Caribbean). We are separated from the land from which we draw our identity and have come to realize that when our bodies are finally laid to rest, it will be as foreigners interred in an alien soil.
While our labor and natural resources are desired and/or exploited, we, ourselves, are not particularly welcome when we reject assimilation. For example, not long ago, Marta Laureano of Amarillo, Texas, was convicted by Judge Kiser of child abuse for solely teaching her 5-year-old daughter Spanish. To solely teach our children how to speak our language is considered child abuse?
Martin Marty, the Christian historian, claims that the U.S. is a secular society, where religious institutions have a secure but boxed-in space. Faith, as many Christians proclaim, is designated to the private, never public life. Christianity is reduced to personal piety as evident by our reference to Jesus Christ as our “personal” Savior.
Such a faith facilitates the goal of civil religion, which is to make an idol out of the society or culture it reflects and supports. God and country become fused and confused. To be a good Christian means being a good American, and vice-versa
This became evident years ago when I attended church on the Fourth of July, which happened to fall on a Sunday. Imagine my surprise to learn that Franklin, Jefferson and Washington were Bible-believing fundamentalists. (They were Deists who rejected the resurrection of Christ).
Imagine my discomfort to learn, “God cursed South America with abject poverty because the Spaniards came in search of gold, but blessed North America because the Anglos came in search of God.” (Native Americans thought that Europeans came in search of land, hence the reason for their decimation). Imagine how welcome I felt to Christianity that morning!
For most in this country, the flag by the altar symbolizes liberty, freedom and the American dream. But for the vast majority of those who live in this hemisphere, that same flag symbolizes imperialism, gunboat diplomacy, support of ruthless puppet dictators and the American nightmare. The altar of God is adulterated when the symbol of government, any government, is placed beside it.
It is blasphemy to bend one’s knees to both Caesar and Christ–refusing to do this, early Christians where convicted of atheism and thrown to the lions.
This is the type of atheism that our churches must advocate, an atheism that refuses to justify the nation through the biblical text. To have any nation’s flag (even the flag representing the land that witnessed my birth, Cuba) in the sanctuary fosters a seductive lure toward idolatry.
During the 1960s, many were concerned about the “God is dead” movement. The focus should not have been on whether God exists, but rather, “Who is this God whose existence we affirm or deny?”
Frankly, some gods are better off dead. The god of imperialism, the god of nationalism, the god of Pax Americana that protects the borders against “aliens” is better off dead. And let the dead bury the dead!
Instead, let those who call themselves Christians instead search for the living liberating God that defends the aliens, not the borders! Let Christians search for the Christ who can relate to the aliens, for He too was a refugee in Egypt due to the violent political repression of Herod, placed in power by the hegemony of the north.
Salvation must encompass the political and social realm and move beyond self-centered individualistic spirituality. Dead gods entice us to conform to the norms of a civil religion rather than obedience to a God that commands justice for all, even the “least” of us.
While it is blasphemous to have any nation’s flag by the altar, Christians should not abandon responsibility and commitment to their nation. Not a-la Falwell, whose moral majority succeeded in only strengthening the role of civil religion, but to stand up as active witnesses against economic, political and social injustices.
God will not be found in cathedrals made of crystal but among those oppressed by this unholy trinity on injustices. Hence, what you did to the least you did the Me. If this is true, are you willing to stand in solidarity with the least of Christ’s people against the idolatry of civil religion which masks itself as “God and country?”
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.