What should we make of this story?
Apparently a school district in Indiana planned to hold its graduation ceremonies at a local church. I’m sure the church was thinking, “This is a way we can be generous and share with our community.” I’m sure the district was thinking something like, “This building seats more people than any of our venues, other than the football field, and since we can’t predict the weather, an indoor location would be perfect. Besides, the church is letting us use their space for free, so the price fits our budget.”
But as we see in the story, other people had other thoughts. One student thought ‘s/he would be “forced to submit to a religious environment that … will make me feel extremely uncomfortable and offended.”‘ A Jewish student ‘said s/he would not have attended the ceremony because s/he would “feel that the Cathedral is proselytizing its Christian beliefs … through its scriptures and symbols.”‘
Some of us might be inclined to respond, “But it’s only a church! How dangerous can a church be?” I agree with Mark Galli, the author of the piece in Christianity Today, that there is a good thing about these students being uncomfortable.
One the one hand, we need to relearn the power of our places. To do this, we’ll have to get beyond our buddy relationship with the American civil religion that sees a generic god underlying all religion and can find crosses and the Ten Commandments as mere “symbols,” and thus amenable to secular usage. While the god of civil religion is tame and fairly safe (as long as you’re an American), the real God, the Father of Jesus Christ, is dangerous. If one gets too close one just might become a believer, a follower of Jesus.
On the other hand, Christians need to recover a sense of the power of other places. As William Cavanaugh notes in his Myth of Religious Violence, the dividing line between “religions” and other socio-cultural phenomena is not as unambiguous as apologists for modern secularism would have us believe. Just as churches can be dangerous places for those who do not yet follow Jesus, temples of the other gods currently popular in our culture – Nike, Mammon, and Mars – can be dangerous for followers of Jesus.
Once we recognize the potential danger of these places, should we get engage these institutions through our court system? Bringing lawsuits has been the American way for several centuries now. I don’t think we ought to follow that strategy, however.
First, though our culture holds Nike, Mammon, Mars and their associates in high honor, it is mostly blind to the religious and devotional nature of their rites. Or to put it simply, we’d be laughed out of court. Given our Christian captivity to so many of these rites, we’d even have many of our fellow believers looking at us as if they need to call the men in white jackets to haul us away.
Second, Jesus has already declared that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him.” We also see that in his death and resurrection he has defeated all the principalities and powers. So toward these gods and their institutions we can have the same snarky attitude Isaiah exhibits toward those who make their own gods. More profoundly, however, we are called to go to their territory and rescue those who are now enslaved to those non-gods. A major way we do that is by publicly exhibiting a different lifestyle and allegiance to another kingdom.
A final consequence that comes to mind in this context is that Christians need to become more aware that the neutral institutions of our society – I think here primarily of our “public schools” – are rarely, if ever, neutral. In some communities, especially in small towns in the Bible Belt, there is still a veneer of Christian culture associated with the schools. But in the rest of the country, and in larger school systems, the point of the educational system is not merely a neutral and universally beneficial acquisition of “facts” and “skills,” but an enculturation into a particular way of living. Some Christians who recognize this withdraw and form their own schools. Others withdraw into home schools. Both can be effective ways of providing alternative enculturation (into the Kingdom of God). Of course, both strategies can be just plain withdrawal. When Christians pursue the strategy of keeping their kids within the educational structures of the dominant culture, they need to (a) stay aware of the power of enculturation into non-Christian ways of living, and (b) provide alternative enculturation that will enable young followers of Jesus to learn Kingdom living.