A memorial mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris for victims of the recent terror featured the French tri-colors illuminated on the altar. The organ played La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, prompting the congregation to stand. Some waved small French flags.
La Marseillaise is a very bloodthirsty song, written during the French Revolution to arouse the nation against invading armies, who sought to “to cut the throats of your sons, your women!” French patriots are urged to “let an impure blood [of the invader] water our furrows.”
By comparison, The Star Spangled Banner, which some complain is too militarist, is anodyne and almost pacifist. But the French anthem is intrinsic to the identity and history of the French people and nation. It wouldn’t suit the American people, but every nation has its own unique self understanding.
Watching the Notre Dame service recalls a somewhat similar service after 9-11 at National Cathedral in Washington, DC. It did not include The Star Spangled Banner but hymns like Mighty Fortress and Battle Hymn of the Republic. Billy Graham preached, and President Bush spoke.
Afterwards, Stanley Hauerwas, America’s most prominent pacifist theologian, complained that the National Cathedral service had essentially profaned an Episcopal mass with its calls for “vengeance.” Actually, there was no Eucharist, as the service was interfaith, and there were no specific calls for vengeance.
But Hauerwas has devoted a career to denouncing the church’s baptism of “empire,” as he sees it. This perspective in various forms is increasingly popular in elite American Christian thinking. Ostensibly national loyalties are an obstacle or distraction to the true Gospel.
One activist in this vein, reacting to post Paris controversies, declared: “The Church is the Bride of Christ, not the nation. The God of Creation works through the Church, not the nations. The Church is called to lay down its life for others. A command the nations cannot follow.” He insists “we need to stop asking…what the ungodly secular nations should do.”
This perspective is extremely separatist and echoes the neo-Anabaptist theology of Dr. Hauerwas. But nearly every branch of traditional Christianity understands that nations, like all creation, especially human institutions, are instruments of Divine Providence.
The above cited activist vehemently denies that America or any nation could ever be Christian. Even if his point is correct, the God Whom Christians worship is sovereign and does not limit His concerns to specifically Christian projects.
France is less religious than the United States, and its modern political tradition is more specifically secular. Yet Christian theology teaches that God appointed France for particular purposes in human history, and God certainly loves France. There is a civil and spiritual good in the French people loving and serving their nation, as opposed to seeking only narrowly self interests or bifercating into a multitude of competing tribes.
The archbishop of Paris and his priests at Notre Dame almost certainly understood what they were doing by displaying the tri-colors and performing La Marseillaise. The Church in every nation is called to serve its people, to console, to encourage, to summon to greater heights of human service. Christians exemplify their love by starting with concern for their own immediate community, which includes their nation.
No, nations don’t offer salvation. But like families and other human communities, they are divinely ordained for human flourishing. Christians are called to seek the welfare of their particular nation. We can all pray that French Christians will serve and lead France, even and above all secular France, in the pathways of justice, peace and righteousness.