God’s Competition with Race, Gender and Nationalism

By Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler

“O say can you see,” stood in the place where God should be, and it didn’t wave but passively stood, planted, and seemingly unmovable across from the Christian flag, that is also red, white and blue. This is the scene in so many Christian houses of worship across the country. It serves as a reminder to the congregants that they are not only in America, but quietly and effectively offers the assertion that America is a Christian country, founded on Christian principles, and in order to be a good American necessitates being a Christian. Or, in the synagogue, on the Bimah, often stands two flags, an American one and the Star of David, that confirms not only American loyalty, but loyalty to another country, and to another political ideology. These symbols are not too subtle, and the implied message is God and country, and country or countries on the same level as God.

According to the theologies of the Judeo-Christian traditions there is no god greater than God, and there is this timeless struggle against idol worship in all its manifestations. We caution against worshipping money and riches, against pride and arrogance, we call for humility and the extension of love to our neighbors down the street and across the globe. We pray to keep God before us and above us, and seek to be accountable to that God. We strive to create a synthesis between our daily living and our worship, and seek to allow nothing to supplant the prominence of God in our lives. Yet, on these altars, these places that are set high and represents the loftiness and sacredness of God, stands symbols of nationalistic pride. They are placed in the place where the spirit and concept of God should reside, and we are therefore declaring that God must share sacred space with nationalistic symbols of pride, arrogance and militarism. Some would suggest that this is simply patriotism, but patriotism placed on the altar alongside the conceptional sacredness of God is the height of idolatry, and in Christian text we are taught,

“No one can serve two masters…” (Matthew 6.24)

Messages conveyed in sacred settings subtilely and yet strongly enculturates the participants without people even realizing that their thinking and perspectives are altered in the environment by the images, words, and other expressions presented. There has been fierce arguments about the gender and race of God, because the religious culture has usually asserted the maleness and Whiteness of God. In the Black church, for example, there has been a reticence to allow a White Jesus to collect the dust of obsolescence. The reason is that people have for centuries seen images of a White Jesus and that image has been affirmed by the brutality, colonialism, and construction of White Supremacy. Feminist theologian, the late Mary Daly, writes in her book, “Beyond God the Father, Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation”,

“If God is male, then the male is God”

She outlines the issue of images and language and discusses how we are captive and alienated because of those images and expressions. In the same way, as God (Jesus) has been portrayed as a blonde, blue-eyed European for so many years its has impacted the human psychic. If I can paraphrase Mary Daly by saying, ‘If God is White, then White is God.’ This would be an adequate and fair translation of Mary Daly’s logic orientated towards race. The equation of God as White, male and American cannot be better described than by Reza Aslan, author of the book “Zealot”, Iranian born, whose family migrated to the US, who writes in the preface of that book,

“Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.”

The images and the placement of expressions of Divinity are not accidental but purposefully carried out to encounter the culture, and as a consequence condition people into a flawed understanding of what is important, valuable, and superior, and where the expressions usually affirms maleness and Whiteness.

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC had a window in its sanctuary that was removed in 2017 that honored Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Confederacy. In the face of Black Lives Matter protests and the numerous campaigns around removing statutes and images that elevated and legitimized the Confederacy the leaders of the church finally heeded the demands of the time. The cathedral also took the initiative of choosing a Black artist, Kerry James Marshall, to design a new stained glass with themes of racial justice that will replace the confederate windows. The leaders of the cathedral intends that the new windows will depict “a new and more complete” story of the nation’s racial history. They have also recruited Black poet Elizabeth Alexander to write a poem that will be inscribed in stone tablets alongside the new windows.

But,  without challenging images, monuments, flags, and stained-glass windows the normalcy of things offensive and hurtful continues to be offered, and embedded in the consciousness of the observer, distorting our beliefs, contributing to our collective biases, misconceptions, and feeding our most unwelcoming and often violent reactions to new thoughts, people and the re-examination of concocted American narratives.

God has been supplanted by the various images and expressions of the culture. There is prosperity theology that feeds our capitalist tendencies. There is also Christian Zionism that weds itself with Zionism in a twisted theology supporting occupation and oppression of Palestinians, even while ignoring the destruction leveled at Palestinian Christians. And, from the pulpit or the Bimah, while lined with a flag of one kind or another, we look to the presence of God, but see instead the symbols of nationalism, exclusivism, and militarism where God should be. We conflate God with the flag, and the flag with God and misplace our worship and God in the process.

It is time for us to re-examine and correct what we have done with God. Is is time that we tear down the idolatrous images of nationalism and narcissistic pride and worship God in the simplicity and awesomeness of the existence of God. We need to examine the “maleness” of the language we use, and free God from the confines and limits of “maleness”, race and nationalism. The challenge for us is to recognize our cultural predilections and discern what we have attached to God. This will then begin a re-examining and a deconstructing process. This process will get us to a God that is not contaminated with the culture, but holds all cultural affairs accountable and to a higher standard. The theological struggle in this historical moment of political and theological rancor, is to discover a God that is freed from the projected supremacy of nationalism, race, and gender dominance. We need to endeavor to discover a God of inclusion that is welcoming and warm, when we strip God of race, gender, national identity and pride. In other words, we have to discover a God that is free from our cultural expressions and biased language, and grow comfortable with a Holy and Divine Being that is more amorphous and is beyond our human definitions and confinements. One of my professors in seminary, Dr. Simon Maimela, declared that God was God in Godself, meaning that God exists above and beyond anything we know or can describe. God is not male, and God is not White, Republican, Democrat, Socialist, American, or of any other nationality or political persuasion, but God is God in God’s own being. God is not wrapped in the American flag or the Star of David, or any other flag, but the existence of God is defined only by the being of God, and stretches beyond our words or the limits of human language. This means that the Holy One, the Sacred One, the One that is Divine is beyond our human expressions, defying our nationalistic images and tendencies or expressions of cultural, race and gender superiority. In other words, we need to free God to become God.   

Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.  Rev. Hagler served for 30 years as Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington, DC, and is now Pastor Emeritus. He currently serves as Senior Advisor to Fellowship of Reconciliation, USA. He is a proponent of liberation theology and teaches on the radical Jesus.  Rev. Hagler was instrumental in ridding Washington, DC of Payday Lenders, was a co-founder of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), and is Director and Chief Visionary of Faith Strategies, LLC, a collective of clergy manifesting progressive perspectives on human and civil rights in the public arena.

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