Singing the national anthem in church

A couple of days ago there was a dreadful attack in Christchurch in which a lone gunman managed to kill (currently) 50 people and injure many more in attacks on two local mosques as the people were gathered for Friday prayers.   People are stunned and appalled.  It is by the far the worst mass shooting in New Zealand history.

I suspect that in most church services this morning there would have been some response to the Christchurch outrage. I rather liked this response, at a church far distant (in every respect, theological, liturgical and geographic) from mine.

It seems fit and right that as we gathered to worship that we remembered those who died in such a high-profile attack (perhaps the more so as they died in the course of their own religious rituals).  A stark reminder, if ever we need it, that in the midst of life we are in death.  Perhaps too we contemplate the presence of evil, and remind ourselves afresh that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of each one of us.

But I was more uneasy with one aspect of our local congregation’s response.  The service opened with the singing (all verses) of one of our two national anthems, “God defend New Zealand”.   I didn’t join in.

It isn’t very often that congregations I’ve been part of have sung the national anthem, but I don’t think the questionable nature of doing so really struck home until we were living in the United States and one Sunday, probably around the 4th of July, we were invited to stand and sing “God bless America” –  not that national anthem but close enough for these purposes.   It jarred partly because we weren’t Americans (although our new-born son was, at least by law) and because we weren’t in hard-right territory, perhaps close to a military base: we were a couple of miles from a White House at a flourishing, somewhat liberal, Episcopal Church, and this must have been a few months after the invasion of Iraq.  I wouldn’t sing “God bless America” then, and I’ve quietly refused to sing “God defend New Zealand” in church since (and I’d probably take the same approach to our other anthem “God save the Queen”, which is a little less national in focus).

I have no particular problem with nationhood or (so-called) nation states.  For practical purposes, nations provide a good basis for the secure ordering of humankind (and I find Yoram Hazony’s new book on that subject mostly quite compelling), but they are as flawed as any human institution, even ones of long standing.  And yet….our nation (any nation, with the arguable possible exception of ancient Israel) isn’t some divine creation, and represents a lesser loyalty –  much lesser –  than our loyalty to the God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.   In my professional life I had to obtain fairly high-level security clearances on various occasions, and was always careful to be explicit on the forms that my first loyalty was to God, not to the political entity of New Zealand (much as I might care about its wellbeing and that of its people, especially to the extent they don’t act in defiance of God’s purposes and plans).   And I take Scripture as encouraging me to view myself as having more in common with fellow believers in Australia, Pakistan, Uganda, France or wherever than with those, also New Zealand citizens or residents, who worship some other (or no) God.

That is an easy line to articulate in the abstract, if hard to live in practice.  Didn’t churches of all stripes, probably on both sides, find that so in the great wars of the 20th century, or even in the local land wars of the 19th?   And yet isn’t that what we are called to, something very different from “my country right or wrong”, in its absolute or more-muted versions.  But if we can’t take it seriously in our words and actions in periods of local stress –  these last few days in New Zealand –  how will we if/when more difficult choices and challenges face us?  The writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it well

For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.

We are called to live as no more than resident aliens, perhaps seeking (and welcoming) the welfare of that city/country in which we currently dwell, but with our allegiances set on the city above.    In that vein, I can often sing –  with the anthem –  “from dissension, envy, hate, and corruption guard our state”, but I’m still not sure church is the place.

I’m ambivalent too about the hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country”.  Stirring as the tune is I can’t sing  –  and especially not in church  – the first verse with integrity (continuing as it does talking of “The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test”).   But Sir Cecil Spring Rice does balance that verse with the stunning second verse.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

That I can sing.

I suspect this is one of those issues on which Christians will never fully agree  (I liked these notes on the issue).  We are, of course, commanded to pray for kings and others in authority over us (and these were Roman authorities Paul talked of).   And yet, and yet, our gospel is good news to all mankind, without regard to tribe or nation.    I’d urge people to, at very least, stop and think about the message they are intending when they call Christian congregations to sing the national anthem as a centrepiece of a gathering for worship.

When our country is acting in a good and prudent way, when it is endangered in a worthy cause, I’ll happily sing either or both anthems in civic or private occasions. I’ll pray for those who dwell here, perhaps especially in shocking times of darkness.  I should too remember to pray for the offender that, in time, he too might truly repent and turn to Christ; none of us being beyond hope of salvation.

But in opening Christian worship (a) I won’t sing the national anthem, and (b) would much prefer to sing of a God, mysterious, inscrutable, and yet sovereign and revealed in Christ, working out his purposes for all peoples, all nations.   That –  not our earthly citizenship –  is the hope that should unite us.

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