Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship

Drawing on her personal experience as well as her knowledge of religious history, Diana Butler Bass examines the contours of the uniquely American relationship between church and state, Christian identity and patriotism, citizenship and congregational life. Broken We Kneel attempts to answer the central question that so many are struggling with in this age of terror: “To whom do Christians owe their deepest allegiance? God or country?” In writing both impassioned and historically informed, Bass, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., reflects on current events, personal experiences, and political questions that have sharpened the tensions between serious faith and national imperatives. This book incorporates the author’s own rich experience of faith, her vocation as a writer and teacher, and her roles as wife, mother, and churchgoer into a larger conversation with Christian practice and contemporary political issues. Broken We Kneel is a call to remember that the core of Christian identity is not always compatible with national political policies.

Topics: Social & Environmental Ministry. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship

  1. Review

    Our response as individuals and as a nation to the tragic event of September 11, 2001 has surfaced the issue of Christian faith identity and citizenship. The issue emerged with the mission and ministry of Jesus, the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire and has been a source of debate and conflict for twenty centuries in nations where Christian faith has been dominant. In this engaging and illuminating book, drawing on her personal experience as well as her knowledge of Scripture and history, the author offers us her reflections on the issue to-day. Diana Butler Bass is Director and Senior Fellow of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a Lily Endowment funded study of mainline Protestant churches. Her base is the Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, Virginia.

    Her reflections began, when, after 9/11 she found herself involved with many people who were struggling to understand the relationship between faith identity and and national identity. She became aware that American politicians and religious leaders, confronting a national crisis, were not articulating an understanding of the relationship of faith identity and citizenship, often called civil religion. She points out that there are two types of civil religion. There is the priestly “that tends to bless the established order, fusing ‘historic faith’ with ‘national sentiments.’” And there is the prophetic which “draws a distinction between traditional faith and the nation.” She was energized to write her book because of her concern about which type of civil religion would prevail. For she believes the choice will “determine how we understand justice, peace-making, reconciliation, community and America’s sense of global vocation.” She became sad, concerned and angry because it was soon obvious that the priestly type of civil religion of “zealous nationalism” was being offered in the public square by most politicians and religious leaders. So she calls her book “a spiritual lament,” a “witness” and an “invitation to journey with both one Christian and the Christian tradition into a conversation of faith and citizenship – one that has historical and contemporary dimensions.”

    The framework of her exploration is the distinction St. Augustine made in the midst of the crisis faced by the Roman empire when confronted by the invasion of Alaric and the Goths. He said that Christians live in “the city of God” and “the city of Man.” She writes, “The problem Augustine proposed, was that Christians – comfortable with imperially sanctioned faith – had forgotten their true citizenship. Rome had been too alluring. Christians had confused its fortunes with God’s blessings.”

    Augustine’s theology of the two cities was dramatized for her, when in the fall of 2001, she removed a United We Stand sign and American flag from the upstairs hall of a Church where she worked. She was challenged by one of the priests on staff who told her that some members of the congregation would be angry. It was then that she decided to start her Broken We Kneel campaign. She writes, “Not a flag. Flags are about victory. A cross. After all, that is what the New Testament teaches. Love our enemies. Pray for them. Pray for forgiveness of our own sins. Broken We Kneel.”

    She describes her campaign by sharing her conversations with her daughter, age four at the time, about honoring other faith traditions, charity and forgiveness. She tells of her discussion with an adult education class on the difference between God Bless America and Amazing Grace which she believes “represents a deep tension in American life between inclusive public piety and particular religious faith.” And she shares the painful story of her experiences at Christ Church, Alexandria, an example of a church which accommodated itself to American culture. By the summer of 2002, she knew that this church could no longer be her spiritual home. She and her family are now members of The Church of The Epiphany in Washington, D.C., a congregation which knows that their primary identity is “that of citizenship in God’s realm” and strives to be “faithful aliens” in the “city of man.”

    These experiences lead the author to wrestle with the actions of the United States acting unilaterally and preemptively against any threat to national security. She writes, “From public speeches and equally public acts, it appears that President Bush believes there is no tension between the United States, Christian Scripture and classical theology, and the emergence of an American global empire.” She wonders how anyone who is familiar with the New Testament cannot see “some contradiction between Jesus and Empire, the perils of equating God’s cause with the cause of a nation.”

    This timely book is invaluable for personal reflection on one’s faith commitment and for engaging a congregation in exploring the distinction between a “city of God” in a “city of Man.”

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