It has always bothered me that the First World War ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Was that when the diplomats actually reached an agreement to end the war, or did they decide a few days earlier and just waited for a nice round number? How many people died in those hours, maybe days, while men in suits sat around waiting to announce the ceasefire? In Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle clarify exactly what we are doing when we send our young men and women off to war. None of their data is new, but the language they use should shock us out of our ambivalence towards war.
In a famous article from 1967, a sociologist named Robert Bellah (1927-2013) coined the phrase “civil religion.” He analyzed speeches by John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon B. Johnson, showing that certain religious beliefs were deeply ingrained in American public discourse. American civil religion is not a substitute for Christianity, Bellah said, but when American politicians talk they assume a particular vision of God (the “American Jesus”), and treat their leaders like prophets, priests, or kings. They behave as if their nation was a sacred community with a special mission from God. In response to his critics, Bellah later clarified that he did not think American civil religion is “a form of national self-worship.” Marvin and Ingle disagree.
According to Marvin and Ingle, Americans worship their nation exactly as heathens worshiped their gods: through human sacrifice. They write, “the sacrificial system that binds American citizens has a sacred flag at its center. Patriotic rituals revere it as the embodiment of a bloodthirsty totem god who organizes killing energy. This totem god is the foundation of a mythic, religiously constructed American identity.” We commit our sons and daughters into the hands of God as we salute the flag and send them off to die in war. We gather around their coffins and praise them for laying down their lives for our “freedom.” It is their blood that binds the nation together. We sacrifice them, that the nation might live.
The idea that nations exist and deserve our allegiance is only a couple of hundred years old. Before then soldiers fought because their lords and masters made them. Now we take our poor, our naive, and sometimes our strongest and bravest, and we tell them that they are serving a noble cause: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. We tell them that they are killing for justice, freedom, and liberty, both for those at home and for those whose family members they are going to murder on the battlefield. If you have never read it, Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” (c. 1904) pointedly exposes the hypocrisy behind such lies.
Marvin and Ingle begin their analysis with the flag, which they see as a totem symbol. As a totem, the flag deserves respect and may not be dishonored. According to American law, “the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” The flag is sacred, and because it represents the nation, burning or desecrating the flag is a symbolic attack on America itself. Then they move on to blood sacrifice, and cleverly use old-school functionalist anthropology to show how the way that soldiers shed their blood in wartime functions in the same way that sacrificial rituals do in many non-Western cultures.
The point they are making is a simple one: religion is optional in American culture. It is okay to blaspheme or mock any and every religious belief. But it is not okay to mock the flag. You are not allowed to kill for your religious beliefs in our society. Anyone who does is a fanatic, an extremist, and a terrorist. But you can and must kill for the nation-state. If Christians are comfortable with this state of affairs, where do our loyalties really lie? Do we really worship the Almighty God who will one day destroy “all dominion, authority, and power” (1 Cor 15:24), or have we made idols of our flags and our countries? Caesar’s image may be printed on our coins, so we give our taxes to Caesar, but let us give to God what is God’s. Born again as His image-bearers, shouldn’t we give ourselves to Him, and not to Caesar?
For two hundred years nation-states have taken the lives of good men and women to serve the interests of a powerful few. Lest we forget.