It’s July 4: Time for Some Chesterton

In my ecclesiastical neck of the woods (Anglicanism) we are fond of dividing holidays into civic celebrations set forth by the state, and liturgical celebrations making up the “church year” which derive from Christ’s life (and, in terms of lesser holidays, from the lives of his mom and the saints, but that’s another post.) Part of the way we view the church year is that it serves to form people into an alternate calendar that is deliberately meant to counter their participation in the civic one. This was not the way the church year operated at the height of medieval Christendom, but it was how it did in the early church and how most people intend it to today.

I sat down today to write a post for the Fourth of July and realized that this distinction is inimical to the purposes of this blog. One of the founding tenets of the faith and work movement is that there is no “sacred-secular” distinction: certain occupations are not holier than others and neither are certain days. (Of course, this raises the question about occupations that by their very nature require sin to accomplish them. Those do get exempted. But incidentally there’s a whole genre of books and articles developing that essentially argue that all work requires sin, and that’s a genre we need to wrestle with.)

On what grounds, then, can I be reduced to awe by the salvation story told to me by Christmas and Easter, but nervous about the way the Fourth of July tries to present to me an alternative salvation story?

As usual when in my times of religio-political need, I turn to Chesterton. He really did say

“‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

And he also said this about the problems with his own country in his own time and place:

In other words, the trouble with democracy is not democracy. It is certain artificial anti-democratic things that have, in fact, thrust themselves into the modern world to thwart and destroy democracy…..The truth is that these Liberals never did really believe in popular government, any more than in anything else that was popular, such as pubs or the Dublin Sweepstakes. They did not believe in the democracy they invoked against kings and priests. But I did believe in it; and I do believe in it, though I much preferred to invoke it against prigs and faddists. I still believe it would be the most human sort of government, if it could be once more attempted in a more human time.

Unfortunately, humanitarianism has been the mark of an inhuman time. And by inhumanity I do not mean merely cruelty; I mean the condition in which even cruelty ceases to be human. I mean the condition in which the rich man, instead of hanging six or seven of his enemies because he hates them, merely beggars and starves to death six or seven thousand people whom he does not hate, and has never seen, because they live at the other side of the world.

I remember once remarking that I wished I lived in a country about which I could have a normal amount of patriotism; not the excessive amount from certain elements of the “right” which proclaims this country as superior to all others in all times and places, nor what seems to me to be the equally excessive desire from certain elements of the “left” to proclaim it as worse than others in all times and places. Where is the space to be proud of the particular people and place which gave you birth, while still critiquing that people and place when needed? (“Go home, Mom, you’re drunk.”)

Is it possible that the only country where which we can truly take pride in our citizenship after all is the heavenly one? Do we need a sacred-secular divide after all? Can our movement evolve a theory which honors all honest work but also reminds us that the story of Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter, of Christ’s birth and death and resurrection and eventual triumphant return is always the primary one? That holding to that lodestar is the only true way to “confirm our soul in self-control, our liberty in law”?

  One thought on “It’s July 4: Time for Some Chesterton

  1. Greg Forster
    July 4, 2018 at 11:21 am

    In the world of academic theology I believe there is a huge unacknowledged anxiety that we will lose the distinction between the church and the world if we embrace the faith and work insight (it if we do so without a rigid framework for separating “church stuff” and “work stuff” into watertight compartments before we admit the legitimacy of the “work stuff”).

    What we need to be able to do is recognize the distinction between Christian life in the church and Christian life in the world without building an impermeable wall between them (because they must inform each other in both directions).


    • Jennifer Woodruff Tait
      July 5, 2018 at 10:04 am

      “What we need to be able to do is recognize the distinction between Christian life in the church and Christian life in the world without building an impermeable wall between them (because they must inform each other in both directions”

      I agree. I think my question is around which one is ultimately primary. In relation to this specific post, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ needs to be a stronger influence on my work than the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and my work done with excellence ultimately needs to point back to Christ, not 1776. Note I said stronger, not only. Obviously, my country of citizenship and my culture will have some influence on how I do my work, what kinds of work I am able and allowed to do, what terms I frame it in, etc. But is it possible to say that all work is holy and also say that if Jesus ever seems in the Christian community’s best wisdom and discernment to be opposing the civic order, then Jesus wins? I think it is possible. I’m fumbling towards how to say so better.


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