I really like Chris Pratt. I liked his ‘9 rules,’ which used a platform given by MTV (of all places) to deliver a few simple Christian messages—a person is of more than material value, embarrassment is nothing to be afraid of, kindness matters, and we are beloved of God.
Right at the end, though, there was a moment that my ears prick up: “grace is a gift. Like the freedom that we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget that. Don’t take that for granted.” The idea that American freedom was paid for in military blood is, of course, ubiquitous—throughout the controversy over Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests, no-one in mainstream discourse has questioned the idea that the freedom to protest is enjoyed because of military sacrifice. But before Pratt’s speech, I’d never realized this was an atonement theology.
America is a very strange place. Coming from another country, it’s strange that the national anthem is played before every single league game in every single sport. Beneath the surface, the reflexive identification of flag, anthem, and military is strange. The outrage to Kaepernick’s protest is extremely strange; not just that there is outrage, but its tenor and vitriol, the fact it has become a part of national self-definition in certain sectors of the US.1 Part of this strangeness is grounded in the very strange theology at the heart of ‘American’ self-understanding; the narrative that American history tells about itself, as part of a providential order. And I think the analogy between the death of American soldiers and the death of Jesus Christ, so effortlessly made by Pratt, can make sense of why so many do not hear the anthem protests for what they are. As a non-American, I think it worth writing things which can make these strangenesses a little clearer.
Beginning with a general observation—it is very hard to make generalizations about America. It might have more internal cultural diversity than the Europe, clouded by the fact of a common language and name. In An American Dilemma though (a blinkered but useful book), Gunnar Myrdal stipulates the existence of an ‘American Creed;’ the belief that the set of liberal humanist and Christian ideals including “the essential dignity of every human being, of the fundamental equality of all men [sic], and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and a fair opportunity represent the essential meaning of the nation’s early struggle for independence.”2 This is patently not true of all Americans (both for better and for worse). But if there is a general principle governing mainstream American discourse, whether politics, newspapers, or Hollywood, it cuts pretty close to the bone. This can then have the following effect: because these values constitute the meaning of the nation’s origin and providential birth, to be an American means to live these values; to fail to live these values is to fail to be what one is; and to fail in this way is more than most souls can bear. This is, I believe, partly why ‘this is not who we are’ is a common refrain on the left. On the right, something different is at work—it is simply impossible to accept the guilt that Kaepernick is asserting, because to do so would be to admit a kind of guilt which denies the possibility of an ‘American’ identity. Indeed, ‘guilt’ is an impossible concept in a number of American conceptual spaces; given what ‘America’ understands itself to be, in history books at least, a guilty American cannot make sense (this may touch of the nexus of issues surrounding citizenship and criminality).
Turning specifically to Pratt’s analogy between grace and military sacrifice—within the paradigm set by this analogy, it is only possible to realize this American Creed because of military deaths. The parallel between Christ and the soldier is easy to draw. Jesus Christ died for us so that we can be free from sin, and so live regenerate lives. The soldier died for us so that we can be free from tyranny, and so live the freedom of the American Creed.
If this holds, it has several disturbing effects which preclude the possibility of hearing Colin Kaepernick’s protest (and it is important to remember that the police are thought of in the same terms as the military here). First, it precludes seeing the object of this protest as an object of critique. This analogy carries a trinitarian logic into the American military hierarchy. Jesus Christ does not act alone in our salvation; he acts as the Son sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit. To affirm that we are saved in Christ’s crucifixion is to say we are saved through the will of the Father, then that salvation consists in his presence through the Spirit. I don’t think it too much a stretch to say that, if a Soldier is the son, then the DoD is the father and Freedom is the spirit. For all their fear of government then, a certain tranche of Americans comes to see the orders given on the battlefield as very akin indeed to divine command—with foreign policy the ordering of providence. One doesn’t need to draw the analogy too tightly, however, to note that if a soldier’s death must be seen as saving, then the principles and policies for which the soldier dies cannot be critiqued. Jesus’ death cannot save if the Father is in fact a tyrant. A soldier cannot have died for our freedom if the war they fought was for nothing; if the power that sends them does not act for freedom. And since it is axiomatic that soldiers have died for our freedom, the will to which they are obedient cannot be wrong.
Secondly, it precludes seeing the mode of protest as legitimate. Refusing gratitude and worship to Jesus is a failure to recognize his sacrifice for what it is. It is a rejection of the very means of salvation. On the human side, then, the necessary condition of salvation becomes gratitude for Jesus’ death. This is not to say that nothing else matters, such as love and Christian charity; just that without this, nothing else is possible (I should be clear here that I’m sketching a theology I think to be generally prevalent, not asserting one). Analogously, the American soldier died so that we could be free, and so live American lives. Failing to show gratitude for this sacrifice means refusing the foundation of the American creed, and so rejecting America. One simply cannot fail to be grateful for the soldier—for whatever reason—and still be numbered among the good. Again, then, the act of gratitude and respect becomes the necessary condition of American life: we must offer our thanks for those who freed us from tyranny, whether it be Satan‘s or King George’s. This analogy never needs to be made explicit to be taught—one only needs to be told that ‘x died so that you might be free,’ and one only needs to be trained to reverence the flag as if it were a cross. There is, moreover, a genuinely good impulse here, a desire to do what one has been taught is the right thing for the right reasons.
Finally, the analogy between Christ and soldier concretizes an account of the atonement as the militaristic defeat of evil, one at least some of us must be called upon to repeat, but which also negates the coherent possibility of our continued sinfulness. Foreign peoples and ways of life occupy the place of sin: either non-Westerners must be liberated from their sinfulness, or they represent the demons which grace must destroy. American soldiers are the substitionary sacrifices, whose place we would have to take if they were not there (after all, without the war they fight, there could be no freedom). Finally, the world made possible through this sacrifice is that of the American Creed, such that—as above—guilt is rendered impossible, especially guilt over modern day lynchings. One cannot be simultaneously justified and sinful, Luther’s famous ‘simul justus et peccator,’ in this redeemed state. One of these states must crowd out the other, even at the cost of self-deception or self-loathing. And in this case, the cost is a pathological inability to see American injustice as injustice, justified on the basis that either to do so or to draw attention to this is to disrespect those who died for American freedom.
None of this, of course, says anything much about actual soldiers—just the effect that the analogy between Soldier and Christ has in American political imagination. It is after all possible to respect both a soldier’s valor and the sacrifices made without attaching that sacrifice to a specific iteration of atonement theology, or venerating it through national symbolism. The peculiar power of the analogy to Christ, however, is that it makes it very hard to publicly interrogate these effects without ‘disrespecting the troops.’ If one denies the goodness of God’s will, after all, one denies that Jesus saves; and this is, for many Christians, to deny who Jesus is, to defame him. So too one cannot publicly critique the hierarchy or the liturgy of war without opening oneself to the charge of disrespecting those who have put their lives on the line. This is important, because one thing that remains true is that a great many soldiers go through hell; a great many do sacrifice. The crucial point is that this hell has been cast as part of a deceptive atonement theology which demands the endless repetition of substitutionary sacrifice. Indeed, the ideological block on critiquing the Christic image of the American soldier paradoxically blocks the possibility of seeing one analogy between soldiers and Christ which does hold—that on the human side, their deaths are caused by sin and effected through governmental violence.
I think these are some of the raw theopolitical nerves touched by the anthem protests. If American freedom is paid for by another’s blood like Christian grace, certain lines of thought are rendered impossible. One cannot ask whether or not the majority of soldiers have in fact died for that freedom—this dishonors their sacrifice. One cannot protest for this freedom through symbols used to commemorate them—this is a blasphemy that denies the freedom it supposedly fights for. And one cannot imagine a freedom not grounded in war, just as many Christians (including myself) cannot imagine salvation apart from Jesus on the Cross. A great many Americans, then, cannot see Colin Kaepernick through the Christic image of the American soldier, borne witness to by the wonderful Chris Pratt.
To wrap up; while talking through this post with my partner, she immediately referenced ‘slaves’ rather than ‘soldiers’ when I recited Pratt’s claim that American freedom was paid for by another’s blood. There are plenty who have drawn this kind of argument, not least the late James Cone—but it is always worth asking how America might be different, what its theopolitics of atonement might look like, if its mainstream political imaginary identified Jesus Christ with slaves and indigenous populations before American soldiers. It is worth asking how this is being accomplished. There are a great many nuances that must be worked through here (not least the way military recruitment preys on non-white neighborhoods). But this is, at least, a theological idea consistent with the heart of Kaepernick’s devout kneeling.
- Jeremy Corbyn did cop some flak for not singing the British anthem at a service specifically commemorating the military in 2015, certainly. But outside of The Daily Mail, this did not become a moment of national self-definition. And everyone, even the most ardently conservative pundits, accepted the principle that anti-monarchists weren’t really going to embrace the anthem and what it stood for. ↩
- Myrdal, An American Dilemma, p.4 Myrdal set out in the 1930s to make sense of how this creed could be held by people who agitated for and supported racial segregation, analyzing the situation as a America’s internal conflict. The limits of his analysis are shown by the fact he doesn’t question whether or not the values themselves actually were inconsistent with racial segregation and oppression. ↩