That Fourth of July Picnic Might Be on a Table of Demons

What I learned about holidays and faith from my Jehovah’s Witness sister.

My sister and I both left the Catholic faith of our upbringing, but we ended up in different, often steadfastly opposed churches. I belong to a United Church of Christ congregation and my sister is a Jehovah’s Witness.

Trust me, I tried my best to argue against the visiting teachers who were indoctrinating her with Watchtowers and personal tutoring sessions lo those many years ago. I was surprised that my sister wasn’t raising any questions of her own, just swallowing their tightly controlled Q&A without a peep. Wasn’t that part of why we left Catholicism, all that rote catechism and their allergy to our questions?

In my UCC congregation, we pride ourselves on asking questions and even in claiming to not know or need answers. We look down on certainty and blind allegiance to church teaching as anti-intellectual, the refuge of the weak minded. We don’t think we have anything to learn from such simple-minded faith. Why can’t my sister see the evident superiority of my church? Instead, she has refused to even step foot in our church building. Something about Protestants — and Catholics for that matter — having fallen under the influence of Satan.

Even though most of our arguments over the years have ended in draws, I have clung to a sense of superiority. After all, I have magnanimously attended Jehovah’s Witness Sunday services, a funeral, a wedding, and my nephew’s baptism at a regional conference. I felt I’d earned a rating as open, nonjudgmental, and intellectually honest. Perhaps too gleefully, I gave her demerits for being closed-minded, allergic to reason and very judgmental.

But a question nagged at me: Was I the one being too judgmental? Maybe. Over the years, I have come to believe that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are among us for a reason — that mainline Protestants and Catholics, and reform movements within those traditions, would benefit immensely from taking their witness seriously. We can debate biblical translations, hermeneutics, end time scenarios, doctrines of salvation or Trinitarian theology till we are blue in the face without ever reaching consensus. But what if we took each other’s witnessseriously? What if I were as open-minded as I wanted to rate myself for being?

Patriotism and Public Sacrifice

Here’s an example of why I think we need Jehovah’s Witnesses today. On July 4, my son and daughter-in-law will host a smoked chicken and spare ribs barbecue while fireworks from neighboring towns blaze around their backyard. While we are waving our flags with differing degrees of enthusiasm, my sister will not be there. As much as we’ve tried to persuade her that the holiday is just an excuse for the family to get together, she will not give succor to patriotic fervor. By partaking of our celebration, she feels that she risks having her attendance misinterpreted as an endorsement of our devotion to nation.

My sister seems to be taking seriously a few verses I have glossed over perhaps too quickly, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians against participating in the patriotic acts of their day: public sacrifices.

I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of the demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20-21)

In ancient Rome, pagan sacrifices were a patriotic obligation, a kind of pledge of allegiance, if you will, to the republic. They were also a food distribution system. Eating at the “table of demons” provided a regular source of meat for Roman families. To participate in the sacrifice was just common sense, a go-along-to-get-along kind of choice. And Paul understood that. He agreed that we can eat of the table of demons without harm, if we “partake with thankfulness.” The right attitude seems to matter, our intention is important.

But Paul’s reasoning doesn’t end there. He argued that more important than the condition of our spirits was the impact our behavior might have on others. Listen to his warning:

But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience — I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. (1 Corinthians 10:28-29a)

In this case, Paul says, the invitation to partake of the meat is a test. The open declaration — “This has been offered in sacrifice” — is a sort of trick. If you eat after such a declaration, it can too easily be interpreted as tacit approval of the values of the pagan table, thus easing everyone’s conscience. In that case, for the sake of others, you had better, and publically, refuse to eat.

I began to wonder: What if our annual invitation to my sister is the same sort of trick to win her endorsement of our ritual table? Would her presence ease our consciences a little bit, assuring us that we can participate in patriotic rituals without it having an impact on our allegiance to God?

Paul’s counsel to his fellow Jesus-followers began to sting. By attending the barbecue with family and friends who know without a doubt that I believe in the nonviolence of God and the idolatry of patriotic wars, was my partaking of the barbecue a counter-witness to my beliefs? My sister and I have always found common ground on the belief that “cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” because those tables induct you into very different beliefs and practices. Like other peace churches and many reform Christian movements today, the Witnesses affirm that when a nation goes to war and demands allegiance from its citizens, it is seducing us into idolatry. To kill another in the name of patriotic duty is to put service of nation above service to God. I believe the same thing.

Some in my family take umbrage at being compared to demons just because we will be eating smoked meats at a ritual remembrance of patriotic violence. I will try my best to keep my conscience clear by participating with a spirit of thankfulness, but the question remains whether a deeper witness is called for. My sister long ago gave up the pleasure of a lip-smacking barbecue as part of her commitment to peace. Perhaps this Fourth of July, it would be good for all of us to wonder if we are partaking of the wrong table.


Image via Shutterstock.

Suzanne Ross
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  • David Cousins

    Obviously the point there by Paul was clearly about paganism…not patriotism.
    I don’t hate JW’s. I disagree with a lot of what they teach (except about soul sleep). But I would be more fearful of the UCC. Talk about a church that no longer believes in God… least not for real.

    • Rhysem

      Love them or hate them, in this regard the JW interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:28 is correct. Paganism was the state religion of Rome, it was a matter of Patriotic Duty to perform, engage, and participate in ritual sacrifices. Many early Christians were martyred for refusing. There are several other passages of the New Testament that warn against patriotism to the state, as well, so 1 Corinthians 10:28 doesn’t stand alone. In biblical context, the Pledge of Allegiance is idolatry as is the National Anthem, both give honor and respect to an inanimate object rather than to God, which is of course the definition of idolatry.

    • Greg

      David – I see the UCC as post-Christian.

  • bdlaacmm

    Love of one’s country should never be automatically equated to support for violence. True patriotism is pride in your community and a feeling of “we’re all in this together.” Patriotism is treating fellow citizens as family – with respect, dignity, and joy in others’ accomplishments. Patriotism is cheerfully paying your fair fair of taxes to ensure that public infrastructure is properly maintained. Patriotism is neighbors making a habit of helping neighbors, and everyone helping the victims of natural disasters get back on their feet. Patriotism is also a love of the land, the water, the sky above us – and an eagerness to preserve and protect our common heritage.

    Patriotism is also extending a welcoming hand to those who find their way to our shores, escaping violence, poverty, or oppression at home – remembering that Our Lord Himself was for a time an exile in Egypt, fleeing the murderous wrath of Herod.

    War? Violence?They’ve got nothing to do with it.

  • Greg

    Suzanne Ross: When you celebrate someone’s birthday are you “tacitly approving” of all the lies they’ve ever told in their life? Do you see yourself as honoring them for all the things they’ve stolen throughout their life? Are you celebrating the times they cheated in school, or in a game, or on their taxes? Do you ballyhoo them for every racist slur ever uttered out loud, or in their own mind, from childhood on? Are you approving of all of their countless hours of jealousy, petty gossip and slander that they’ve engaged in throughout their life? Are you singling out marital infidelity, or an online porno habit for praise? In other words, are you honoring evil, or making a pagan-like idol out of flawed and sinful human being?

    Every time you sing “Happy Birthday” and eat a piece of birthday cake, you are partaking in the “table of demons,” at least according to the JWs.

    So it seems to me that in your self-proclaimed open-mindedness, and earnest desire to take your own witness to the truth of the gospel more seriously, not only should you recuse yourself from Fourth of July celebrations, but also from all birthdays, anniversaries, promotion parties, retirement luncheons, funerals, the observations of Columbus, Memorial, Veterans, Presidents, and Martin Luther King Day (Now there’s a man, who in spite of all the good that he did, was deeply flawed and sinful.)

    Or you could grow up and make moral, ethical, and historical distinctions and function in the adult world.

  • surfingatwork

    Suzanne, any person who has ever stated they are open minded, I have found in my life to be the opposite. Close minded to the point of inane. Just some of your sentences regarding Catholicism prove this. So you walked away from being a Catholic, That’s certainly fine to me. But then you have to go and bash Catholics for not answering your questions. Being an adult ( and frankly an intellectual) is being able to hold multiple version of the same truth in your mind and see each of their pros and cons. Not to stand there in judgement on your sister on anyone else. I think you are the inverse of a Godly person. Judge not lest you be judged. Ever hear of that? I know Congregationalists read the bible too. Perhaps, you should revisit your own spatiality and not worry about anyone else’s.

    • Greg

      I must concur with your terse point to Suzanne, “So you walked away from being a Catholic. That’s certainly fine to me.” And indeed, to me as well. However, I find it interesting that both she and her sister left the church. Suzanne joined one of the most anti-Catholic denominations on the Left, and her sister joined one of the most anti-Catholic denominations on the Right. “Hmm!” as Freud would say.

      Obviously I can’t know this for sure, but my guess is that their rejection of Catholicism, and embrace of a form of religious anti-Catholicism, has more to do with the way they internalized the “faith” as taught and lived out by their parents, than by anything the church ever visited upon them. Of course, not always, but I’ve found that often enough, leaving the faith (or lack thereof) of your parents, is a great big “F.U.” to mommy and daddy.

      But on another, more surface level, Suzanne’s essay is nothing more than a tired old ritual that has to be endured several times a year. Liberals cannot resist the urge to tell everyone, especially during national holidays, why they don’t like America, or what’s wrong with America. They see this as the height of intelligence and “true patriotism.”

      To the religious Left, the Catholic Church is always on trial, and they are the prosecution. To the political Left, the United States is always on trial, and again, they are the prosecution. Luckily for Suzanne Ross, she is both religiously and politically Left, so she has dozens of opportunities a year to expound her derision on both entities. Heck, in just the next three months we’ll go through observances of 9/11, Columbus Day, and Reformation Sunday. Plenty of fodder there!

  • James Stagg

    Dear Suzanne,

    Consider an alternative voice on the celebration of patriotism from Mark Tooley’s article today, a mature look at what it means to live in this country and be allowed to question what you have questioned this day:

    “Yet Providence has frequently and repeatedly deployed our nation for mighty works of righteousness, despite the constant unworthiness of our citizens. We should not be proud but grateful for America’s moral and material accomplishments, by God’s grace, and our nation’s continuing central role in human history. We have a duty to model lawful liberty and responsible prosperity to the rest of the world, which, however grudgingly, still often looks to the United States. America must continue to lead the global economy, promote humanitarianism, and preside over global security.

    There are no appealing or even plausible alternatives to American leadership anywhere on the global horizon for decades to come. Many Christians are apprehensive about speaking of America as specially chosen, or exceptional. But every human individual and community is divinely chosen for particular purposes. The United States, with more influence over the world than any other country, now or ever, has commensurately large responsibilities that we cannot possibly deny or shirk. Such duties for our nation are both humbling and honoring. And to the extent that God presides over all human events, our nation’s special role is His gracious will for this time.

    In the founding document for my organization, called “Christianity and Democracy,” the late Richard John Neuhaus naturally rejected that America is a new Israel offering redemption to the world. He readily acknowledged that God has no special covenant with America. But he said: ‘In this continuing quest to secure a freedom that is worthy of a humanity made in God’s image and likeness, we believe that the United States of America is, on balance and considering the alternatives, a force for good,’ while readily admitting America is ‘far from having fully actualized that ideal in its own life.’ And he made clear: ‘Because America is a large and influential part of creation, because America is the home of most of the heirs of Israel of old, and because this is a land in which his church is vibrantly free to live and proclaim the Gospel to the world, we believe that America has a peculiar place in God’s promises and purposes.’ He emphasized that America ‘under God’ means ‘under judgment,’ with a special vocation that includes serving as the “primary bearer of democratic possibility in the world today.” Such a statement for him was not nationalistic but simply factual, and fraught with ‘grave responsibility.’ Neuhaus likewise declared: ‘We are also mindful that this is the nation for which we are most immediately accountable.’”

    How profound.

  • kevinjkidd

    Ummm…what I find quite challenging among the 7 million adherents of the Jehovah Witness religion is this…is there none who are curious enough to ask this very simple, very basic question…What is the linguistic training (level of expertise) of the four translators credited with translating the Jehovah Witness version of the Bible (New World Translation) from Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic to English?

    If anyone with the slightest of curiosity about their faith were to dig just a little on this issue, it seems to me, they would say, “Oh my gosh! I’ve been duped all these years. No wonder I’m only permitted to read this one translation of the Bible.”

    One doesn’t have to possess private investigator-level of curiosity to discover the hidden secret about the JW translators. Just a simple inquiring mind leads you to a discovery that has you turning your back to the JWs and running in pursuit of truth.