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.
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