I attended my first “wolf pack” meeting with my son Elijah last night. I confess that I went into the meeting with deeply mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s much to love about the work of the scouts (despite my blog post’s title, we’re actually involved with the Cub Scouts at this point, not the Boy Scouts): they teach innumerable life skills, many I’d never get around to teaching my son, no matter how good my intentions, in part because I’m sure I don’t even possess many of them; they present invaluable opportunities, and therefore make it easy, to spend time with my son outdoors (where Oregon is at its finest); they emphasize virtues I prize, like honesty, persistence, courage, etc.; and they foster a culture of volunteerism and civic charity that is frankly rare (and I’m afraid becoming rarer) in late capitalist America, where increasingly you get what you pay for, and others, if they don’t or can’t pay, get nothing.Moreover, Elijah is a very gifted kid who nonetheless needs some help in some of these areas (honesty and persistence come to mind), and he will in all likelihood excel at and enjoy the geekier side of scouting (working through the books, accumulating badges, memorizing stuff, etc.). He’s also very excited about it, unlike various sporting opportunities we’ve suggested, and that’s a major plus.
On the other hand, I’m fairly deeply opposed to the civil religion at the heart of scouting. Whenever in a public context “country” follows “God,” separated only by “and,” I tend to look for the nearest exit, especially if we’re being asked to stand and pay homage to a battle flag. For some, this would be a sign of failure properly to love one’s country. For me, it’s part of an effort to love it rightly. In my view, “country” doesn’t belong in the same moral universe as “God,” and ranging them neatly alongside one another when publicly declaring our “duties” is just a clear sign of how far we’ve moved away from much older and more important public declarations, such as:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2–6)
And so in my view it’s the failure to even imagine that ranging “America” alongside “God” might be a problem that has made it so difficult for American Christians in particular to see the difference between the peace of Christ and the pax Americana—the peace made possible by the slain lamb of God, on the one hand, and the “peace” made possible by the army, navy, air force, and marines, on the other. A peace enacted for the sake of enemies, on the one hand, through the death of them, on the other. Which is a shame, because if Christians cannot resist the temptation to idolize the nation, who will? Who will exemplify a love of country that is modest and fitting, not prideful and overblown? For surely only a patriotism that is chaste, so to speak, will constitute a love of country that is actually good for it—not sycophantic and aggrandizing, but truthful and measured.
So it was uncomfortable to say the least when the young boy—possessed of a speech impediment yet beautifully empowered by his scouting experience to stand before us with confidence—led us in the opening flag ritual. The color guard was called to attention, we were asked to rise, the flags were marched down to the front of the fellowship hall (of my church! more on that below), we were asked to salute the flag, and we were then led in the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. Saying I felt like a fish out of water would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say I felt like somebody the scouts trains kids not to be—a spineless coward who compromised his deeper conviction for the sake of some lesser good. Lord, have mercy!
So if I knew this was coming—and I did—why in the world was I there in the first place? Good question, thanks for asking! It was a question pounding within in me as we stood there pledging allegiance to the flag. I’m fairly sure I don’t have an adequate answer at this point, though I can say that our decision to join the cub scout pack flowed out of a prior decision we’ve taken as a family more fully to embrace the neighborhood in which the church was planted so many years ago.
We recently moved out of the only house we’ve ever owned (now rented out) so that we could live in the parsonage next door to the church my wife serves as senior minister. We figure that commuter Christianity has outlived its usefulness, and that it’s high time we rediscovered the congregational neighborliness that has to be at the heart of what it means to be gathered disciples of Jesus Christ in this time and place. And like any good Methodist church, ours has hosted scout packs and troops since before time began. Pack 100 and Troop 100 are Eugene institutions, and they bring dozens of families inside the doors of our church every week, sometimes several nights a week. Their eagle scouts have done numerous major volunteer projects for the church. They give money to help repair things when they break. I could go on. My wife and I figured it was time to get to know some of these folk, beyond the select few we know well because they worship with us at Wesley. We now live next door, Elijah is of age . . . let’s do this neighborly thing!
I don’t have much more to add at this point. I’m as conflicted after the first wolf pack meeting as I suspected I would be. Is there a way to participate in cub and boy scouting with personal integrity for someone like me who shares anabaptist convictions about the Christian’s witness to the state? Can I help Elijah learn to “plunder the Egyptians,” taking away the real treasures while leaving behind the idols? These are some of my questions. Feel free to leave your answers—or other questions I’ve neglected—in the comments.