On this Independence Day Weekend, we need to ponder what it means to be a follower of Jesus in 21st century America. I realize there are many good responses, but given our congregational history of concern for the well-being of our community and beyond, it is appropriate that I share my images of what it means to be a Christian who also loves their country.
We are people who take scripture seriously but also listen to two thousand years of Christian theological reflection and spiritual experience, not to mention the wisdom of ethicists, poets, writers, physicians, and medical researchers.
As we look at the Jewish-Christian vision of history, we discover that God’s word is always timely and speaks to the condition of persons and nations. God spoke to the prophets, to our abolitionist parents, to Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa, and God is still speaking to us.
It is obvious that our nation is at a spiritual crossroads, caught between protest and pandemic, and in search of a spiritual GPS. A recent poll reported that 80% of Americans believe that our nation is out of control. We need a new direction – in the language of the prophets, we need to repent, turn around, and seek God’s way even as we affirm the implicit separation of church and state.
Our nation’s founders believed they were about a holy work, bringing something new into existence in the unification of thirteen recently liberated colonies. They were fallible people who saw the world through the lens of their place and time and the moral limitations that plague every period of human history. They made compromises to bring thirteen states together. The compromises that related to slavery eventually led to division, destruction, and death. Other political policies led to the decimation of our continent’s First Nations. Our nation’s path to greatness involved the pain of others.
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we need to repent nation’s sins even as we give thanks for its achievements. This is the biblical way. We are a great nation, but great nations are imperfect and commit sins of omission and commission, and repentance is at the heart of what it means to be a moral country. Repentance is the first step to greatness for persons and nations.
Our founding parents strived for ideals they could not fully embody. The Declaration of Independence asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Thirteen years later, the Preamble of the Constitution declared, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Our founders knew we had a long way to go to achieve these goals, and thus we expanded the Constitution with the Bill of Rights and 27 amendments.
Two hundred forty four years later, we are still seeking that more perfect union. We are still living with pain of America’s original sins – slavery and the destruction of the First Nations. What we have sown in systemic injustice, we are reaping in protests in the streets. It took 144 years for the phrase “all men are created equal” to include women not only in voting but in business and economics and we are still a work in progress on gender equality, not to mention voting rights for persons of color and economically disadvantaged persons and equal rights for the LGBTQ community.
Although they did not have political power in the Roman Empire and most did not enjoy the benefits of citizenship, Jesus and his first followers took seriously the interplay of spirituality and politics, championed by the Old Testament prophets. The prophets encountered a God who heard the cries of the poor, sided with the vulnerable, challenged the wealthy and powerful to change their ways, and asserted that a nation’s wellbeing depends on its commitment to justice for the vulnerable.
The prophets Micah and Amos capture the biblical vision of a more perfect union, on earth as it is in heaven, for which we should strive as citizens –
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
Jesus took Isaiah’s prophetic words as his own mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of God’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
The prophets and Jesus believed that the personal and the political belonged together, that spiritual things were tested in everyday experiences of compassionate living and concern to heal persons and nations. They knew, as the Epistle of James, affirmed, “faith without works is dead.”
Today, we need faithful patriotism, we need to discover ways to balance our love of America with world loyalty. While we must affirm religious pluralism and the separation of church and state, we need moral and spiritual renewal that takes form in providing every child with a healthy diet, and every family with access to good housing, opportunities for work, and health care and every leader committed to environmental healing.
Great countries, like great leaders, confess their imperfections and then follow the better angels of their nature. Only ethically weak and morally bankrupt nations and leaders refuse to say they’re sorry and ask for forgiveness. Repentance is a sign of strength and a revelation of God’s Spirit. And so on this Independence Day weekend, going beyond partisanship, we need –
- A declaration of interdependence, proclaiming we are all in this together
- A declaration of green and blue spirituality, honoring the seas and all within them, the air, the earth, the flowing waters
- A declaration of justice in our economics, and our legal and educational system, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to live joyfully
- A declaration of global citizenship in which our love for our country translates into care for all God’s children and the wellbeing of the planet
Then we can proclaim the great hope of African American poet Langston
Hughes and Cape Cod lyricist Katherine Lee Bates – God’s blessing
on this nation, crowning our good with brotherhood, sisterhood and personhood from sea to shining sea. As Hughes proclaims:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.