The first time I remember being conscious of the Fourth of July falling on a Sunday was 1976, when we were celebrating the Bi-centennial of the United States. The natural thing to do was to scrap the usual lessons and to make that Sunday a celebration of Independence Day. As I recall, the whole Episcopal Church did just that. Today it happens again that Independence Day collides with Proper 9 in the Book of Common Prayer, and the 234th anniversary of the nation is a less auspicious occasion begging for comment and celebration.
The very nature of our constitutional commitment to the separation of Church and State casts a strange light on what preachers make of the nation’s chief holiday. And because the relationship between faith and politics has never been thoroughly settled, maybe this July 4 gives us another crack at asking the question of what religion—specifically the gospel of Jesus Christ—has to say about and to America.
On this Independence Day the United States of America has much to celebrate and a good deal to be concerned about. Two years ago, after Joe and I had spent two weeks in Italy and Switzerland, we walked along the intersection of 14th Street, Park Road, and Kenyon St. I was stunned by the number of different colors of people, the various accents I heard, the socio-economic variety so obvious. This was the America that I loved, this great big improbable, noisy collection of all sorts and conditions of humanity. I felt as if I had eaten a heavy festive meal enjoying all the art in Florence and that I had come back to meat and potatoes in my neighborhood. Europe was good; this was comfortable. Italy was exciting; this was sustaining. Although Europe is quite multi-cultural these days, it is still nothing like the United States in most places. We truly are one out of many, and that is something to celebrate.
And there are many more things to celebrate. We can celebrate accomplishments like our technological advances, our industry, our agriculture, our musicians and writers and artists. We can celebrate our athletes and some of the world’s best educational institutions. We can celebrate qualities and characteristics like our generosity, inventiveness, and openness. We can celebrate the fact that still one can make it to the Presidency or to the top of a corporation or can remake one’s life without relying on birthright or connections. We can celebrate the fact that we can celebrate our nation not with military parades and goose-stepping soldiers and a shows of armaments but instead with hamburgers and hot dogs and watermelon and frisbee-throwing kids and flies that are surpassingly happy. And doubtless the list could go on. But nearly everything that I have just named that we can celebrate is either in jeopardy or has a shadow side that renders it unstable, negative, or even destructive.
Let’s get down to basics. We Americans have a story that we tell ourselves—actually a collection of stories—and those stories are dangerously limited and fast running out of credibility. Thomas Friedman, with whom I sometimes agree, gave one of his books the memorable title, The World is Flat. His major point is that a number of factors have come together to even out the world. We no longer are a United States that dominates world industry and technology. India, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and other nations are claiming a bigger and bigger slice of center stage. Our myth that military might was the key to world peace and security has been savagely undermined by the emergence of terrorism as a significant and explosive force in world politics. Our engagement in longer wars than any before, with either no end in sight or no effective resolution, proves the point. Our virtual worship of capitalism as the means of securing happiness and security is beyond shaky as we see the world in the tightening vice of a recession that shows few signs of ending any time soon. Meanwhile, some of the stories we tell that have propped up our worldview are suspiciously vapid. It is not in fact true that everybody can have a job who wants one. It is not in fact true that if people are uninsured it is their own choice and fault. It is not true that corporations have our best interests at heart. It is not true that the government (whether federal, state, or local) has expertise for dealing with any crisis. It is not true that any one who tries hard and plays by the rules can make it in this society, let alone be successful. None of this is necessarily news to anyone. Yet an astonishing number of Americans, not just our politicians, believe elements of all these lies. It is not too much to say that we have built a house on delusional foundations, and we live in it at our peril.
And this is precisely the place where religion actually has something to say to the nation. It is probably true that any religious tradition can legitimately be expected to critique society. That is what religions do at their best. They call into question prevailing notions that, if left unexamined, lead to destructive policies, harmful habits, and terrible behavior. But that certainly is specifically true of the Christian tradition. The Christian Church does much better when it is not allied too closely with the State, and incomparably better when it keeps its distance from the State, just so that it can exercise a prophetic function of calling political practice into question. The single biggest problem with the Church dates back at least as far as Constantine in the fourth century. For from that time forward Christianity adopted the trappings, the rhetoric, the behavior, and the mind-set of empire, and thus lost its edge in being able to call the world to being halfway honest. We made some attempt to untangle the complicated religion-empire knot when we severed the church-state symbiosis in the infant American experiment. But hosts of people still haven’t quite caught on to that, and continue to dream of a state that caters to Christians. No, it is not protection and favor that the Church needs from the State. Rather, the Church needs to speak the truth to the State and to society.
But that is more easily said than done. There is little consensus among Christians as to what that truth is. Practically speaking, I do not see any way of forging a consensus. There are going to be Christians who believe that the Truth has essentially to do with personal morality. Others are going to believe that the Truth has to do with transforming society. Some are going to come down on the side of belief as being all-important. For others it will not be belief but behavior. And so on. But I do think that it is possible for communities of faith to be in constant conversation around the question that Pontius Pilate so eloquently put to Jesus: “What is Truth?” We might not come to complete agreement, but at least we can from time to time find ourselves aligning around certain principles drawn from the gospels and from the larger Tradition. Among those principles are such things as welcoming the stranger, having compassion on the poor, and practicing generosity. We will find ourselves, like Jesus, questioning authority, and like our forefathers and foremothers of Israel, sometimes rebelling against oppressors. We might find ourselves divided over whether or not to fund the military or whether to become conscientious objectors, but there will be no room for Christians to support cruelty nor gratuitous violence. We may vote differently, but we cannot but be committed to justice. And, when you stop to think about it, while Christians are always apparently dividing amongst ourselves, we are at the same time coming together more and more. Even this country’s opposing camps of mainline Protestants and evangelicals have begun to coalesce around facing war and social injustice. Consensus may be hard to achieve, but there are some Truths that are inescapably evident.
So we in the Church need to be in constant conversation about our own faith tradition, constantly testing our understanding, sifting the core of the tradition from popular and passing fancies, becoming articulate and reasoned critics of our society and culture, including our government. But, to be honest, I get a little nervous when I hear anyone, including myself, talking about taking a prophetic stance in society. My fear on the one hand is that we will be too timid, to prone to wait until we have a consensus before doing anything, too shy about naming injustice, too reticent to call war into question, too deferential to authority. My fear on the other hand is that we will do any of that without examining our own complicity with the forces of evil that operate largely outside our consciousness to corrupt and destroy not only human beings but the rest of creation as well. We cannot in good conscience make prophetic announcements to government and society if we—corporately and individually—practice the same sorts of arrogance, injustice, exclusivity, environmental obliviousness, degrading behavior ourselves that we would rail against in others. To be a community speaking the Truth to the nation commits us to be a community that lives under judgment ourselves. That is why it is deeply essential that we take the second of our baptismal promises as seriously as any: “to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”
St. Augustine formulated the notion of the “City of God,” believing that all human history is a struggle between two realms or two forces: the Reign of God and the Powers of this World. But by the time that Augustine wrote, the Church had already hitched its fortunes to those of the Empire. And though the Roman Empire was finally falling, it would keep a hold on Christianity like a ghost uncommonly strong. In recent years, Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, has argued that the Church needs to be about undoing, or re-doing, our history that is largely a history of living out that story of Empire rather than that of gospel. I agree. We need not a new wedding of Church and Empire; we need a divorce of Church from Empire. Does that mean we need to be in opposition to our country, or non-conformists in society? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we need to get straight on where our loyalties lie.
One of the ways—indeed a way made possible through our Constitution itself—in which we can practice Christian virtues is through being responsible citizens. Bring every value you have into your life as a citizen. Fight for those things that you believe accord with the gospel of peace and justice by getting involved in the political process. Refuse to opt out through cynicism or hardness of heart. Work for change that mirrors the compassion, humanity, mercy, forgiveness, love of Jesus your Lord. Do your best to make your country a place that does not cater to religions but clearly and unapologetically reflects the values that all religions cherish: honesty, peace, humility, justice, compassion, temperance, wisdom, fortitude.
And let us remember what it is that causes us to rejoice on Sunday, the Fourth of July. Yes, it is that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But it is even more because our names are written in heaven, in the very heart of God. A century ago, William Merrill penned a hymn, as relevant now as it was then, despite the too-masculine language:
Not alone for mighty empire, stretching far over land and sea,
Not alone for bounteous harvests, lift we up our hearts to Thee.
Standing in the living present, memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving, praise Thee more for things unseen.
Not for battleships and fortress, not for conquests of the sword,
But for conquests of the spirit give we thanks to Thee, O Lord;
For the priceless gift of freedom, for the home, the church, the school,
For the open door to manhood, in a land the people rule.
And in a land where people can be ruled by the Power that makes the common holy and a world to mirror God.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2010