Friday, June 30, 2017

Independence Day Reflections

PROPERS:          INDEPENDENCE DAY                          

ONE SENTENCE:        The response to being a blessed nation is to exhibit the characteristics of a blessed people – humility, hospitality, and concern for the vulnerable.               

            On Tuesday, we will celebrate the 241st birthday of this nation.  Celebrations of our independence will be enjoyed across this nation.  I am even told that a parade will roll down the streets of Magnolia Springs.

            It is right and appropriate for us to celebrate our freedoms – first won at places like Lexington and Concord, Boston, and Ticonderoga, and later defended in places like the Somme, the Marne, Normandy, and Iwo Jima.  Its greatest cataclysm was associated with names such as Gettysburg, Bull Run, Shiloh, and Vicksburg.

            Our freedom has not been free.  And debate rages, even today, has to how we live and share our blessings of independence and liberty.  We have had to grow “into a more perfect union.”  It has not been easy, and it is not complete.  The birth process of a perfect land is continuing.

            Each time I reflect on our nature as a nation and think about how God moves in our midst through the various convulsions, I am reminded of St. Paul’s words from the 13th chapter of his Letter to the Romans.  Hear his words:

13:1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority* does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.

            For me, this raises more questions than it answers.  Does this mean that Paul was endorsing the Roman government, which was persecuting the church?  What would it mean to the governments of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Mao?

            I have to remember that Paul was seeking to bring peace to the church.  He was walking a fine line between being a Roman citizen, and seeing what the bootheel of Roman legions could do to a people.

            Paul was a Jew, of course.  And one of the primary corporate memories of the Jewish people was the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon.  The Temple, built by Solomon, was laid waste, the city was burned, and the people were taken into exile.

            Paul knew the price of offending temporal power – whether it was Babylon or Rome.  But he must have wondered, too, what was the price of offending God?

            Paul almost certainly had to bite his tongue as he wrote the 13th Chapter of Romans.  Being a Pharisee, he was well-aware of what his faith taught about the downfall of Jerusalem nearly 600 years earlier.  He certainly knew that his people saw that downfall not as a price of offending Babylon, but as a price of offending God.

            He certainly knew, too, that Rome was not a gentle, kind overseer of Israel.  That would be made graphically clear within 15 years of his letter.

            The prophets had made that clear – both before the fall and afterwards.  The nations of Israel and Judah – God’s chosen people – had ignored the poor, had failed to deliver justice, had embraced materialism, and had chosen to make pacts with surrounding nations rather than relying on the call of God. Social injustice was the target of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah, among others.

            So, the clear view of the prophets was that the nations of Israel and Judah had turned away from the pathway God had called them to travel. 

Those two nations were blessed by God, but their understanding (in the rearview mirror) was that their downfall was due to their unwillingness to follow God’s ways. And those ways were related to social justice more than anything else.

We, too, are a blessed nation.  The trajectory of our history has been toward one of justice and equity, but not without tumult and pain.  The freedoms which we enjoy create a tension and an ebb and flow of progress which can be very difficult and disconcerting.

How do we maintain our move toward justice?  How do we continue our progress toward God’s vision of a righteous people, reflected so clearly in the biblical prophets?

I do not claim to have all the answers… but I have a few.

First, we should be a nation of humility.  Being a blessed nation means that we do not assume the attitude that all the progress which has been so tryingly earned is ours by right.  It is not ours to squander. We are its stewards – and we should be humble in light of our blessings.

Second, we should see the gifts brought to our nation by what the Bible calls the ger – the sojourner – in our midst.  It may be easy to see ourselves as independent and self-sustaining, but imagine our history without Marquis de Lafayette, Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, I. M. Pei, Felix Frankfurter, Joseph Pulitzer, Werner Von Braun, Edward Teller, and others.  Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. The mother of Jonas Salk was a Russian.

God had instructed the Israelites that they were to welcome the sojourner into their midst, as one of their own.  It is a divine imperative.  We, as a great nation, should recognize their contribution… and their ability to contribute.

            Third, we need to be mindful of the most vulnerable in our culture. Jesus made that very clear in Matthew 25 – “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

            Likewise, Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul II expressed similar thoughts: “A civilization is judged by how it treats its weakest members.”

            Those are three characteristics that we should embrace: humility, hospitality, and concern for the vulnerable.  Those are not my ideas – they spring from divine revelation over 3,000 years.

      And it would be helpful for us to remember the truth in the words of the great chronicler of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”