University Christian Church – Austin C. Kutz-Marks
God and Country
Interdependence Sunday, July 1, 2012
Our passage from the book of Deuteronomy today issues from the eighth century before the Christian era. It describes a succinctly the relationship of the people Israel to God, as God's chosen people, with a special mission to the wider world.
“4Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.”
In the previous chapter Moses is readying people of Israel to enter into the Promised Land, let us listen:
“Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you, great cities, fortified to the heavens, 2a strong and tall people, the offspring of the Anakim, whom you know. You have heard it said of them, “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” 3Know then today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you. 4When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”… in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.”
And so that the promise had been made to Abram eons earlier, and now the Promised Land will be given. Given?
No, not given as we normally understand that word. Rather, the Lord will grant the Israelites victory in battle as they dispossess those who have lived on the land there in Palestine. Because they understood themselves to be on a divine mission, because they believed themselves to exceptionalists, they saw themselves as an exception to the rule of how it is that people should deal with others, because they were special they would later interpret their successful invasion of Palestine as God's will, as the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah.
To this very day, many who proudly claim the name Zionist, use this ancient claim of God providing for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, as an exceptionalist explanation of why contemporary Israelis should be able to take otherwise illegally for themselves the land Palestinians have owned for centuries.
The sense that God is on our side and that therefore, not only will we be victorious in our struggle with others, but our victory will be a sign of God's favor, is certainly not restricted to our ancient Hebrew ancestors or modern Israelis. No, as we gather this time of year preparing to celebrate our national declaration of independence from British rule, we see the same theme arise.
Let’s take a step back in time to 1761, during what we call the French and Indian war, during which ministers of the Congregational church in Connecticut pledged absolute fidelity and submission to the King of England. But by the mid-1760s they had a change of heart. Britain had begun taxing the colonies in ways that seem deeply unfair, so many of these same clergy were then denouncing the King and justifying non-submission to the king as a proper Christian response.
In fact, as we look back over the history of our Revolutionary war, we find that the Christian pulpit played a key role in encouraging dissent. Clergy, commonly wearing black robes, came to be known as the “black regiment,“ because they were so instrumental in organizing the colonists against the British.
In July of 1775, as resentment against Britain was rising among the American colonies, the Continental Congress called for a day of prayer and fasting. Most Christian ministers used the occasion to preach for the colonial cause, but one Anglican clergyman Jonathan Boucher spoke on the need to obey constituted authority – in this case, the King. He knew his word would be unpopular with some, so he carried into his pulpit that morning not only his sermon manuscript, but also a loaded pistol![i]
Historians tell us that many of those colonists had come to North America possessing, even before they put foot on shore, a sense of divine mission. This was particularly true of the British.[ii] Historians show that biblical language was used to justify and to coalesce colonial ideology. Alfred A. Cave points out that “the English looked upon the Native [American] population as Canaanites inhibiting conquest of the Promised Land; they would either be exterminated or, like the Gibeonites, submit ‘as drudges to hewe wood and carie water’. Indians were spoken of as the “sons of Ham, a justification also used, of course, for the subjugation and enslavement of Africans.8 Historian Djelal Kadir shows convincingly “that the colonizers crossing the Atlantic did so with the conviction that they were exercising their God-given right to lands held in escrow for them from the foundation of the world.”
20th Century Social Ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr summarizes their understanding this way, “"[W]e [Americans] came into existence with a sense of being a 'separated' nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind. We had renounced the evils of European feudalism. We had escaped from the evils of European religious bigotry. We had found broad spaces for the satisfaction of human desires in place of the crowded Europe.. . . [Our forebears] believed. . .that we had been called out to create a new humanity. We were God's 'American Israel' " (1952: 24). As if to put a capstone on the issue by 1850, Herman Melville, one of the earliest great American writers could say, "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time. . . . The political Messiah had come. But he has come in us"[iii]
I hope that the audacity of that claim may make you squirm. For much of American history throughout the remainder of the 19th and 20th centuries America seemed particularly blessed and its economic expansion in its faring well in so many different wars among the nations. There were and still are many Americans who hold to this notion of American exceptionalism, that we are God’s chosen: selected to carry forth the ideals of self-determination, code worded “ freedom,” to the wider world. And whether or not it is through or in spite of the way we as a nation have modeled, that drive to self-determination, certainly over the course of the last year and a half beginning with the Arab spring uprisings and leading this past week to the first time in the history of Egypt has democratically elected their head of head, we are in ring side seats witnessing the victory of self-determination over other governance options.
Patriotism is often defined as standing up for and defending the interests of one's country, but one pastor’s[iv] definition better when he said that “patriotism is entering into praise- worthy competition with our forbearers.” Striving with our very best, not only to carry on their building of a better world, but if necessary, at times making adjustments to our self-image in order to incorporate a larger truth.
The latter 20th century gave us one such opportunity. All I have to say is the word “ Vietnam, “ and a whole host of associations coming to mind and heart and spirit for each of us. It was such a difficult time. But as we prepare to celebrate this upcoming Independence Day, let us give thanks for at least one blessing of that war in Vietnam.
For more than any other set of circumstances we could point our fingers to, the way we conducted and responded to that war, I would assert, has evolved America’s self-image from the sole innocent, unadulterated , national expression of God's designs for this Earth…. to a more realistic view. We may never have a public consensus on the reasons for that war, but the soldiers coming home told us that there was much wrong committed by all sides. We came to know that there is a shadow side to every human being and every culture, including Americans and America, as well.
Let me draw your attention to special ceremony that took place on March 6, 1998 at the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington many long years after the war’s end. With the calm and cool-headed reflection that time provides, that day the Pentagon awarded the Soldier's Medal to three American helicopter crewmen who turned their guns against their fellow soldiers to halt the slaughter of My Lai villagers in 1968. The Pentagon citations read:
For heroism above and beyond the call of duty on
16 March 1968, while saving the lives of at least 10
Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of
noncombatants by American forces at My Lai, Quang
Ngai Province, South Vietnam. Warrant Officer
Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between
fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pursuing American
ground troops to prevent their murder. He then
personally confronted the leader of the American ground
troops and was prepared to open fire on those American
troops should they fire upon the civilians.
Over against his strong loyalty to American troops, Warrant Officer Thompson in the heat of battle, faithly responded to a higher loyalty, to human decency, to compassionate care for civilians…. that deeper loyalty to God.
There are times when we are all called to choose between loyalty to a national cause and loyalty to God’s cause. Nearly 3000 years of religious history teaches us that when we confuse God's will with our national desires we can be led to make those key decisions wrongly.
This July 4th then, while gratefully celebrating the contributions America has made to the world, and
giving thanks for how our nation continually blesses each of us,
let us not be content as just passive receivers.
Let commit ourselves to that active “praise- worthy competition with our forbearers,” helping America grow forward into the fullness of her calling.
Let us dethrone any ancient Hebrew exceptionalism;
any contemporary Israeli exceptionalism,
any American exceptionalism,
or any other form of overweening pride…. that might dull our hearing of God’s clear call to us and to all of God’s equally loved children this whole world over.
Little-Known Or Remarkable Facts About Christianity And The American Revolution by Cassandra Niemczyk
[ii] Both Alfred A. Cave, in his paper “Canaanites in a Promised Land: The American Indian and the Providential Theory of Empire," and Djelal Kadir, in his book Columbus and the Ends of the Earth: Europe's Prophetic Rhetoric as Conquering Ideology, have demonstrated this fact.
[iii] The White Jacket by Herman Melville. Found online at http://www.online-literature.com/melville/white-jacket/36/ at the very end of the 36th chapter.