The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Proverbs 29 Romans 13: 1-10 Mark 12: 13-17
“Faith, the Flag and the 4th of July”
On this Sunday following the 4th of July, I confess that Independence Day makes me terribly uncomfortable. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” From its inception, God and patriotism have been tied together in our nation. The belief that God’s special blessing on this land sets us apart from other nations and privileges us over them was not unique to our Founders; it remains a steady current running under the discourse of our political life together today.
Adams’ vision of Independence Day celebrations brings into sharp relief the struggle I have with our national holiday: Who are we on the 4th July? Are we Christians? Are we Americans? Are we Christian Americans – American Christians? To whom – or to what- do we owe allegiance? Must we wrap God in the flag?
Our ancestors in faith have wrestled with these very same questions for far longer than our nation has existed. From the beginning of its covenant relationship with God, the Israelites were set apart from other nations by their allegiance to God alone. Israel was called to be "a light for the nations" formed by the law given at Sinai in order to reflect God’s sovereignty through acts of hospitality, mercy and justice. Therefore, no human King was to be set over them. Instead, they were led by Judges and Prophets speaking and acting at divine direction.
But eventually, the people beg for King. God has told them that human kingship is a form of idolatry. Yet hearts set on being like other nations, our ancestors demanded that they, too, have one. God grants their request – warning no good will come of it, for Kings are often capricious; driven by power in their own interest.
Our call to worship from Proverbs described the contrariness of human rulers: When the wicked rule, the people groan. If the ruler listens to falsehoods, all his officials will be wicked. When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases. There will be good Kings who judge the poor with equity, who know that by justice, stability is given, and who know the rights of the poor. But human authority is risky at best. Not all rulers seek to reign as agents of God’s love, mercy and justice. People do perish. And that is what happens to the people of God. Israel is invaded more than once, sent into exile, returned home eventually and then finally, occupied by the Romans.
This is the experience of God’s people upon which Jesus stands as the Pharisees and Herodians attempt to trick him into blasphemy or sedition by asking: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? If Jesus answers, it is lawful to pay the tax, the Pharisees – and the poor in the crowd for whom the tax is especially burdensome – have him for choosing the emperor over God, but if he answers, it is not lawful, then the Herodians – a group of Jews who supported Herod – will claim Jesus has denied the emperor’s sovereignty. Their question is framed in “either/or” terms – sacred or secular? Choosing one over the other will doom Jesus.
But Jesus refuses their question, asks to see the coin and turns the question back on his interrogators; “Whose image is this?” The choice of the word “image” is not random. Like Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians knew the power of the word image, for “in the beginning, human beings are created in the image of God". Those present knew the purpose of the “law and the prophets” was to re-form the people into the image of God distorted by the choices made in the Garden of Eden and beyond. Jesus’ evasive answer: Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s does not respond to the “either/or” of sacred or secular. His answer grants him only a temporary reprieve. In the end, Jesus’ statement does not save him. He was crucified for both sedition and blasphemy at the hands of the state on behalf of the religious authorities.
Jesus on the cross is the axis where “church and state” legally conspire. And it is here my faith and my politics collide – this is a conspiracy I have no desire to join. I feel this most acutely on the 4th of July – particularly as narcissism veiled as “patriotism” occupied the Mall while children went hungry and without medical care at our border. Innocent people are caught in the intersection of church and state in the acts of our government with the support of the religious right. No matter how much our hearts cry out on behalf of these victims of racism disguised as legal authority, we are complicit in their crucifixions. As we stand at the foot of their crosses, we must take a hard look at ourselves both as citizens of the political city and the city of God.
Scripture has taken center stage in our national drama. About this time last year, this morning’s passage from Romans was regularly quoted: Let 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. Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions wielded this passage as a weapon to justify the Family Separation Policy. Shamefully and sadly, there are now even more babies and children in cages separated from their families. Even more human beings suffer from the actions of our government done in our name. Not only does this administration practice cruelty and abuse, its theological defense continues to be this very passage from Romans.
They are not the first to use it so. As you might suspect, these few verses have a long history of use as a foundational text supporting “law and order.” Ripped out of context, these verses seem to suggest that Christians are called to obedience over service, strict adherence to laws that exploit many and empower but a few, secular citizenship over sacred bonds, striving for power over others rather than working for the common good. This cannot be how we practice faith in a country that not only makes room for the expression of Christian faith, but claims that “all men are created equal.”
As I wrestled anew with my dilemma this past week I did a lot of reading. I found company in the Letters from Prison written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, as he awaited execution by the Nazis for participation in the bomb plot to kill Hitler. He writes: “The church is only the church when it exists for others . . . not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
Biographer Michael DeLonge further explores Bonhoeffer’s stance on the role of the church in the state; “His understanding of “resistance” encompassed both his commitments to the church in the world, and to the good of divinely instituted structures which sustain life in the world . . . The church exists not only as the proclaimer of the word of God, but as the embodied presence of Christ in the world . . . The church calls the world to live into its true reason for being; the preserver of the world for the good of Gospel. This is not a call for a theocracy – that the state should judge its citizens by biblical law – but a call for the state to preserve the natural world and society so that word of Christ can be heard and the work of Christ can be done.” Nazi Germany was not this kind of state. Bonhoeffer was forced to choose the values of God’s city over the laws of a corrupted political city – and, like Jesus, he died for them.
As citizens of both the city of God and the political city, we now live in our own terrible intersection of church and state. The United States is not Nazi Germany. Our foundational documents insist on the consent of the governed; not the whims of an emperor. We find our “liberty in law,” not in the power to abuse others.
Scott Gunn, the editor of the Christian devotional Forward Day by Day, reflected on the Declaration of Independence in an essay published this week: “One can see a broad vision of freedom that was – though immensely flawed – ahead of its time. The founders thought a lot about the common good, seeking a freedom that would benefit all people. Today, when we celebrate Independence Day, we tend to focus on freedom as a projection of power and rights. We celebrate the idea we can do whatever we want both as people and as a nation . . . perhaps it would be good to reflect on how we – as individuals and as a nation – use our freedom. Do we use our freedom for the good of all? Or do we use our freedom for a privileged few? How can we build up a land in which people are able to flourish as the people God has made them to be?”
These are questions necessary to answer as we celebrate the “patriots’ dream” of our founders and continue the struggle to create a “more perfect union.” We are members of a political city that intentionally provides for the church to live the Gospel call of our baptismal covenant to “follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the word and work of Jesus Christ.” Unlike Bonheoffer, we are blessed to live in a pluralistic country where our witness is one among many and the church has the freedom to be the church – not by enforcing a narrow biblical literalism, but rather, by offering our freedom for the common good of all. The “dream” of our political city affords us the opportunity to practice the mercy and justice envisioned by the city of God.
No blessing comes without responsibility. There is much work for the church to do. Ours is a time when resisting evil, injustice and oppression requires that we write letters to our representatives, step into the voting booth or take to the streets. This is a time when we must exercise our secular citizenship in order to be faithful to our baptismal vows. We are called to non-violently defend the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the stranger, the child, and all those created in the image of God wearing skin colors or genders or nationalities or religious faith different from our own.
In multiple conversations, this past week, several people have told me that they cannot face what our country has become. Their very human desire to turn away from daily outrage after outrage has caused them to disengage from the politics that swirl around us. It is certainly understandable. To be honest, all of us could use a break. But we must NOT look away.
A passage from Deuteronomy stands over the eternal flame at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC: “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
As dual citizens of the political city and the city of God we must bravely claim both identities – and act upon them. The founding documents of our nation remind us that freedom is our birthright. Our faith calls us to joyfully offer that freedom in the service of those who have been left out, despised, abused and excluded. May God help us to use our freedom wisely – on the 4th of July and every day that follows. Amen.
© Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. 2019