Sunday, July 1, 2012

Faith and Freedom

I often dread attending church on the Sunday nearest the 4th of July, and particularly if the 4th falls on a Sunday, which this year was fortunately not the case. Too often this Sunday becomes an orgy of religious patriotism, a fusion of God and country in which patriotic songs displace solid hymns and songs of praise to the true Lord and patriotic symbols are splashed across the sanctuary. It can be enough to make my stomach churn. I remember one Sunday some years ago in which I entered the sanctuary and saw the front wall covered in paper printed in miniature US flags. I don't know how I kept myself from turning around and walking out the door.

I am not unpatriotic. Well, I'm probably not as patriotic as many and probably not nearly enough so to satisfy many conservatives. I am not one to say “my country right or wrong,” nor do I believe that we are the greatest country on earth, as if the United States were God's gift to the rest of the world. I really don't think we're THAT special and I chafe at expressions of religious patriotism that imply that we are.

But I do love my country and I am glad that I had the privilege of being born here, growing up here and now have the privilege of living here. There is much I appreciate about being American and my appreciation has only deepened and strengthened through the years I have lived outside of this country. I grow teary-eyed at the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner and there are moments when the sight of Old Glory brings an emotional swell. But my experience living beyond this country's borders has opened my mind to other viewpoints and ways of life. I affirm much of what our culture values, but I don't uncritically embrace American culture nor do I view it as the pinnacle of development. We have much to give thanks for and it is appropriate to do so on this, our national holiday. But we must also as God's children always consciously recognize how far short we fall of realizing the fullness of God's kingdom on earth. As a nation we have done many positive, good things at home and around the world. But we have also sinned grievously against those within our borders and those outside them in pursuit of our own selfish interests – although we often fail to recognize and rarely accept the responsibility for the impact our selfish actions have on others. Unlike what some believe, our most glorious days do not lie in our past, as if we had climbed to some pinnacle of godliness and have sense fallen away. No, we have yet to embody the fullness of the message of the gospel of Jesus. We have failed to demonstrate love to our neighbors and to our enemies. No matter how much we would like to think of ourselves that way, we are not God's special nation, anointed uniquely by God to carry out the divine will on earth.

Today's worship service strayed a bit too much into a display of patriotism for my taste, though not as badly as I have seen and had feared might happen. The choir sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is indeed a rousing song if one can put aside all the background and negative implications carried by it. A soloist performed God Bless America, never one of my favorite songs because most often it seems to be a demand and expectation as much as a plea and petition – as if we deserve God's blessing because we are, after all, God's nation. But the soloist did a nice job and we as the congregation were asked only to listen, not to join in. The sermon avoided any statements of patriotic sentiment, except for one tongue-in-cheek comment about Canada Day because the pastor giving the sermon is actually Canadian and today is, after all, Canada Day.

One song, our closing hymn for the service, actually raised my spirit far more than any of the patriotic songs or other hymns we heard during the morning. We sang the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, often referred to as “The Black National Anthem.” I first sang this song more than twenty years ago when I worked in inner-city Philadelphia with Tony Campolo's Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. This hymn, along with several other black spirituals, spoke really powerfully to myself and my fellow volunteers as we worked alongside some of the poorest communities in our country, most of them consisting predominantly of black people. Songs such as Lift Every Voice raise the cry of a population that has not enjoyed the full blessings of liberty and freedom that many of us and our ancestors have. It serves as a reminder to all of us how much we still have to attain. As it has done for over a century for those suffering under oppression and injustice, it also offers us strength and hope that come from faith enduring and strengthening through dark days. I'm not ready to lobby for this song to replace the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem, but I would love to hear it become a more frequent part of our national repertoire.

If asked, I would not say I am proud to be an American, because I think pride is not the right word. I think pride leads to (or perhaps arises from?) arrogance, and arrogance is never pleasing to God. Unfortunately it seems to be one of the hallmarks of American identity in the world today and one of the chief reasons that many around the world despise us. I think that we as a nation need to adopt a more humble posture, not kindle greater national pride. This does not mean we should not be grateful to be Americans. It does not mean we shouldn't appreciate the benefits and blessings that come with our citizenship. They are a gift. But our true citizenship lies not in this nation, but in a kingdom that does not have physical boundaries on this earth. So as we celebrate our freedom this week, let us continue to give even greater thanks for the freedom we have in Christ and raise our lift our voices and sing on behalf of those who do not yet know freedom.  

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