Righteousness and Peace

Reference: Deuteronomy 10:17-21, Matthew 5:43-48

You may recognize these two Scripture passages as appointed for Independence Day in the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Once you have read them, if you are a skeptic about the impeccable orthodoxy of the “’79’s” redactors, you may be tempted to see the readings as perhaps indicative of a liberal political bias.

Before we go further, then, you should be aware that the exact same texts are specified for Independence Day in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer as well. It would appear there is a message in the texts which transcends the politics of the day. Given the considerable antiquity of the choices, they are remarkably contemporary in their relevance, and startling considering all the other texts, especially from the Old Testament, which could have been used to comment on the American Republic and its independence.

It all comes down to what we, as Christians, wish for our nation and its inhabitants. The verses from Matthew 5 relate Jesus’ interpretation of one of what he designates as the two great commandments, to love your neighbor. For Jesus, this means to love your enemy, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you.

The text from Deuteronomy, recalling the mighty acts of God towards his people and the praise he deserves, applies the morality of this to caring for the fatherless, widows and strangers. It proposes that we love the strangers and give them food and clothing. It suggests the people of Israel might know how it feels, since they were strangers in Egypt, even as Jesus and his parents were refugees in Egypt for several years as well, fleeing from Herod’s violence.

Let’s be honest. Few people want to hear either of these Scriptures. When folks put up monuments to the Ten Commandments, they do so as a witness to upholding the law, punishing the unrighteous (other than themselves), in the name of God. One suspects they have ignored Jesus’ interpretation of the Law, a major piece of which is in this section of Matthew 5.  The rest is no better: being a peacemaker, being poor in spirit, being merciful, being exceedingly generous, things like that. Finally, he names the most important thing in life is to love God, which is, of course, why you would do all these other things.

Yowie! Appointing these lessons may explain why Independence Day church services never caught on much. Bombs bursting in air and the rocket’s red glare is more our style. How can one handle this?

You can simply ignore it, is one choice. Lots of people do. Even among Anglicans and Episcopalians, few are even aware that there are pericopes for Independence Day.

You can separate it out, is another choice. You can say this is what we say in church, where everyone thinks good thoughts, but in the real world, we need big walls, big guns, to eradicate the stranger and smite the enemy. This is the advantage of schizophrenia, having two worlds, one secular and the other sacred.  Unfortunately, there is only one earth, owned by the Lord, but it works for awhile to pretend he isn’t in charge. However, when it stops working, and it will soon enough, it will be real reality, without schizophrenic illusions, and it may not go well.

You can choose the modern approach of many liberal exegetical scholars, is a third choice. Scripture isn’t definitive, according to them. Who knows what Jesus really said, let alone some dude in Deuteronomy three millennia ago? Modern man has better information anyway than Scripture, we have the wisdom of this age, the latest thing. Go ahead and hate your enemies and kick the strangers. Whoever God turns out to be, you can settle up with him/her/it/maybe later.

The collect prayer appointed for the day prays that we will “maintain these liberties [that we have won] in righteousness and peace.” It is difficult to have real peace, God’s peace, without righteousness, because unrighteousness is disturbing and causes contention. Righteousness among humans can only be achieved with the Cross of Christ, it turns out. All other attempts have failed. The hope for America would therefore appear to be neither to the left nor the right, but rather by a Nineveh level of repentance (see Jonah, chapter 3) and a faithful dependence on the loving power of the Cross.

How likely is that to happen? I can’t answer that question, but I know it won’t be a slamdunk to get it done. It is, however, the wrong question. For this 4th of July, I have simply identified the Scripture appointed and suggested various options for avoiding it. My own opinion has not been asked for, but the view of the Lord certainly seems to have been reported with perfect clarity in Matthew.

The fourth and ultimate choice for dealing with that view is to submit to it, “simply to the Cross I cling,” as the hymn puts it. If you think it unrealistic, don’t blame me. Jesus is the one saying it, in inspired Scripture. All I would add is that, with Christianity apparently in decline across the land, it seems a shame to see it go away without the nation at least trying it first.