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Reference: Matthew 5:43-48, Deuteronomy 10:17-21
What does the Church say to Americans on the occasion of the patriotic fest of the Fourth of July?
Perhaps some expect a special “God bless America,” asking God to smite our enemies and shower us with prosperity. There are churches which will not disappoint those whose ears are tuned to hear this message.
Others will be given a prophetic word, telling us that our national sins are such that we can expect only doom and destruction from God unless we repent and become a moral people (the devil in this being in the details of which morals are at issue, a highly controversial subject among self-appointed prophets).
Many churches will have nothing at all to say, seeing themselves as spiritual and therefore above all civic engagement. You are on your own in the public forum.
The Anglican Tradition is one of the few which officially appoints propers (i.e. Scripture lessons and prayers) for the Fourth of July. The above references are two of those texts.
It is the wisdom of the Church, as set forth in these passages, that the crucial point of our patriotic celebration is, first, to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and second, to love aliens and care for the fatherless and widows, giving these folks food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Jesus points out that it is common to love those who love you, friends and family. Loving your enemies, however, seems contrary to human nature. The Russian monks, for instance, who came to evangelize the Alaskan peoples, wrote home that the peoples already embraced most of the Christian ethic within their own culture. The big exception was that they had a tough time understanding that we should love our enemies.
To be honest, they are not alone. Many of us struggle with this, and some Christians don’t even try to bother with this. Nevertheless, this concept is not being adopted by majority vote. It is being handed down by Jesus as a mandate, not a suggestion for discussion. Our Church applies it beyond an individual level to proclaim it as the theme of July 4th for Christians. How do we apply this in the national context?
This Gospel comes at an auspicious time for American Christians. Citizens are more divided into “us” versus “them” than at any time since the Civil War a century and a half ago. Many Christians are fully engaged in the divisions. As Americans become more and more angry, many Christians are among those leading the rage. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is forgotten in the rush to condemn, outshout, outvote and demolish the enemy within. Few appear to be asking if this is the Christian way to proceed. Even Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who successfully field-tested Jesus’ approach in modern times, are being ignored. In those days, Christians from archbishops to acolytes marched in a movement to heal America. Several generations later, their spiritual descendants march to further divide America.
As a young person interested in history, I talked to many veterans from World War II. I remember being so impressed with the vision that so many had that the horror they had endured was so that they could help make the world, and especially America, a better place. That vision is in danger of declining into strife, inequality, rounding up people into camps, and bullying other nations and peoples. It reflects an uncaring attitude towards the unborn/newly born/ the born needing education/ the sick needing health care/ veterans themselves needing help/ the refugees from various places (often places where the bullying foreign policy has exacerbated the situation). What they fought to defeat could become the new mode of our nation. Their sacrifice will be in vain if we continue to see each other as enemies to be conquered or “Untermensch” to be despised.
And as some of our leaders agitate for yet another war, we as Christians need to ask if this is really what we want our nation to be about. Loving the nation’s enemies doesn’t necessarily require total pacifism, but neither does it mean that the U.S. should go looking for enemies to smite. A nation influenced by Christians is a nation that seeks to be a peacemaker, a mediator, a finder of solutions, not a dominating and ruthless imperial super-power. Thus, whether we see enemies within or enemies abroad or alien enemies swarming to the borders, the antidote remains the reflection of the wideness of Christ’s love shining in each of us.
To assign these Scriptures for the celebration of our nation’s founding manifests a prophetic sense of what needs to be said for the occasion in our current situation. We can be grateful for the church that she has not flinched from the proclamation of the Gospel in an atmosphere where the unconditional love of Christ is not a very welcome intrusion into the mindset of many American Christians. It is to be hoped that the powerful, all-encompassing love of Christ, who was willing to die on the cross for the sake of those who saw themselves as his enemies, can overcome the sinful urges of mankind without Christ to hate, divide, bully, oppress and otherwise attempt to demolish those we identify as enemies and aliens. It is a struggle fought in our hearts. I still hold the vision of America, the land of peace and justice.
God bless America.