July 4th 2017
Happy Birthday, America. Today you’re 241 years old. I’ve known you for almost a quarter of your life, so I know you well. You’ve always been my home. But lately I feel something has come between us; there’s been some misunderstandings and I would like to clear the air.
First of all, I love you. Like I said, you’re my home. I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve always come home to you. There’s so much I admire about you. Your energy, your creativity, your entrepreneurial spirit. You invented the blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. You’ve led the world for most of a century in science and technology. You even put a man on the moon! You came up with the idea of preserving vast tracts of your natural beauty through the genius of National Parks. (Some have suggested this is your best idea and I agree.) You’ve given us great artists like Walt Whitman, Harper Lee, and Bob Dylan. You provided refuge for great thinkers like Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. You opened your door to millions of immigrants from around the world — the poor looking for nothing more than safe haven and a new opportunity. You welcomed the Zahnds from Switzerland at the beginning of the last century. Indeed, you’re at your best when you live up to the lofty ideals of Lady Liberty.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Yes, America, I love you…but not like that. Not in the way of supreme allegiance and unquestioned devotion. You see, my heart belongs to another. I’m a Christian and I confess that Jesus is Lord. The Savior of the world is the crucified and risen Son of God, not “We the People.” The gospel is the story of Jesus, not the American story. I know your 16th President claimed that America was “the last best hope of earth,” but it’s simply not true. The last best hope of earth is Jesus, not you.
Okay, brace yourself. I’m going to say some hard things.
Sometimes you embarrass yourself when you get drunk on hubris. At times you display an arrogance that borders on blasphemous. Take for example, The Apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol Rotunda. Obviously you know that apotheosis means to “make a god of” — because that’s clearly what you’re attempting to do with George Washington. You appropriated the Christian iconography of Christ ascended to heaven and replaced Jesus Christ with George Washington. Come on now! That’s a bit much, wouldn’t you say? Honored as the first President, fine. But made a god?! As if America is a divine creation or something like that. That’s a very unhealthy ego on display.
That’s what I mean when I say I love you, but not like that! If I loved you like that I would betray my baptism. I am betrothed by faith and baptism to Christ alone. Jesus told his followers, “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, cannot be my disciple.” Obviously, Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to actually hate their parents, but he is making a point about the requirement of unrivaled allegiance. So, America, when people accuse me of hating you, please know it isn’t true. I don’t hate you. But I can’t allow you to rival my allegiance to Jesus. I can’t put you first. I have vowed to seek first the kingdom of God and you’ll just have to understand that.
Now that we’re this far into our difficult conversation I feel like I have to say some other things. It’s true that I love your energy, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit. I love your amazing contributions to science and art. I love you because you’re my home. But there are things I don’t love about you.
Here we go.
I know you hate to be reminded of what you call “the past,” but the truth is it’s not past and you need to be reminded of it whether you like it or not. I’m talking about your twin original sins. The brutal enslavement of Africans for the sake of “The Economy” and the ethnic-cleansing of this land’s indigenous inhabitants. You seem willing to acknowledge the sin of slavery. (Though you still have a long, long way to go in righting the wrongs of racism.) But you appear incapable of acknowledging your other great sin — the sin of genocidal ethnic cleansing. You want to pretend it didn’t happen and get mad when I bring it up. But you’re going to have to face it. I don’t know exactly how you can atone for this sin, but I do know that you have to face the ugly fact that you built your nation on stolen land and buried bodies. You are Cain. You can receive the mercy of God as Cain did, but you have to be honest about what you did to your brother Abel. America, you’re my home, but my home is haunted by native ghosts.
So please try to be more humble. You don’t have to be great. It’s enough to be good. You don’t have to be so obsessed with being “Number One.” It’s enough to be a moral citizen among the community of nations. You don’t have to try to be “King of the World.” (Jesus already is!) And your obsession with possessing the means to kill — your trillion dollar war machine, two thousand nukes, billion dollar bombers, a new thirty billion dollar warship, and your 270 million guns! — scares me. It reminds me of something ominous that Jesus said. “All who take up the sword will die by the sword.” Please think about it.
America, I’m one of your citizens. And I love you like a sister. I’ll seek the common good. I’ll gladly pay my share to help provide for education, infrastructure, healthcare, emergency services, and everything else it takes to live in a civilized society. (I’d like for you to spend a lot less on bombs and killing machines, but I understand that’s not up to me.) Yes, America, I love you like a sister. But not like I love my Lord. Not like I love God. I cannot love you like that. I cannot pledge unconditional allegiance to you. But I can promise to be a good citizen by attempting to love my neighbor as myself.
On the Fourth of July I cannot worship you with the liturgies of civil religion, but I’ll gladly eat a hotdog in honor of your birthday and listen to some Johnny Cash. And better yet, I can pray that you would become more peaceable and just, more humble and kind. America, may God bless you to be good.
(The artwork is The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi, 1865, as seen in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. In the fresco George Washington is depicted as ascended to heaven where he reigns as a god, flanked by the goddesses of Liberty and Victory, thus forming an American Trinity.)