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15th sunday in ordinary time

July 4, 2010

The Challenge of Faithful Patriotism

Romans 13:1-7

The Grand Holiday

Today we as a nation are celebrating our grandest of holidays—Independence Day. The day in which our founding fathers met in the Pennsylvania State House on a steamy fourth day in July to declare their independence from the rule of Great Britain. The resolution was the culmination of over six months of political maneuvering by various factions throughout the original colonies. John Dickinson put up a strong campaign to delay the move. He believed that the Continental Congress had much more work to do before they could sever their ties with England.

The legislative bodies of Maryland and New York specifically instructed their delegates to vote against such an action. Maryland reversed its decision on May 20. However, British troops moved into New York and the Provincial Congress had to evacuate before they could reconsider their previous decision. The New York delegates actually abstained from voting when the motion came to a vote on July 2.

The task of writing the document was assigned to a Committee of Five—John Adams of Massachusetts who would later become the second President of the United States, the venerable and esteemed inventor, entrepreneur, and statesman Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia who become our third President, Robert R. Livingston of New York who would later negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut who would be the only member of the Continental Congress to sign the four most important documents in the founding of our country-the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Association, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. Jefferson once described Sherman as a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.

That was quite an illustrious group of men. They were the intellectually elite of the American colonies. It is a shame that today the intellectual elite mostly shy away from the political fray. The document submitted by the Committee of Five to the Congress gathered in Philadelphia contain two important political concepts. While not new their thought was still considered “revolutionary.”

The first involved the relationship between the citizen and the monarch. Thomas Jefferson was really the chief architect of the declaration. In his opening statement he wrote that the citizen and the monarch share equal rights. If the monarch so violated the rights of its citizens then the citizens had the option of dissolving the relationship.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them,

This was not a new idea. The Puritans in England used essentially this same line of reasoning 130 years earlier in their fight against Charles I that culminated with the beheading of the King. However, the rights of citizens was a hotly contested issue throughout Europe. Monarchs drawing on the apostle Paul's writing in Romans 13, considered their rule an indisputable divine right. The duty of every citizen was unquestionable loyalty and obedience. The monarch was entitled to levy taxes, wage war, sign treaties, build elaborate palaces, wear expensive wardrobes and live an opulent lifestyle without considering the opinions of its subjects.

Jefferson challenged this thinking. He did not believe that the monarch enjoy a privileged status. Rule of government for the Virginian statesman was based upon a social contract between two equal parties, the monarch and its citizens. If the monarch commits acts of injustice the citizens may exercise their right to dissolve the contract and form new government.

The second “revolutionary” idea put forth by the Committee of Five was their most famous.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In one sentence the Declaration of Independence did more to advance the cause of individual freedom and human rights than any document in history. The thought and language of this one sentence has become ingrained into to thinking of every American. We cannot imagine living in a land in which those Jeffersonian truths were not guaranteed and protected. However, we should understand that the rationale for this now famous statement and the previously considered, introductory clause that describes the existence of a social contract were not based on divine revelation or Scripture.

The Committee of Five were exemplary of the period that we now call the Age of Enlightenment. During this era the intellectual community distanced itself from the primitive beliefs in the supernatural. They did not adhere to the fundamental tenets of the faith. They did not believe in a transcendent God who made His will known to humankind through direct or indirect communication. God had given to every person intellectual gifts to use the advancement of his or her own self interests.

Jefferson based his philosophy on “the laws of nature and of nature's God.” Self-evident truths were the foundational premise of his unalienable rights. Both are very clear and direct statements that the philosophical views of Natural Law, not upon theological arguments, divine revelation or Scripture. If Jefferson would have sought guidance from Scripture he would have had difficulty forming his argument.

In our Scripture lesson the apostle Paul is quite clear. The duty of every believer is unqualified obedience to Jesus Christ. Notice that Paul did not include an escape clause. He did not list any social or economic conditions that would grant a believer an exemption. This is not the only passage that Paul sets forth this admonition.

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient,

Titus 3:1

    13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

1 Peter 2:13–15

    I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

1 Timothy 2:1–2

From a Biblical perspective, the Continental Congress that met in the City of Brotherly Love simply could not defend their actions. King George never once asked them to worship a pagan idol. He never expected them to denounce their faith. He did not prevent them from worshiping in churches of their own choice for the most part. The Declaration of Independence does not contain an accusations of religious abuse in its litany of monarchical transgressions. When compared to the sufferings of believers in Paul's lifetime, King George's abuses were barely more severe than parental time outs.

Those who would argue that our nation was founded upon Christian principles simple distort the history. That is not to say that God was not instrumental in the foundation of our country. Remember what the apostle told the church in Rome

...there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

What this means is that the United States along with Communist China, Great Britain, North Korea, France, Nazi Germany, Canada, the United Socialist Soviet Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, and a whole host of other countries have also been established by God. Each and every country has a purpose and role in God's plan of salvation. Only one country can claim to play a special role in God's redemptive history—the nation of Israel. God made this promise to the founder of Judaism. After Abraham and Sarah left their homeland God spoke to Abraham and said:

“I will make you into a great nation
        and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
        and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
        and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
        will be blessed through you.

Genesis 12:3,4

The prophet Isaiah reframed this promise in offering hope to the nation of Israel during a time of national despair.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
        and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
        and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
        and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1–3.

This does not mean that we should not have pride in our own country.

People rightly love their unique ethnic roots, foods, history, language, culture, and music. Homesickness is a compliment to the sights, sounds and smells which we love and miss when we are separated from them.

What it does mean is that we should not project the attitude that our country is superior to other countries. Statistically, we do not rank very high in the areas of health, well being and education. The US ranks a lowly 33th in infant mortality rates among countries of the Western world. A baby has a better chance of surviving child birth if they being carried by a mother in Singapore, France, Italy and Greece. According to the Human Development Index which is composed of data on Life Expectancy, Education and per-capita GDP we rank 13th.

Having pride and love for our country is different from believing that are nation is superior to every other nation. The former is patriotism, the latter is nationalism.

CS Lewis once encountered a pastor who espoused such noxious nationalism, and asked him, "doesn't every nation think of itself as the best?" The clergyman responded in all seriousness, "Yes, but in England it is true." Lewis concludes, "To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. "2

We are called to proclaim that God lavishly loves the whole world and every person, and every place. America does enjoy unrivaled dominance in certain economic, political, military, scientific and cultural fields. We may rightly take pride in these exceptional areas. However, we have only to consider the struggles of the American auto industry to realize that our exceptionalism is guaranteed. God has used our nation to defend the rights of millions of people when threatened by racial and ethical hatred, military conquest and starvation. America has played a dominate roll in the advancement of the gospel through the army of missionaries that have traveled to distant lands. However this does not guarantee that America will continue to enjoy the outpouring of God's blessings.

Israel thought that God would never allow another nation to conqueror them but the Assyrians and Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the first Temple. Later the armies of Alexander the Great trampled through the Promised Land and finally the might of Caesar reduced the city of Jerusalem to rubble and dispersed the chosen people of God among the many countries of its empire. The same could happen to the United States.

We may love our country and even take considerable pride in our national heritage, but our ultimate allegiance is not to a flag, a song, a queen, or a president. While we inhabit this frail earthy body we may express our loyalty toward this country but our ultimate citizenship is spiritual not earthly. This place is not our home.

In the second century, one of the church fathers was explaining the relationship between our political identity and our Christian confession. He wrote

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. ... But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners [or resident aliens]. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. 3

The Challenge

The founding of our country may have been established by God but we should remember that it was through the frailty of men. God has used our nation in wonderful ways to advance freedom and to improve the welfare of millions of people. We rightly celebrate all these things on this our national holiday. However, the challenge before us is holding unto a patriotic view without allowing it to distort our thinking about our country and/or demanding an allegiance that we can only give to our God.



3Letter to Diognetus (c. 130 AD) quoted by

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