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In April, 1775, Samuel Johnson wrote, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Unfortunately, too often, too true. More crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of patriotism than almost anything else, with the possible exception of religion. But on a weekend like this one, I think even Dr. Johnson would agree that patriotism has its place. There are times we need to recall our national heritage, to remind us of our roots and to help us reaffirm our priorities. And for the sake of our own national self-esteem, we need to feel the sense of pride that only citizenship can bring...to share the feeling of the poet when he wrote:
Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
I love this country and I know you do too. And on this weekend, if we never think of it on any other, our prayer is "God bless America."
God HAS blessed America...especially as compared to other civilizations this world has seen. Pericles built a civilization on culture, and it failed. Caesar developed one based on power, and it TOO failed. But those who founded our nation built on the solid foundation of a trust in the abiding presence and power of the Almighty.
Before the 41 men who survived the trip from England on the Mayflower ever reached these shores, they affirmed their beliefs in a Compact among themselves. When they landed at Plymouth, their first act in this new land was to kneel in a prayer of thanksgiving to the one who had protected them on their journey.
As time went on and the colonies grew, it became evident that a nation was to evolve. A Continental Congress was called to forge a Federal Republic out of thirteen unique sets of interests. The debates were long and sometimes bitter, even to the point where some would have been content to abandon the dream. But others would not. Benjamin Franklin called on the delegates to fall on their knees in prayer, and a new nation was born...a nation that affirmed in our Declaration of Independence "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
The relationship between America and her Creator was made plain for all to see from the beginning. The first coin minted on these shores bore the likeness of Moses. Even today, our money is still inscribed, "In God We Trust." In our pledge of allegiance to the flag, we say, "One nation, under God." We sing, "God bless America," and God has. God has indeed!
God has blessed us with abundant natural resources. Practically every commodity that we desire and can make use of is found in abundance. We have fertile lands for crops and livestock. We have ample water. This nation has never known famine. We go down under the earth into our mines and find every mineral we could ever need. "America, America, God shed His grace on thee."
God has made this a land of opportunity. Edison was a poor boy, but all the world today uses the 1100 inventions that were born in his mind. He became an inventor because he lived in a land where even a poor boy could have a chance. Henry Ford was a simple mechanic, but he became the world's greatest industrialist because America gave him his chance. Abraham Lincoln - from log house to the White House. Barack Obama, the mixed-race son of a single mother, in a nation that still struggles with its racist past, rises to the highest office in the land. Our history is full of Horatio Alger stories. The land of opportunity. America, America.
Is it perfect? We know better. We look at those magnificent natural resources with which God has blessed us and see them despoiled and depleted and more in danger now because of recent policies than they have been in decades. Our good government, this free democracy, is SO free that it can grind to a halt in horribly mean-spirited partisan politics. This so-called "Land of Opportunity" offers more opportunity to some folks than to others. I recall a conversation I had with a young friend of mine one day just before July 4th a few years ago. He had asked me what I was planning to preach on the Sunday just before the holiday, and I told him that it would be something apropos to the celebration. He responded by saying that he had never thought of the Fourth in terms of much to celebrate. I did not pursue the matter because I knew what he was saying. You see, he is black...and this nation has never done for him what it has done for me. He does not have nearly the reason to celebrate. Barack Obama is the exception, not the rule. No, this nation is not perfect, as these past several weeks have reminded us.
It is still hard to imagine. Nine people at Wednesday evening Bible Study in their church. A young stranger joins them and they welcome him. They spend an hour together in study and prayer. And suddenly, nine people are dead. For no other reason than they were black. Indeed, the young assassin admitted later that he almost did NOT shoot them because they had treated him so nicely. But, in the end, his racist hatred won out. Nine dead. A nation in shock.
Subsequent investigation revealed a lot about the shooter. High school drop-out. Unemployed. Drugs. But, most of all, a virulent racist. According to a childhood friend, Roof went on a rant about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the recent protests in Baltimore that were sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while Gray was in police custody. He also often claimed that “blacks were taking over the world.” Roof reportedly told friends and neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston, but his claims were not taken seriously. One image from his Facebook page showed him wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, two nations used as emblems among American white supremacist movements. Another online photo showed Roof sitting on the hood of his parents' car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag on it. According to his roommate, Roof wanted to start a race war(2).
Well, he didn’t. In fact, the results were almost exactly opposite what he would have envisioned. At his arraignment following his arrest, over and over he heard the families and friends of his victims express their forgiveness (they take the Lord’s Prayer SERIOUSLY) for what he had done and their gracious concern for him. His reverence for the Confederate battle flag prompted a renewal of the conversation in this state about its presence on the grounds of our State House. Virtually every major political voice in this state, regardless of party, has called for its removal, an unimaginable call just a month ago. There have been a few hesitant voices saying this flag is not about racism, rather Southern heritage, but those voices have been largely dismissed because people pointed out that the banner has only been displayed for the past half century and was raised specifically in response to the Civil Rights movement that was gathering momentum at the time. No, it is about racism and it needs to come down. At Senator Pinckney’s funeral, one of the AME Church Bishops that spoke, Richard Franklin Norris of Columbia, said “South Carolina rose to its greatest height during the last week.”
As the President said, “Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong, the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”(3) Indeed.
Another conversation that needs to be held is about guns. News organizations noted that this was the fourteenth time during Barack Obama’s presidency that he has had to address the nation in the aftermath of a mass shooting. In his eulogy for Pastor Pinckney, he noted “Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk.”(4) But we do need to talk about guns. Whether it is eight people in a church basement, a dozen in a movie theatre or 26 in a Connecticut elementary school, or the 30 or so across America EVERY DAY, the heavily-financed gun lobby tries to shut the conversation down. Second amendment, second amendment, second amendment. In Eugene Robinson’s column in the Washington Post after the Mother Emanuel shooting, he noted, “After 20 young children and six adults were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Congress took up two modest pieces of legislation: a ban on military-style assault weapons, which no hunter needs; and a requirement for universal background checks before buying guns. Both had overwhelming public support. Neither became law.”(5) Why not? We all know.
I wonder if they really care about the second amendment. Do you know what it says? I quote: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Nobody ever says anything about the “militia” phrase. A modest proposal: if you want to own a gun, fine, as long as you are qualified, can pass a background check (which most gun owners already favor), then, per that second amendment, you are automatically enlisted in the National Guard. Just a thought.
To be honest, we seem to be a nation right now in search of its soul. We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy Keeping Up with the Kardashians or listening to Donald Trump bloviate about how all Mexicans are rapists. Foolishness. Perhaps we are trying to take our minds off the economic stagnation of the middle class or the continuing news of ISIS horrors in the Middle East and wondering when some lone wolf jihadist will do something horrible here.
Despite the Affordable Care Act and its reaffirmation by the Supreme Court last week, we still have a problem with health care in this country. According to the World Health Organization, we are currently 34th on the life expectancy list, behind most of the countries of Europe, just behind Cuba and just ahead of Qatar and Barbados. The United States has a higher infant mortality rate than any of the other 27 wealthy countries, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control. A baby born in the U.S. is nearly three times as likely to die during her first year of life as one born in Finland or Japan. That same American baby is about twice as likely to die in her first year as a Spanish or Korean one. Despite healthcare spending levels that are significantly higher than any other country in the world, a baby born in the U.S. is less likely to see his first birthday than one born in Hungary, Poland or Slovakia. Or in Belarus. Or in Cuba again for that matter.(6)
The list of our national woes could go on and on...but it does not have to. As we read the Old Testament accounts of the history of Israel, we find that they too were a people truly blessed. But they also strayed and they paid the price. They suffered the ravages of conquering armies and natural disasters. God gave them a way back: II Chronicles - “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."(7)
America would do well to listen to that. The Psalmist says, "Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord." We are a pluralistic society with a variety of approaches to God, and despite what we hear from some quarters, we are a better society when that variety is constitutionally protected.
It would be wonderful if we could evidence what the President reflected on in his eulogy. He said, “This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals -- the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see...”
As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for [God] has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. [God] has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other -- but we got it all the same. [God] gave it to us anyway. [God has] once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”(8) A bit later, he started to sing. He didn't have to. Grace.
A Pennsylvania fellow traveling in our part of the country stopped by a mom & pop restaurant for breakfast. He ordered eggs, bacon and toast only to be surprised by an amorphous white mass on his plate when the food was served. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Grits,” replied the waitress.
“I didn’t order grits,” said the traveler.
“No matter,” said the waitress, “they just come.”
God's grace is like grits. It just comes.
In his 1961 Inaugural, President Kennedy challenged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." Perhaps the BEST thing we can do is make that personal commitment to live lives that are pleasing to our Lord, then demonstrating that commitment in the unselfish management of our resources, the prayerful support of our leaders (which will sometimes mean challenging them when they lead us in wrong directions), and a loving reaffirmation of the principles of "liberty and justice for all."
Then with a full heart, we can truly pray:
God bless America, land that I love;
1. Sir Walter Scott, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” Canto VI, Stanza I
8. Whitehouse.gov. ibid.
9. Copyright 1938, 1939 by Irving Berlin renewed 1965, 1966. Copyright assigned to Winthrop Rutherfurd, Jr., Anne Phipps Sidamon-Eristoff, and Theodore R. Jackson as Trustees of the God Bless America Fund. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.