Loving God, Loving Country

Homily, Pentecost 7, July 3, 2016
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Troy, PA
Fr. Han van den Blink

[Father Han of St. Paul's Troy is professor emeritus of Ascetical and Pastoral Theology, Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary.]

1. Tomorrow we celebrate the Independence Day of the United States. This morning I want to say something about what I understand it means, from a Christian perspective, to love God and to love one’s country, particularly at a time when our country is still engaged in armed conflict abroad, and experiencing intense disagreements, partisan strife, and political polarization at home.

Let me begin with a personal experience. About twelve years ago, on April 22, 2004, I was naturalized as an American citizen in the Tompkins County Court House in Ithaca, New York. I had no idea what to expect that day but was surprised how moving an occasion this turned out to be.

From the moment I set foot in that Courthouse, I felt like an honored guest. This had everything to do with the way in which those of us who became American citizens that day, and there were 45 of us from all parts of the world, were made to feel welcome by those who were in charge of that ceremony.

I had lived in this country for many years without feeling the need to become an American citizen. I had been quite content with my Dutch passport and Alien Registration Card, commonly known as the Green Card, although currently no longer green but pink.

About two years before I was naturalized I became aware of a growing sense that I needed to become an American citizen. The persistencea and strength of this feeling was unexpected. It took a while for me to be able to articulate what motivated that feeling.

There was, first of all, my age. I immigrated to this country from the Netherlands when I was 22. A week after becoming a citizen I turned 70. It began to dawn on me that I did not want to die a “resident alien” in a country which has given me so much, where I married the love of my life, where my children and granchildren are, and where I have lived and worked with so much pleasure and personal and professional satisfaction.

The second reason had to do with my experience as a refugee in Indonesia during the Second World War and its aftermath. I was a boy then but old enough to experience the horror of what was going on around me. I not only literally had been a refugee and for that reason qualified as a refugee when immigrating to this country but my identity had in many ways remained that of a refugee.

I knew that if things went wrong here or anywhere else for that matter, I could always return to the Netherlands. My Dutch passport was a like a parachute that I could count on in case of trouble. But I realized that I did not need that parachute any more.

A third reason was a sense that, with this country going through such trying times, I needed to be able to cast my vote, and that not doing so would be irresponsible. Closely related to this was a fourth important reason. That had to do with the America that I had come to appreciate and value, the America that has the potential of manifesting what a peaceful, diverse culture (ethnically, racially, religiously and politically) can be like, without the oppression, ethnic cleansing, strife and warfare that characterizes the situation in so many other places in our world.

This is the America that, for all its problems and the endemic racism that can pop up like a toxic fungus, continues to be the most promising experiment in multicultural human relationships of people from different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds, that, to my knowledge, the world has known. This is the America that, when it lives up to its highest standards, is a place of hope, a place of opportunity, and a place where all its citizens can be free and treated justly.

This is the America that was founded by courageous and far seeing patriots with an unusual commitment to what they called self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These majestic, powerful words have acted, ever since then as a beacon of hope that has, again and again, helped people of faith and good will in this country to make the necessary course corrections when things have gone off track.

This ringing declaration resounded compellingly 187 years later in a famous address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August 28, 1963, gave his historic “I have a Dream” speech in which he directly appealed to the Declaration of Independence as “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir” regardless of race, color, religion or national origin.

2. A Christian perspective always needs be grounded in the Mind of Christ, as we have been given to know that mind through the life and ministry of Jesus. We are to love the Lord our God, the one who has given us life and in whom we live and move and have our being, with all our heart and soul and mind and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Love understood as what the New Testament calls agapē, that is to say not a feeling of kindness but an inner spiritual disposition that is exemplified by the way we behave toward others, as Jesus did, with compassion, truthfulness, and humility. How do we operationalize the Mind of Christ in loving God and country? How can such critical spiritual virtues as compassion, truthfulness, and humility shape our behavior in that regard?

Let me suggest a few points of reference. First of all, love of country for the Christian always begins with the love of God. From a Biblical perspective all life is a gift from God and that includes the land where we were born, where we live or that we have adopted.

On this view our country is also a gift from God. In spite of the way we talk about ownership of land, property, and talents and have a whole legal system to back that up, we never really own anything permanently, either personally or as a group. Rather, we are given land and property and talents in by our Heavenly Father, to take care of as faithful stewards during our time on earth.

Claiming to love one’s country remains an empty phrase devoid of meaning if our love does not include actively caring for the welfare of its people, its land, its water and its air. Every time we say the words, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee” when the collection is gathered during the Eucharist, we acknowledge this truth and are reminded of our responsibility toward what we have been given in trust.

Second, it is critically important, but particularly so during times of strife and conflict, to remember that, as St. Paul put it, “all have sinned [that is to say missed the mark] and fall short of the glory of God”. And that does mean all of us, including you and me, including every institution, every governmental agency, Congress, the White House, every state, every county, every city and town.

Whenever we are physically, emotionally or politically threatened, we tend to to do two things: first, we resort to absolutizing what we most love and most trust, our family, our theology, our political party, our country. And second, we begin to demonize the opposition, the enemy. It takes real effort to avoid making those mistakes and to back away from them when we find ourselves doing so.

I am deeply moved by what Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, while the Civil War was still raging. Knowing that we must never turn our own cause, no matter how worthy, into an idol, he had the courage to say that “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

3. The third point of reference is the importance of compassion in our desire to love God and country, especially in our dealings with those who oppose us at home and abroad. Again, it is Lincoln who was able to articulate this at the end of that Second Inaugural Address when he closed with those astonishing words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

And that brings me to the fourth point of reference, namely the critical importance of humility. What Scripture and the Early Church meant by humility is entirely different from what it has come to signify in our day. “For them,” the patristics scholar Roberta Bondi writes, “humility was not about groveling before God and other human beings. It had nothing to do with being passive, being a doormat or glorifying a poor self-image. It was certainly not a virtue recommended to women or poor people so that they would accept their place in society. No, humility for the ancient teachers meant accepting ourselves and others just as we are, limitations, vulnerabilities, and major imperfections included, as already equally valuable and beloved of God without our having to prove our worth by what we accomplish.”

I recently became aware of an incredible example of humility in none other than George Washington, the General who explicitly prohibited the use of torture, the man without whom, it is widely agreed, the revolt of the 13 American colonies against King George III and the British Empire would not have succeeded.

After the defeat of the army of Cornwallis at Yorktown, there was a growing sentiment to proclaim Washington as King of the newly liberated colonies. This movement was fanned by the inability of the Confederation Congress to forge a more unified government which had the power to levy taxes and thereby give the Continental Army the backpay it was owed and provide the resources needed to pursue the war against Great Britain.

The historian Joseph P. Ellis comments on this episode, “All these considerations –Washington’s transcendent stature, the weakness of the new federal government, and the grievances of the army- came together in March 1783 to create the Newburgh Conspiracy.”

This conspiracy by a few congressmen and officers of the Continental Army aimed at threatening Congress with a coup if that body did not agree to assure promised pensions and to concentrate executive power in the hands of the only trusted man, George Washington, was stopped cold by the great man himself.

“In this culminating moment of his military career, George Washington demonstrated that he was as immune to the seductions of dictatorial power as he was to smallpox…” If we ever need an example of humility in politics, especially now, here it is.

Loving God, loving country. The need to do both well, to avoid confusing the two, to know which one is most important, and to do so in the awareness that even at our best, we will never fully succeed but, by God’s grace, can contribute our part to the healing of the world of which the United States is such a critically important part - this, in our time, is more urgent than ever. And this is what we are called to do together. So help us God. Amen.

And now to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be might, majesty, dominion, and power forever and ever. Amen.