Deuteronomy 10:1721; Matthew 5:4348
Two hundred and thirty years ago today, thirteen British colonies on this continent voted for their independence from the kingdom to which they owed their foundation. They were to become “a new nation”—new in sovereignty and new in political conception—“conceived in liberty,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This vision is the particular American gift to the troubled history of humanity. This vision is the value by which the citizens of this country are said to live and the goal towards which we claim to aspire. We have imperfectly lived it out here: many of the founders owned slaves; women were absent from their deliberations; only landholders were recognized; and they held lands taken from tribes who were unrecognized.
Yet we, the descendants of these men, grasped that these words meant more than they denoted. Their original meaning was not narrow, but ample. The branching out of their implications is as true to those words as the oak is true to the acorn. These are strong vital words, and they grew with our nation, calling us always to move beyond our preconditioned and prejudiced selves. Those who were slaves are now leaders; women participate in and preside over our deliberations; lands and privileges are being returned to those who knew nothing of titles and deeds to property; and even those who have nothing in our day can vote.
The glory of these words is that at no time in our history have circumstances forced us to return to them to reconsider or alter them. Far from it: we see that we are still falling short of their scope; we are still growing into and with them. Their radical inclusion of all people is open-ended. There is no place to stop on the trajectory of the recognition of human dignity and worth, and to say, “Here, and no more.” There can be no predetermined terminus of justice while other lives are still coming into being, for whom we also must prepare a welcome. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Can any of us see their final horizon of meaning?
If we are a Christian nation to any extent, we are so, not because of our theology, but because our founders conceived this civic abstraction of the Body of Christ, where all are members one of another and where no one can say to another, “I have no need of you.” The enduring Christian shape of our foundation is not creedal, but this political appropriation of the radical words of Jesus, who demanded of his followers an investment in others far beyond tribal and domestic loyalties: “if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? If you greet only your sisters and brothers, what more are you doing than others? Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our founders heard what was said about the Church and imagined a state; they heard an ethical call and imagined, not the challenges of virtue, but inalienable rights. And when our Episcopal Church was established after the Revolution, the same concern to hear amply from both ordained and lay voices in the councils of the church led to the creation of the House of Deputies. This incorporation of the voice of God’s people is the particular gift this national church brings to the Anglican Communion.
We know that every attempt fully to live into either the embracing love of Christ’s new household or the pervasive privileges of this new nation has been a struggle. Always we find dogs napping in mangers, who wake to defend with barks and bites the straw they can’t eat from the child who might be laid there or the ox that might feed there. Though these curs must be driven from their place, to take up arms for the sake of inclusion in the cause of freedom, is a terribly ambiguous thing. Where freedom and dignity for all members of a society are unclaimed and undefended by law, that society is reduced to a hunting estate of the powerful; but the price of the internal contradiction of the struggle for freedom is always high. We are so made that ferocity keeps our muscles tense long after the battle. The acrid stain of trauma seeps backwards through the layered fabric of common life, rendering even festal garments useless. The warriors of tolerance are always at risk of becoming the tyrants of the one right way. Certainty about what is right is deadly.
A far better way is to describe and give thanks for the City of God as it comes to be community by community, to encourage and provide for those tables where all can hear the story of our Exodus from that Egypt of bondage and shame, not to yield the small gains, and always to be quick to welcome others to these homesteads of hope in the wilderness. Martyrs, whose blood is the seed of the Church, are not those who defy the powerful, but those who do not give in to rage or fear, either in themselves or others, remaining steadfast witnesses of a better way. Coercion always fails; courage does not. What I demand that you do never lasts; what I show you that I do never fails. But few of us believe this is so.
These are sad troubling days both for our nation and our Church.
We have become a frightened nation, and that has made us rash and suspicious, quick to snatch what we can when we can. There are many who say that this nation has always been rapacious and arrogant. And yet the vision of human equality and dignity that we remember today as what our founders dimly and hopefully saw has been effective in correcting those excesses over time, in restoring balance, in stretching us to achieve still wider extensions of full participation. For over two centuries, other nations studied and imitated this great experiment of ours. Our original conviction still has power to correct our course and to guide other peoples. It itself remains unsullied and gives the lie easily to any sophistries that pretend that liberty and the pursuit of happiness can exist without economic and civic safeguards. That we fall short of that vision never makes it a false hope.
We have also become a frightened Church, and that has made us rigid and self-righteous, when we are not vacillating and demoralized. There are many who say that Episcopalians have always been shallow and worldly. And yet this vision of a world created good, of a banquet to which all are invited, of a body into which all members are knit together, of a household where all are cared for as if they were Christ himself, of a city whose gates are always open and who no longer needs either sun or Temple because God is present to all and all in all—this vision is the one that has given hope to those both within and without our Church. No, it has been more than hope, because we have also already received it, and lived it, and lived in it and from it, by the visiting grace of God.
The Gospel is never about fear; it was not fear that caused folks to flock to Jesus; it was not fear that caused folks to receive the Spirit as they listened to Peter and to Paul. It was that sudden lift of alertness, that abrupt gasp of recognition, that dormant hope shaking itself awake: could it be that we feel homesickness, otherwise incomprehensible, because we have a home? Could it be that our soul’s sense of relief and arrival is a trustworthy indication that we have found our true home? Could it be that we, who have nothing to bring but our heavy flesh and our devious soul, will find that our salvation is not complete until all flesh sees the glory of God and all souls are restored to God’s likeness, that in fact salvation was for the sake of the flesh and the soul—which God became, rather than set aside?
I have thought much in these days of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, spoken while the Civil War was still raging. Not fatuously optimistic and far from defiant, his brooding words remain true about very different conflicts in our own day. Speaking of both sides of his divided nation, he said, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Standing before a nation uncertain of his worth and hostile to his plans for reconstruction, Lincoln had the courage to share a vision of God’s purposes that held neither side as right, and that placed all things in God’s hands. He said, “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” We are more able today to admit what Lincoln was tacitly acknowledging: that, though slave labor had fueled the South, the slave trade had funded the North, and that the intransigency that led to the war between the states was bitter and relentless on both sides, and that, even with a just cause, war is war, and every virtue in war leads to blood-soaked dust, and to the empty eyes and cold gray flesh of those who never themselves deserved the death they earned by being honorable and loyal and brave.
Our offenses, we believe, are less heinous, and God’s justice, we trust, will be less severe. But the deep recognition that all are complicit in the human condition, that the arbitrary structures of power, however artificial, inflict actual and carnal damage which must be repaired, that the rage of victim and tyrant are equally devastating and destructive, that resentments and fears, justified or unjustified, equally subvert constructive conversation, and that it is an unalterable spiritual law that the measure we give is the measure we receive, condemnation for condemnation, forgiveness for forgiveness, venom for venom, and life for life—our recognition and conviction of these things could guide us in the days to come. They are the expression of a wisdom that sees the equality and dignity of every human being and that moves first always to safeguard that, knowing that no solution achieved by defeat and exclusion can last, because no such solution is of God, who executes justice for the widow and the orphan, who sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing, and whose sun also rises on the evil and the good.
Certainly Lincoln glimpsed this happy and bountiful valley in his day and greeted it from afar. The final words of his second inaugural address have never been surpassed. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on 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 his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” May God give us in our day such a vision and the grace to be loyal and effective citizens of that heavenly country while we are sojourners on this tear-sodden earth, until the day when those virtues and those consolations are all we know in the presence of our Eternal Source, our Only-begotten Word, and our life-giving Spirit, the one God to whom we turn daily and whom we praise eternally.