Deuteronomy 10:1721; Psalm 145; Hebrews 11:816; Matthew 5:4348
I must ask your indulgence today. I am always skeptical when preachers talk about themselves in sermons. The rest of the world is hardly as interested in us as we are, nor are our lives as full of edifying examples as we might think. Today, however, as I preach on our nation’s birthday in our nation’s capital in this great church for national purposes, I found myself wondering—as you might wonder about me—what credentials I bring to this honor and responsibility. By what right do I stand here and speak?
You see, I was not raised in this country. My parents were Southern Baptist missionaries, who taught and preached in Spain, in Chile, and in Colombia—a single career for their entire adulthood. I was a child in Barcelona during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, where we had neither television nor peanut butter. Not that we suffered: peanut butter was smuggled in by my parents’ friends when they came over from the States. This was a mysterious and exotic treat that meant much more to my father than to me; I preferred bread smeared with a ripe tomato and drizzled with olive oil and salt. My parents, though, did all they could to raise my sisters and me as Stateside children: in our home, we celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas, not Corpus Christi and Epiphany, and always Independence Day. The ideals of this country were, to my parents, on a par with the values of their faith, and I was raised knowing that I was blessed and fortunate on every count: as a Baptist and as an American.
Of course, my parents had furloughs every four or five years. My father’s family lived outside of Richmond, Virginia. His father worked on the restoration of Williamsburg; my grandfather showed me with pride the woodwork in the Governor’s Palace that had been his responsibility. Our ancestors are buried in the graveyard of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which they helped found on the north edge of Richmond; I was told there were two Yankee cannonballs still embedded in the northern walls, left there “lest we forget.” My mother’s family lived in Rogersville, in East Tennessee, the second oldest city in the state. Every time we were there, I went to visit the graves of Davey Crockett’s grandparents, who were massacred by Native Americans in that settlement—a regular and pious pilgrimage of mine. My mother’s family had remained in that East Tennessee county from the time my ancestor, a Revolutionary War veteran, was paid, not with cash, but with land out in the west on the other side of the mountains; Mr. Jefferson’s new-fangled Louisiana Purchase was no more than the land speculation of an ambitious Virginia gentryman at that point.
Our returns to my parents’ homes, as you see, always brought me back into the deep flow of our nation’s heritage. I admit to you that I always felt like a resident alien, both here and abroad. My daily cultural shaping was Spanish and South American. But significantly, the United States of America was always our idealized home. This is not surprising. Our nation uniquely lends itself to idealization, given the lofty sight-lines that oriented and inspired the cluster of friends and partners who were our founders.
We have, in the words that belong to this day, two sets of vocabularies, one political and one religious, but both are theological. It is startling always to realize how imbued with theology our Declaration of Independence is. These are not the words of an established church, grimly alert that it is entitled to affix its seal to a civil proceeding; they are freshly hammered from the forge of new thought. They are sharp words still, because they were the cutting edge of their day. Such words, by which humanity in all times and in all places cuts open a new path, do not wear out. Those who comment on them are dull—as you perhaps consider me—but the words themselves can be picked up again and again. It is not surprising the mainstream of our nation has remained so God-obsessed, regardless of how we struggle over the relationship between Church and State: theological language was the molten steel the founders of the nation worked. Listen:
“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.”
These are glorious words—no shame is ever to be associated with them—and, by their recognition of a Creator, profoundly theological claims. This effort to understand humanity from the perspective of our Creator is an attempt to locate an unassailable and inviolate perspective; so the words “self-evident” and “inalienable” are used. The authors of this Declaration were trying to determine what is essential to humanity and then to conceive a nation there. They had the unwavering courage to stake their political claims on what could be asserted as true of every human being, not simply of themselves as a region of geography, a rhythm of language, a convergence of genealogy—categories too backward looking and too confining. In Lincoln’s words, they “brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Now we know that they surveyed depths and heights that they did not reach and failed to live up to. They were bold enough to assert the equality of humanity, but asserted, not what they observed or imposed in their own social constructions, but something only God can vouch for.
Only God possesses full life, unimpeded liberty, unbound happiness. We have been endowed with them as gift and in trust. The writers of the Declaration boldly echo the preacher’s claim that we are made in the image of God: all humanity reflects that life and that liberty inalienably; to lose these is to lose what makes us human. And all humanity, having fallen from our primal happiness, is called to pursue restoration of happiness in this life.
The Christian foundations of this country are nowhere better seen than here. The refusal of the Creator to discriminate, who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust, is enjoined also on us, who are to forgive without distinctions. The refusal of the Redeemer to discriminate, who, in being lifted up, draws all the world to himself, is enjoined also on us, who are to proclaim to all the Good News of reconciliation without conditions. And the authors of the Declaration of Independence did not shrink from an embrace that mirrored the wideness of God’s mercy. The boldness of conceiving political identity, not from distinctions of classes and clans, but from what is common to all humanity, therefore calling all humanity to live out of this inalienable gift of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, ripples out from the Christian articulation of the atonement: grace is freely bestowed on us all, and we are called to be equally generous, so that we may be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
I have spoken about my childhood. Putting aside childish things always involves a tearing and breaking of what had been trusted. What happens when we realize that, though the truths prized in the Declaration of Independence can be acknowledged and honored, they can also be confined and compromised? I recall my mother’s mother talking to me about the Trail of Tears, the forced march of the Cherokees from their native Smoky Mountains to the plains of Oklahoma in 1838. She spoke grimly about this shameful thing that white settlers did to the Native Americans of the very territory in which she lived her entire life. But she could not see her share in the sins of the present. My sister was in this country for her senior year in high school, and her best friend that year was an African-American girl. The two of them decided to room together in college, so my sister invited her to our grandparents’ home—and my grandmother revoked that invitation. These are her words: “No white family in this town has ever received a colored person in their home and we are not going to be the first.” She did not say that coldly; both she and my sister cried scalding bitter tears through that discussion. But my sister’s friend never visited that house.
Because identity depends so much on identification, because our sense of self depends so much on belonging to a group that shares what we believe in, few things are more painful than the failure of those we admire to live up to the ideals we profess together. My grandmother was a good and devout woman, and yet I feel in myself a share of the failure of her words, because she is my people and was staking out boundaries for family. Such a sense of interior betrayal and deep disorientation is only possible when high ideals are held—and the values of our Declaration of Independence are high.
Our nation, since our last celebration of the Fourth of July, has suffered many such blows: people we want to believe good involved in shameful behavior. I wish the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison were the only ones. The depth and severity of these wounds, both here and abroad, is incalculable. Even as we must take seriously the importance of removing those responsible, we can falter, even despair, about possible solutions. Yet despair is never warranted where there is life and liberty, where the means of the pursuit of happiness are varied, and where those inalienable rights are protected for every citizen by a system of checks and balances.
Though I do not mean that government alone can ever be the root of our reassurance, last week’s Supreme Court decision was a cause of encouragement and relief. Our Supreme Court overturned the claim of our national executive branch that it could hold citizens of this country indefinitely by terming them enemy combatants. The justices asserted that “essential constitutional promises may not be eroded,” stating that “the very core of liberty has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the executive”—reason enough to give thanks on this national holiday!
But the means of the pursuit of happiness must be varied as well. As naïve as it sounds, if the variety of approaches in the pursuit of happiness are to be occasion for hope and for change, then these depend on the integrity and intelligence of those who affirm these ideals. My grandmother would have felt no grief and shame if her ideals had not been high, her love strong, her disappointment in herself fierce. This is the nascent good faith on which all non-violent political action relies. Those engaged in non-violent political action gamble that some oppressors can come to see that their strategic ignorance of abuses is an admission of the transcendent power of the universal values that condemn abuse. Only by remaining ignorant of the way they trample others can they continue to claim to have the moral integrity they crave. Once their bad faith is exposed to them incontestably, by showing how their actions contradict what they say they value, some will repent and change. That was the gamble of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Jesus. When that does not work, history confirms that, in the face of mounting rage, of civil disobedience, of systems that lock themselves down and refuse to obey in protest, needed changes are brought about.
This grim analysis, though, is not how I want to close, because there is a greater cause for hope: life and liberty themselves. Our prescient founders knew that, if they grounded this country on those human endowments which are in fact our image of God, those terms are perpetual and self-replenishing. They will endure while humanity endures. They cannot be identified with a certain population and circumstance. We know that universal suffrage and freedom were not the political realities of our founders’ day, but they are increasingly so. We have been growing into their vision ever since.
But the truth is that even this impulse hardly needs to rely on human planning. By their very nature, endowed and inalienable rights burst the levies built around them, and will forever. They are daily new: every day, each one of us who takes our own human dignity seriously discovers more depth in our life, more reach to our freedom, more discipline in our pursuit of happiness. The political outline of these rights will always renew and expand itself, because human beings do. We will never reach the end of those we can approach, in whom to see and to prize their life, their liberty, their pursuit of happiness—our common endowment, our common image of God. Seeing them so, we can strive for the justice that allows greater and greater fullness of this vision to be incarnate in all people. Human rights are not legal entitlements or possessions, though we may need laws to protect them. They are instead ways of seeing each other, modes of interaction, governors of our approach to one another, to prevent us from accelerating beyond our control and running each other over. To guarantee the rights of others is to vouchsafe our own. This insight is the proclamation and gift of our nation to the world.
Here also, the Christian foundations of our country are nowhere better seen. Jesus wryly says to his listeners, “if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Tax collectors do that. If you only greet those you know, what more are you doing than others? People all over the world do that. If you are only willing to deal with the definition of life, the conditions of liberty, and the circumstances of the pursuit of happiness that you have already laid down and have already worn out, what new thing can ever come to be?” But, thanks be to God, the replenishment of life, the bursting forth of liberty, the deeper acceptance in the pursuit of happiness, is never limited to our terms.
Recall the glorious passage in the Letter to the Hebrews: Abraham died in faith, without receiving the promises, though he greeted them from afar. Everywhere he went, he was a sojourner, passing through; his only purchase of land was a cave for burial. This is our ancestor in faith, the one who knew that no confirmation of territory exhausts the divine promise; instead, he desired the better country, the eternal one. Then come the stunning words: “therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” Why? Because here were some whose eyes were on the future, who wanted to belong to God’s fullness, not to partiality and compromises, who knew that there is no restriction, no limit, no scarcity in God, and who wanted to reside there. We ourselves only move through what we prize and enjoy in this life. Our transitoriness can become not only the pursuit, but the experience, of happiness, as we recall that we have here no permanent dwelling and that God has already prepared for us a city.
Life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have no endpoint. They cannot, by definition, be limited, because they do not run out. They are as daily new as God is to God’s own self, rejoicing forever in the constant overflow of Creation. The divine injunction that demands our generous stance towards each other, you see, is simply the most realistic Good News of all. Be on the side of life and liberty for all, because that is where God is. Then you will be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect, who is our life and our liberty, who is the happiness we pursue, and whom we praise this day and hope to praise for all eternity.