Deuteronomy 10:1721; Matthew 5:4348
Please let me begin by offering my thanks to Dean Lloyd and his staff for the invitation to preach today on the readings assigned for Independence Day, the day in which we celebrate the birth of our nation. It would have been an honor simply to preach at this magnificent Church, with its remarkable architecture and congregation. But the vision of this Cathedral—to be a national house of prayer for all people—and the readings for Independence Day create the additional honor and obligation to speak about what it means to be a Christian citizen as well as a Christian disciple. That we are to reflect on both roles is mandated by the collect assigned for today, in which we read the following:
Lord Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we encounter an almost seamless combination of the truths declared self-evident in the Declaration of Independence and the revealed truths proclaimed concerning the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But is the connection between these two truth-claims as seamless as our collect suggests? Traditionally, most Christians have argued that it is possible to wear—to use Martin Luther’s metaphor—the two “hats” of being a citizen and a Christian. However, many Christians have come to believe that these two callings contradict one another, that we cannot reconcile the calling of the cross with the calling of our country. Consequently, the question that I want to wrestle with today is what holds these two claims and callings together? Is it possible to be a good Christian and a good citizen?
From the beginning, influential voices in American history have argued that the vocation to be a Christian and the vocation to be a citizen were one in the same. Perhaps the most influential is that of John Winthrop (1588–1648), one of the founders and first governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630, while on the ship Arbella, Winthrop preached a sermon entitled, the “Model of Christian Charity.” Historians argue that Winthrop introduced in this sermon, without using the exact words, the doctrine of manifest destiny: the belief that God has chosen our nation to play a special role in the world by our commitment to life, liberty, and equality. Winthrop introduces this doctrine towards the end of his sermon: “For we must consider that we shall be a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”
In recent history, President Ronald Reagan appealed to Winthrop’s sermon to authorize his own vision of America. Two speeches in particular stand out. The first is an early speech entitled, “City Upon a Hill,” delivered 1974. “You can call it mysticism of you want to,” then-Governor Reagan said, “but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.” The second is his farewell address to the country, delivered in 1989. President Reagan again drew inspiration from Winthrop’s vision. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life,” he said, “but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Now, I realize that I flirt with disaster by mentioning John Winthrop, Ronald Reagan, and the doctrine of manifest destiny. Even in a Cathedral located in a political city on an undeniably political day, preaching on politics is risky business. As many have noted, we live in a climate of unprecedented polarization and acrimony, making political discussions even more difficult than usual. Moreover, I am also aware that there are some well-worn paths that preachers often travel on the topic of politics. To attack or enshrine our country in religious rhetoric often signals little more than a particular preacher’s affiliation as Democrat or Republican. Although widespread, this practice is particularly prevalent in the Episcopal Church. If our congregations have been aptly described as the Republican Party at prayer, it is equally apt to describe our clergy as the Democratic Party in exile. And few of my colleagues seem able to avoid the temptation to use a congregation as a captive audience on which to inflict one’s own political views.
Today, however, I hope to avoid these pitfalls as I speak on political matters. For politics do matter, particularly to Christians. President Reagan’s appeal to Governor Winthrop is only one example of a longstanding practice in an American culture where sermons have influenced, for good and ill, our politics. As Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, if the world is like a ship, “the pulpit is its prow,” leading the world safely through calamities and storms, until we reach safe harbor.
With this caution in mind, I want to revisit Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” Although famous for the doctrine of manifest destiny, a closer reading of the sermon itself reveals that another doctrine is more central to Winthrop’s vision. It is his belief that charity, or love, is the mortar that binds people together. Preaching to those who were risking their lives and livelihood to come to New England, Winthrop says the following:
Now the only way to avoid . . . shipwreck . . . is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make each other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and our community in the work, as members of the same body.
Operative in Winthrop’s admonition of love is the Classical vision of the body politic, the belief that political societies are best held together when its members are like a body, of one heart and mind. This vision has a venerable tradition in Western thought and is found both in Plato and Aristotle. In the Republic, Plato argued that the best city-state has ties that resemble the nervous system of the body, so that “if the finger of one of us is wounded,” the community “feels the pain as a whole.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that “friendship,” more than “justice,” holds cities together and that the best city is united not only by possessing the same beliefs, but being of the same mind.
But Winthrop moved beyond this vision when he spoke of the love that should reign in the new world. It would be a love that emphasized “mercy” over “justice,” “grace” over “nature,” the common good over private gain. It would be a love that was quick to “give” and to “forgive,” a love that would lend money without expecting prompt repayment, a love that would even include our “enemies.” Winthrop’s love therefore had a biblical cast. Among other biblical stories and commands, it was shaped by our reading today in Deuteronomy, in which God commands the Israelites to love the stranger and to care for the orphan and widow, since God had cared for the Israelites when he rescued them from bondage in Egypt.
Today’s reading from Matthew, however, exerted the greatest influence on Winthrop’s understanding of love. Unlike others in the Christian tradition, who considered it impossible to enact today’s gospel, Winthrop argued that Christians can embody the command to love our enemies in one form or another. For those hearing his sermon, this love entailed that they become willing to share their own possessions with those who were in “distress,” even if that meant that the whole community suffered as one. Winthrop understood, of course, that the “command” to love was difficult to follow—love is not a muscle one can simply flex at will, but the result of a transformation of the heart by God’s Spirit. Further, love is not something we can be argued into. Human beings are not drawn to do “works of mercy” by “argument,” but when God transforms their “affections.”
In addition to these teachings on love, however, Winthrop found in the Bible another image that grounds his political vision—the body of Christ, which he considers the “most perfect” of all political bodies. “Christ and his church,” he argued, “make one body.” Taken individually, members of this body are disordered and “contrary” to one another. But with Christ, they become “the most perfect and best proportioned body in the world,” for the church’s “ligaments” are the “love” of Christ.
To be sure, a great distance lies between Winthrop’s vision and the political challenges we face today. Winthrop believed that God had ordered society so that “some might be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in submission.” We, however, believe that the good society is one that strives to view all persons as equal. Winthrop believed that, in order to protect the common good, there should be little room allowed for disagreement about matters religious and political. We, however, believe that we care best for the common good when we allow for disagreement and protect individual rights and liberties. Finally, Winthrop believed that the state, as the body politic, and the church, as the body of Christ, should exist as congruent and concentric circles. We, however, believe that it is best to keep distinct the institutions of church and state.
Nevertheless, little distance separates us from Winthrop’s vision of how Christians should serve the body politic. Indeed, if Winthrop teaches any doctrine in his sermon, it does not concern America’s manifest destiny, but that Christians have a duty to work within their communities as witnesses to Christ’s grace, forgiveness, and love, following Micah’s counsel to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. This means that Christians must not withdraw from the difficult callings of being judges, police officers, or soldiers, for the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ is sorely needed in these areas. This means that Christians must protest systemic inequalities and injustice, for though our Lord told us to turn the other cheek, he did not tell us to turn our eyes away from oppression. This means that Christians must work with those who do not share our faith, for as our Lord marveled at the faith of a Roman centurion, so are we to marvel at those who express the love of Christ without acknowledging his name. In these ways, the vocations to be a Christian and to be a citizen are deeply interconnected.
We see an image of this connection in a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in 1957, three years after the Montgomery Bus boycott and eleven years before he was assassinated. The command in today’s gospel, King argued, is an invitation to receive power that the world has not yet discovered. This power comes from an unimaginable source, from “a little tree planted on a little hill” on which “hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world.” This power is “an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way,” that “love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” Accordingly, King concludes:
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America, I say to you “I love you, I would rather die than hate you.” And I am foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those who cursed us, to decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
Today, as we give thanks to God for our nation and the freedoms we hold dear, may we also ask God for the love spoken of in today’s gospel, painted in Winthrop’s vision of the new world, and embodied in King’s life. May God give us a new outpouring of the love that binds together the body politic and the body of Christ. May we as a church and as a country do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And may the God in Christ Jesus continue to transform our hearts, our churches, and our nation. Amen.