Dear Friends: You are invited this morning to think and pray with me about this question: “What does it mean to be ‘a great nation’?”
In the almost half—a—year now since September 11, through all the shock and pain and sorrow and anger and fear, we have been reminded again and again that Abraham, known to Jews and Christians as the first great patriarch, is also regarded as patriarch of Islam — as even the prototype of the faithful Muslim, one who surrenders completely to the will of God. Moreover, Arabic tradition and the Qu’ran celebrate the claim that Abraham and his first-born son, Ishmael, build the Ka’aba, that square black stone building, the holiest shrine at Mecca, to which all faithful Muslims are told to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes.
So, whether we think of Abraham as the one whose own life-journeys embraced all the lands of the Middle East, or as the man whose very name means “Father of the Multitude of Nations,” or as the one to whom all three so called “Abrahamic faiths” — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — refer as their patriarch, Abraham has recently been rediscovered as a champion of reconciliation across the boundaries of faiths and of nations. Abraham is making a big comeback in our time as a legendary figure who commands our attention in a new way.
Today’s reading from Genesis takes us back, just about 4,000 years, not to the later story of Abraham’s historic legacy, but to the beginning of his story — before he was called “Abraham.” It was there in Haran (in what is now Turkey) that the voice of the Lord said to Abram:
“Go now from your home to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to all the families of the earth.”
So it was to Abraham that the Lord presented the dream of the Promised Land. Years later, when he had reached the age of 99 (or so the story goes!), Abram’s name would change to Abraham; “Father of the Multitude of Nations.”
So Abraham.s life-story is wrapped up in this question: What does it mean to be “a great nation” among “the multitude of nations”?
The utter faithfulness of Abraham is further sanctified by Jesus’ own testimony in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke. Jesus offers a vivid picture of the great joyful feasts in the Kingdom of Heaven when “many will come from the East and the West, from the North and the South, and will eat with Abraham.” Abraham, the father of one nation, is also the man for all nations.
Now we all know that one of the most devout beliefs of many Americans is that, nearly 400 years ago, and ever since, the voice of the Lord has said to America:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to all the families of the earth.”
We want to believe that we are really the Promised Land. We are not the only people to claim special favors from Almighty God — but we seem to abound in evidence that we have earned those favors.
- We possess our purple mountain majesties above our fruited plains.
- We are, by far the wealthiest nation on earth. Our gross domestic product is now greater than the combined GDP’s of Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland. (Of course, for millions of our own people, that is a bittersweet claim because they do not share very much of that wealth.)
- We are, by far, the strongest military power on earth, the only remaining superpower. Our leaders are now considering a budget whose proposed increases in military spending — just the increases alone — are greater than the total military expenditures of most other nations. And the world wonders when and where that military power will strike next.
- Our technologies and our media invade every other country.
- Our magnificent athletes triumph again and again to the shouts of “USA! USA! USA!”
- Our icons of democracy — Jefferson, Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr. — and the great documents of our national heritage have had liberating impact on dozens of other nations.
So we must be God’s real Chosen People — or, to recall Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, we are surely “the Darlings of the Divine Providence.”
A few years ago, the Carnegie Endowment published a set of studies under the unhappy title ESTRANGEMENT: AMERICA AND THE WORLD. Twelve different writers — diplomats, scholars, journalist — analyzed American disconnections from the interests and perspectives of other people on every continent. The editor of that volume, Sanford Ungar (recently inaugurated as president of Goucher College in Baltimore) summarized the book in these words: “The United States is estranged from the world — separate, aloof, more alone than even the most cynical of pessimistic observers might have predicted in the heyday of American postwar power.”
The mustering of the coalition against terrorism since September 11 may seem to nullify that assessment — but in other fields of international relations, our aloneness has intensified. Here are just some of the broken connections that have deepened and aggravated our estrangement:
- The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea: to make the precious resources of the oceans a common treasury for all humanity. Originally drafted with bipartisan U.S. support. A triumph of outstanding international diplomacy led by a Republican statesman who had held more cabinet post than any other American in history: Elliott Richardson. But that Convention was then rejected by our own government.
- The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by more than 150 other governments — but not the U.S.
- The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 187 governments — infact, all except Somalia (which has no functioning government) and the U.S.
- The nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996: to halt, at last, all nuclear testing and further nuclear weapons development.
- The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which, at last, sets targets for reducing the “greenhouse gases” that contribute to global warming — and this nation is the gassiest! — but that agreement was opposed by some U.S. industries and then by our government.
- The Statute of the International Criminal Court, to deal with “crimes against humanity.” Adopted in Rome in 1998 by 120 nations, including all our NATO allies. The U.S. voted no along with Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
- The Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines, approved by 142 countries, including, all our European allies. The campaign was led by an extraordinary American woman, Jody Williams (for which she received the Nobel Prize in 1997) — but another treaty rejected by our government.
- UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, now leading the efforts of many educational institutions and our churches to help create a new “culture of peace.” The U.S. withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 and has never returned.
- The long-established UN standard for richer countries to provide at least 7/10 of one percent of their gross product in economic aid to the world’s poorest countries. The current U.S. level is less than 1/10 of one percent of their gross product in economic aid to the world’s poorest countries. But the current U.S. level is less than 1/10 of one percent, which ranks this nation absolutely at the bottom among the 22 aid-providing nations.
Every one of these international accords has been supported by the policy positions of our nation’s mainline churches — only to be rejected by our government. Of course, every one of these matters is controversial, and people of faith may hold honest differences of opinion about them.
But taken together, these broken bonds with other nations add up an extreme unilateralism, aloneness, and estrangement. We Christians, who with Saint Paul proclaim a Christ who is “our peace,” a Christ “who breaks down the dividing walls of estrangement,” cannot, must not be heedless of the suffering caused by these broken bonds.
Reporters of the United Nations’ early days in the 1940s especially credit our nation’s churches, working together ecumenically, for decisively rallying public support for ratification of the UN Charter — and for assuring that this country would not repeat the disaster of a generation earlier when it became a drop-out of the League of Nations at its very birth. We Christians of this generation must seek to overcome that old, bad isolationist American habit of dropping out of the multitude of nations — especially when our own power remains so heavily implicated in all those other nations.
“To be a great nation,” said the Lord God to Abraham, “is to be a blessing to all the families of the Earth.”
Just twelve days ago, a new coalition including Church World Service, Catholic Relief Service, CARE, and Save the Children, launched a new public campaign to double U.S. government aid to poor countries. That would still be far from the norm of 7/10 of one percent — but its organizers believe such an increase would “enhance our own security” as a nation — because it could help diminish the hopelessness and bitterness of millions of people in the poorest countries where terrorism tends to grow — and makes us now, with all our great power, feel more vulnerable than ever. Whether we appeal to our own security, or to our love and compassion for our sisters and brothers among the poor, will require a lot of citizen action, Christian action, for even this modest campaign to have a chance.
There was no more saintly, more courageous, more spirituality—grounded Christian leader of the bygone twentieth century than the mystic and poet and diplomat, Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden: Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 until his fatal plane crash on his last peace making trip to the Congo in 1961.
Dag Hammarskjöld established a tradition at UN Headquarters in New York: celebrating the annual United Nation birthday with a concert and always including at least the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Ninth Symphony. In October 1960, Hammarskjöld introduced a performance of the full Ninth Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with words that were recorded, so words heard again a year later at Hammarskjöld’s own memorial ceremony in the UN General Assembly Hall — after that awful plane crash.
His words speak again with special meaning for this fearful time in which we now live. He said:
“When the Ninth Symphony opens, we enter a drama full of harsh conflict and dark threats. The composer leads us on, and in the beginning of the last movement we hear again the various themes repeated, now as a bridge towards a final synthesis. A moment of silence and a new theme is introduced, the theme of reconciliation and joy in reconciliation. A human voice is raised in rejection of all that has preceded and we enter [at last the dreamed-of] kingdom of peace. New voices join the first and mix in a jubilant assertion of life… joined in faith and human solidarity.
Then he added:
“We are indeed still in the first movements [of our life and work together]. But no matter how deep the shadows may be, how sharp the conflicts, how tense the mistrust..in our world…, we are not permitted to forget that we have too much in common…and too much that we might lose together, for ourselves and for succeeding generations, ever to weaken in our efforts…to turn… our common heritage strength and live together in peace…”
“Now,” concluded Hammarskjöld, “may the symphony develop its themes, uniting us in its recognition of fear and its confession of faith.”
And now, Dear Friends, may our sharing in this Eucharist today remind us that this sacrament of communion with God is therefore also the sacrament of communion with the whole human family. So may this help overcome the brokenness of all our lives and all our relationships by God’s holy love…even God who so loved the whole world that he gave his only Son.
In the name of Abraham, and Dag Hammarskjöld, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.