For Americans the Fourth of July is a quasi-religious holiday, something scholars call a function of our “civil religion.” Civil religion is the set of practices that articulate the basic values of our national life that derive from religious sources. Thanksgiving is the other great American civil religious holiday, and it celebrates gratitude. Memorial Day is a lesser civil holiday celebrating military sacrifice, and Labor Day, also a lesser civil religious holiday, celebrating working class people in democracy.
The Fourth of July celebrates freedom in two senses, first, independence from foreign domination and, second, self-determination of national life so as to foster individual freedom and to welcome of all kinds of people into citizenship. The Fourth of July is the most important of our civil religious holidays in that it rehearses those ideals in America’s mythic self-understanding by virtue of which we think America is an exception to the usual course of nations. American exceptionalism is much justified in that this was the first modern democracy to be successful, the most pluralistic of cultures that still is united under the rule of law, the most vigorous and inventive economy in the world to have grown through a century of turmoil, and the safest place for preachers such as myself to point out the religious improbity of the government without fear of retribution. To take St. Paul’s line, that you reap what you sow, the successes of American exceptionalism reap the good seed sown by the Revolutionary Patriots.
My question for the day is, What is the Christian Gospel, not the civil gospel, relative to this Fourth of July? The question is complicated by the fact that for many people, here and abroad, the United States currently plays a role more like the British in our revolution than like the colonists. It is our troops and mercenaries that occupy nations that did not attack us, our troops who are ambushed in out of the way places like Lexington and Concord, our troops who will be remembered for bombing wedding parties and killing women and children, our troops who are opposed by guerillas fighting for God and country. Like the British in the late eighteenth century our motives for foreign wars seem to be a combination of righteous desire to advance proper democracy, as opposed to the French kind (if I may make a bad joke about the revolutionary conflict), and an imperial desire to establish a world economic order that works to the benefit of our economic elites.
Of course our current situation is much more complicated than this, and events can be read many ways. Nevertheless, like the British in the eighteenth century, our policies now seem to be driven by the thinking of Empire, with both benevolent and malevolent motives. The benevolent motives have to do with imposing the grand values defining American exceptionalism on other peoples regardless of their own cultures of conflicting values. The malevolent ones have to do with reducing freedom to the freedom to pursue avarice. To much of the Muslim world, American freedom and democracy mean only those social forms that foster greed, with no transcendent moral principles whatsoever. However ignorant that view might be of the complexities of religious values in American history, it does point out that for a great many American colonists other than the Founding Fathers in July, 1776, economic promise was the most important motive for seeking independence from Britain and a representative government. The avarice sown in the American dream of independence is being reaped today in the enormous human and financial costs required to sustain empire. It seems that only the oligarchs are getting rich.
So what is the Christian Gospel for Americans on this holiday? Luke tells of Jesus sending seventy of his disciples to all the towns he himself intended to visit. They were to be something like advance teams, of two people each, who would heal the sick and say that God was near and Jesus was coming, which might be the same thing. In the previous chapter Jesus had sent his intimate group of twelve disciples on a similar mission, promising them the power to heal and cast out demons. He did not promise the same power to the seventy, but they received and exercised it anyway. We Christians, like the seventy, are commissioned to go out into the world to heal, which means also peacemaking, and to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, that is, that we live and are judged in the perspective of God. This is a crucial part of our Gospel for today.
A strange part of Jesus’ instructions to both groups of disciples was that they should go into a town and simply preach and heal. If someone accepts and hosts them, fine; if not, they should shake the dust of that town off their feet and go on to the next. Evangelistic success is not the point: presenting God’s word and power is the point. Behind this, however, is the fact that the villages included Samaritan and Canaanite communities as well as Jewish ones. Last week’s gospel told of Jesus leaving a Samaritan community in a hurry because they objected to his orientation to Jerusalem—the Samaritans rejected worship at the Temple in Jerusalem in favor of worship on their mountain. The point is that Jesus sent his disciples to all the villages, not just the Jewish ones where they had a religious connection; this was in contrast to Jesus’ earlier stance that he was sent only to the House of Israel. I take this to mean that in our own Christian mission of healing, including peacemaking, and preaching the presence of God, we should be true first to the message and mission, not to taking care of our own people first.
This is a hard lesson, that we Christians should be in solidarity with Christians all over the world who heal and preach the presence of God before we are in solidarity with our national identity as Americans. Surely American Christians have great resources for healing and should deploy these all over the world, especially in poorer countries. Moreover, American Christians have an extraordinary peacemaking role in Iraq and Afghanistan. In no way does this mean that American Christians should interfere with the Iraqis’ and Afghans’ own efforts to establish a self-determining and efficient government—indeed peacemaking means getting out of their way, and supporting their efforts as they see fit. Our prayers today should be long and fervent for the new Iraqi government. As to preaching the proximity of the kingdom of God, I do not suggest that we or Christians anywhere try to convert Muslims to Christianity. Jesus had no conception of supporting one religion against others. He told the Samaritan woman at the well that the worship of God in spirit and in truth would transcend religious differences. Nevertheless Christians can testify to the critical presence of God by honoring the devotion of Muslims and by silently witnessing to the contradiction between God’s peace on the one hand and the slaughter of innocents in terrorism and the beheading of kidnapped people for propaganda gain. The most powerful Christian testimony for the Muslim world would be a direct criticism of the contradiction between Christian values and the brutality of empire.
This might be the hardest part of Jesus’ commission to us, his disciples: to shake the dust off our feet when our own American towns and institutions reject the humility of healing and peace, and the testimony that we stand in God’s presence. How hard it must have been for the seventy abruptly to leave their own hometowns when they were not honored as prophets within it!
Jesus’ instructions make the Gospel particularly difficult for American Christians today. It is tempting in our purist moments t
o identify only with Christians around the world and forsake any special identification with America. Some of our more radical brothers and sisters do just this. Nevertheless, Christians who are Americans have special responsibilities for their democratic participation in American politics. We should insist that the Christian commitments to peace, justice, and kindness trump every other political motive in laws and policies where these are at stake. But political matters are devilishly complicated. Rarely are things as they seem. Ideological simplifications are the work of the devil. Political sound-bites are Satan’s syllables. Christians ought not abstract themselves from politics for the sake of a pure gospel; we should immerse ourselves in politics so as to think through the political ambiguities and complexities to how the Gospel can be embodied.
Nothing in politics is of ultimate significance. Nothing political is a divine call. This is why civil religion is only a quasi-religion: sometimes it goes sour to give ultimate sanctions to non-ultimate projects, which is demonic. To identify patriotism with religion is idolatry. Nevertheless, how we immerse ourselves in public life, including politics, is of very ultimate significance for our identity and service. It is how we present ourselves to God. Or as Jesus put it, God is coming and so get ready.
Paul noted in the text from Galatians that God is not mocked. We mock God when we claim divine sanction for some political purpose. We mock God just as much when we withdraw from politics in the name of religious transcendence of conflict. Although Jesus announced that God’s kingdom was at hand, he sent the disciples, and went himself, to witness to that. American Christians can celebrate the Fourth of July, 2004, by committing our political lives to discerning what to do to embody peace, justice, and kindness as ways to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. I commend to you that political engagement, which makes love of country a function of love of God.
As a final point, you all must have noticed that Jesus instructed his disciples to take no provisions, extra clothes, or money. They were to rely on the chance hospitality of the world to which they ministered. Jesus’ point, I believe, was to warn the disciples not to think that making elaborate preparations would guarantee success. No matter how well we provision ourselves for ministry, the world will take what it will take and reject the rest. The surprise of the disciples was that, even though they had no expectations and were ready to move on if things did not go well, the demons fell before them. May we live in hope that peace, justice, and kindness are possible for our world. But let us also know that such worldly success is not the last word: Jesus’ orientation to Jerusalem got him killed.
The ascetic approach to ministry Jesus advocated sometimes might put us in the position of hungry beggars. Not everyone is lucky in hospitality. Nevertheless Jesus provided the disciples, and us, with a meal that is all-sustaining. Here is the water of life and the cup of salvation. Here is the body of Christ that becomes our body. I invite you to join in the patriotic celebration of God’s kingdom. I invite you to the table for the only provision that counts for the Christian journey. Come, let us give thanks and enter into the presence of Jesus. Amen.