“Patriot Dream”

July 5, 2015


II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Psalm 33

Romans 13:1-7


On these summer Sundays we’re reading through First and Second Samuel—the ancient epic of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel—and finding in these stories some surprising connections with our current national life and our own lives of faith.

I had a little bit of trepidation as I began preparing this series of sermons that from time to time looks at the connections between religion and politics—two sensitive issues that get even more so when they are mixed. But with presidential candidates threatening to “call down fire from heaven,” as Mike Huckabee did, and suggesting that the Constitution can be ignored when such action suits their version of religious freedom, as many did after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all people to marry regardless of sexual orientation, it seems that religion and politics are already pretty well mixed and mixed up.

So on this Independence Day weekend, we continue reading and reflecting on Second Samuel—although I admit that it was somewhat disconcerting to read that first scripture lesson this morning. After all, with fireworks and jazz, yesterday was the day we celebrated our nation’s independence, throwing off the yoke of King George III. Then we come here today and hear a story of the people seeking out a king, coming to David and anointing him—our nation’s story turned upside down.

And that second lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans wasn’t much better. When we read: “Let every person be subject to governing authorities,” we can be thankful that—contrary to what some would suggest—men like Jefferson and Adams were in no way biblical literalists. Where would we be if they had followed Paul’s advice?

But if we listen closely, Paul’s call for obedience to governments also relativizes those governments. No government, no nation can claim for itself the devotion that “a creature can only give to its Creator.”[i] We make an idol of our nation if we claim that it is fulfilling some divine mandate or that it is beyond criticism.

This is a long-standing problem in our country. It’s been observed that even Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 1830’s complained that Americans stiffen at all foreign criticisms. He accused us of “irritable patriotism,” as though we were not secure enough in our new nationhood to admit that some features of our culture deserved criticism.[ii]

So we might find it easier this weekend to simply cry out with the Psalmist: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord!” And yet, this psalm is often used in a self-congratulatory manner. Hearing some people you’d think that the ancient Hebrew poet was thinking about the United States of America when those words were written.

Contrary to the way that those words from Psalm 33 are often used, it is God who chooses a nation and a people, not the other way around. When we listen closely to that psalm, we hear the Psalmist singing, not of national greatness, but of the forgiving grace of God. This grace is the “real power behind illusions of power.”[iii] If we understand ourselves as living “under God” then let us do what God requires of us. Let us do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly.

As is often the case, we are helped on this weekend by our hymns.

In one verse “American the Beautiful” sings of “patriot dream that sees beyond the years…”—of the hope that looks forward to a new age when God will wipe away every tear, of a love of country that seeks the best for the nation and its people. It is a beautiful vision.

But we also know of the journey sung about in “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.

Recent events have shown us that many are still on this path.

Patriot dreams must look closely at what is in order to grasp a vision of what might be.

Indeed the beginning of hope for our nation will only be found as we face current reality.

We begin to see the possibility in patriotism when it is stripped of illusions. American exceptionalism must give way to a recognition that we are one in a world of nations, aware of the power that we hold and its potential for abuse as well as its many benefits.

Patriotism can be a great good. The love of country leads people to make great and valuable sacrifices as soldiers and as civilians. At the same time, in pointing out what he called the “paradox of patriotism,” Reinhold Niebuhr observed that patriotism transforms individual unselfishness into national selfishness. He warned that unqualified loyalty to the nation “is the very basis of the nation’s power and the freedom to use that power without moral restraint.”

There are many problems with patriotism

And yet, with its problems there is possibility in patriotism as well.

William Sloane Coffin said: “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.”[iv]

Loving critics recognize that the very efforts we have made to secure our nation’s future—drilling for oil, invading nations to fight terrorists, freeing the financial markets from regulation—have made us even more insecure and vulnerable.

Patriot dreams call for justice in the land. God calls us to acts of mercy and compassion.

The nation whose “God is the Lord” is also the nation that recognizes that a ruler is not saved by a great army; a warrior is not delivered by great strength; and that the war horse is a vain hope for victory. A patriot dream will be based on love of country and not simply serve as a support system for its military ventures. Perhaps then we can see that Psalm 33 is a hymn of universalism that embraces all people and indeed all of creation.

The hope of patriot dreams celebrates national beginnings while remembering what has been called “our nation’s original sin”—the continuation of slavery even as our leaders were able to declare that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with…liberty.”

“Remember the women,” Abigail Adams wrote to husband John when the Continental Congress met—they didn’t and the phrase “all men are created equal” meant just that—all men. And yet really it didn’t even mean all men, because the enslavement of black men and women would continue.

In time, slavery was abolished and women got to vote and civil rights were extended and new immigrants welcomed. And still today we are working out what it means to be a “free country.” Slowly we have realized and lived out the idea that the benefits of liberty must be extended to all if any are to be free.

We can celebrate the slow but certain spread of freedom in our nation and the people and the sacrifices that have made this possible. We celebrate the example of our own state that has a long history of supporting the basic rights of people, from outlawing slavery while we were still a territory back in 1839 and to our own Supreme Court’s decision that allowed full marriage equality for all people years before the recent national decision.

John Adams thought that Independence Day “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”[v] Let us celebrate and give thanks for the toil and blood and treasure that allowed this nation to take our first steps to freedom, for the toil and blood and treasure that secured that freedom for all people, and for the toil and blood and treasure that continues to allow this imperfect nation with our flawed leaders and flawed citizens to move forward in freedom.

May God raise up within us and among us a new patriotism that sees and seeks this nation’s good.

[i] Paul Achtemeier, Luke, Interpretation Commentary, pg. 205

[ii] Donald Shriver, America, July 2, 2007.

[iii] “Psalm 33,” New Interpreter’s Bible

[iv] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, quoted by Donald Shriver, America, July 2, 2007

[v] Adams, loc. cit.