Bible Text: Psalm 46: 10-11; John 18: 33-38 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman | Synopsis: Our July 4th Independence Day celebration is a time for American Christians to hold in tension our national American citizenship and our Kingdom citizenship as followers of Jesus. There’s much to appreciate and honor in our American democracy but, like all countries, the United States has an ugly underside that we must not ignore. In this respect, we will want to include celebration and lament in our July 4th remembrances. This is especially true this year as we are undergoing a national reckoning with the racist heritage of our country and our churches.
This weekend we’re having our July 4th Independence Day celebration. I take pride in being an American citizen. There’s much to be thankful for including our democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and equal justice under the law. All these freedoms are precious and should never be taken for granted. They’re under threat today both in our country and around the world.
There are, however, other things about our country that we cannot celebrate or ignore. Like all societies, the United States has an ugly underside. David Evans, associate professor of history and intercultural studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, makes a distinction between memorializing and remembering with lament. He writes, “Religious people from a variety of traditions ritualize the remembrance of difficult moments. They also lament the consequences of transgressions from the past, but those transgressions are not to be revered.”
The matter of systemic racism has recently come to the fore after George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer. Many have poured to the streets to protest police brutality against people of color. This, in turn, spilled over to a focus on Confederate monuments in our country, especially in the South. Those monument were erected in the beginning of the 20th century to reinforce racial segregation. I find this hopeful.
We have now come to a national reckoning with our racist heritage. What do we make of the fact that even some of the founders of our country such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were wealthy slaveholders? What do we make of the fact that lots of schools in Virginia are named after Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery? How do we remember this part of our history without revering it?
Our Independence Day remembrance should include both celebration and lament. Too often, as a county, we have not been hospitable, we have not been generous, and we have not been peaceable. This creates a fundamental challenge for churches and all faith communities. We will want to affirm and celebrate that which is good, true, and beautiful in our country while lamenting, speaking truth to, and resisting that which in evil, false, and ugly.
To do that, we put our trust in God rather than any political or military leader, political party, or our weapons of war. The commandment to trust God rather than kings and weapons of war runs throughout the Bible and is continually repeated by the Hebrew prophets. In the midst of war and political upheaval, Psalm 46 proclaims, “Be still, and know that I am God!”
We can learn from the account of Jesus being questioned by Pilate. He’s being charged with sedition based on the purported claim that he’s the King of Jews. Jesus responds to Pilate’s question about that by saying that he is indeed a king but not in the political or military way that Pilate thinks. If that were the case, his followers would be fighting to establish his kingship. Jesus’ kingship is, instead, one of proclaiming and being the truth.
When Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world, he’s not referring to some far-off Platonic heaven. What he’s saying is that his kingdom is not part of the world of political intrigue and warfare that Pilate is engulfed in. Jesus “comes from and brings a knowledge of, a world that is real with the reality of God.” Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” is more than the cynicism of a crafty politician. It gets right to the heart of the matter, bears a single meaning, and answers itself. “Truth is all that Pilate and the world he inhabits is not.”
Little has changed since then. Why do many politicians have a particularly hard time being truthful? It’s not just that they spin the truth and tell outright lies—their very lives are immersed in falsehood. Truth takes a backseat to their quest for power and influence. When I watch the evening news on PBS, they sometime ask Republican and Democratic politicians to give their perspective on a certain controversial matter. Some can be fairly honest but many blatantly frame the matter against their political opponents with little regard for the truth. They’re expert at giving non-answers to news reporters’ questions when the truth isn’t expedient.
Powerful people often have an inkling of what truth is but they cannot imagine allowing it to shape them and their world. This was the problem of people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both understood the moral problem of slavery but their whole way of life was dependent on it. Both promised to free their slaves when they died but neither was able to do so. Thomas Jefferson was deeply in debt when he died and all his slaves were sold to satisfy his debtors.
While living and telling the truth is never easy, there’s nothing obscure about it. Remember the lawyer who asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life (think of eternal life as being truly alive, beginning right here and right now). Jesus told him it’s straight forward: “Love God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Our inability to recognize or lament our ugly underside becomes especially dangerous when it’s combined with belief in American exceptionalism—the notion that our nation is blessed by God and is a shining light on a hill to other nations. Sociologists call this Christian Nationalism. Karen Zehr recently sent me a link to a podcast where sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry discuss their book Christian Nationalism in the United States. According to them, the largest proportion of Christian Nationalists are white evangelicals but an important discovery has been that the percentage of those who support Christian Nationalism declines among people who regularly attend church. I find this hopeful. Perhaps the gospel message of loving our neighbors no matter who they are is getting through, at least in some churches.
Another interesting finding is that African Americans who score high on the Christian Nationalism score view it very differently than white Christian Nationalists do. The African Americans still value diversity and do not think that it privileges Christianity over other religions. For whites, it’s more of a dog whistle. For them, it means people who look and think like me.
One of our fundamental tasks is to pull apart and hold our Christian faith in tension with our national citizenship. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that American churches really resist doing this because we’ve become so accustomed to thinking of ourselves and our country as God’s chosen people. On this July 4th weekend, I invite us pull these things apart. What is the good, the true and the beautiful in our country that we can wholeheartedly support? What things run against what it means to follow Jesus. I’ll mention two things and then I’ll invite the rest of us to respond.
As Christians we can wholeheartedly support our basic freedoms such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. We support the struggle toward justice with equality for all even though this is far from where it needs to be. We can support the fight for a social safety net for the most vulnerable including food, shelter, and basic healthcare.
In our Anabaptist peace church tradition we especially resist militarism. We believe the one of the huge scandals in church history is that Christians have fought against and killed each other in support of our respective nation states. This is a sure indicator that our national identity trumps our Christian identity.
But there’s also a wariness of militarism in American society that we can support. Are you aware that we didn’t even have a standing army during the first decade of American history? Early leaders such as John Adams feared that a standing army would lead to imperialism and despotism? They could not have imagined and would have been appalled that our country has become a global empire with a mammoth military budget and with military bases stretched around the globe. Even to this day we have a strong tradition of military neutrality and separation from politics. How can we help strengthen this tradition?
Now I invite your responses:
 Gerard Sloyan, John: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 206.