In All of Life We Are Dealing With God
As you can probably imagine, your pastor has been struggling this week to find appropriate words to address the events that occurred in Washington D.C.. Recently a colleague with whom I was speaking, ended his conversation with words I’ve heard him say dozens of times, “Preach with power.” I responded by saying, “Frankly, I just try to speak the truth with love. Who’d have thought that would prove so counter-cultural?”
I knew by Wednesday evening that I must address what had happened in our nation’s capital this week. But by Thursday morning I also knew that I would address these events in a written form, not in a sermon. That way, if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, they can just stop reading. Reinhold Niebuhr once referred to the pulpit as a twelve-foot tall disadvantage because it precludes any response except the most extreme. He addressed the concerns he saw in society, but through media that allowed more agency to his readers. I follow his approach.
I found it especially hard to find the words to write. How can a pastor speak the truth with love in the midst of such egregious actions? My encouragement came from the founder of our branch of the Reformation, the great John Calvin, a pastor and civil leader in 16th century Europe. He said, “In tota vita negotium cum Deo.” (“In all of life, it is with God that we have our dealings.”) There’s no neat religious category kept hermetically sealed. Faith pervades all of life, because God is the God of all creation. It is in light of Calvin’s guidance that I make the following observations.
I didn’t realize until these past four years that I believe in American Exceptionalism. I’d always assumed that I didn’t. We were founded by a mishmash of religious folks and non-religious folks, Puritan Calvinists (who probably would have shutdown our beloved New Orleans if they’d had the chance), Epicureans like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (who wanted to make sure that non-religious sorts were not discriminated against), a large number of devoted Deists (whose Theism was notably non-sectarian), and the usual assortment of Christians and Jews and even (surprise!) a colonial Muslim or two. We weren’t founded as a theocracy, in other words, so I’ve always been suspicious of language that says we’re a “city set on a hill.” But, secretly, deep down inside, I believed that it was our very founding as the oldest democracy in the world, a country held together by deep democratic values and great democratic institutions, and a commitment to unity in plurality that made us exceptional, and, yes, in some sense, even “a city set on a hill.”
In our history we have suffered self-inflicted moral failures out of all proportion as a nation. The institution of slavery, what has been called our nation’s “original sin,” was founded on systematic inhumanity and violence that no civilized people can condone. The genocide committed against the original occupants of this continent still haunts us. We have not only fought wars of necessity, but wars of adventure too, costing untold lives of brave men and women. These and many other sins can be laid at our door. And in these ways and in many others we are just like any other people, like other nations. But this is not all we are.
The United States of America is not just a geographical location, a place on a map, it is a set of ideals. And these ideals have drawn us back again and again from the abyss. These ideals have also taught others around the world how to have a nation built on something more than our lowest impulses, even when we have betrayed those ideals.
These ideals were trampled on this week. These institutions were threatened.
Some in our nation have sought a moral equivalence between the protests we have witnessed this year related to racial justice issues and the insurrection by a mob against the elected representatives of the people of our country. There is no denying that there were occasions when radical elements in otherwise peaceful protests took advantage of the moment and committed acts of violence and destruction that no one can tolerate. And those who did so, as I and others said at the time, should be prosecuted. But there were hundreds of instances from coast to coast in which vast numbers of citizens of all colors and ethnicities peacefully protested abuses of power committed against persons of color. And we know that in some cases, when violence did erupt, it did so in the midst of peaceful protests and were not the result of the protesters, but of those in authority who took advantage of the moment to sow hatred and division.
What we witnessed this week in Washington D.C., however, was unprecedented in American history. It is neither historically, politically or morally equivalent with the protests we witnessed this past year. A mob demanded that the elected representatives of the United States do their bidding and overturn an election that had been certified in states across the country by state officials of both political parties. And while the elected representatives of the people argued over the certification in a process outlined by the U. S. Constitution, this mob violently stormed the capitol building terrorizing those going about the business of the people of this country. This was not an act of patriotism.
I am sure there were people in attendance at this event who intended simply to participate in a peaceful protest in expression of their political views. They were likely also as horrified by what happened on Capitol Hill as we are. But let us be clear: the flags that were flown by this mob included symbols of secession, of Neo-Nazism, of White Supremacy, and of a dangerous political cult of personality worship. This was a frontal attack upon self-government, and the democratic values and institutions that make self-government possible and that protect it. This was the direct result of carefully cultivated political opportunism on the part of elected officials who have sworn to protect our democracy and to uphold the Constitution.
This week the mask fell off and we saw the face of what we as a country are dealing with, not a struggle for policies, but for raw power.
Partisan politics is not the problem we face as a nation. Divisions and pluralities of political perspectives is not the problem. Differences of perspective enrich our life together. Even when I find the arguments of the political left and right irritating or irrational, I know that our nation is enriched by their competing, conflicting, countervailing views. Our democratic values and institutions exist to provide a framework in which we can argue and disagree and negotiate. This week we saw an attempt to violate those values, and undercut those institutions, through intimidation and force.
We shall all be dealing with the fallout from these events in Washington D.C. for some time to come. But, as we do, there’s more at stake than political power. The character of our nation hangs in the balance.
There’s an old hymn I love. It’s a missionary song. “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” The story is about Jesus Christ, in the context of that old hymn. But we Americans of all faiths and none have stories to tell to the nations too. Of course, we’ve been telling those stories to the nations for a couple of centuries, stories about a people who keep choosing self-government over tyranny, who invest in institutions to promote justice for all, who have sacrificed much to ensure that there remains a nation on this earth where liberty for all is a birthright. And these are better stories than we told this week.