Christianity and America

Driving home from downtown Culpeper one afternoon I noticed a cross in the front yard of a home. It was lit with white Christmas style lights. What further drew my attention was that on top of the cross, the Christian symbol of suffering and redemption, hope and resurrection was the American flag. Placed on top of the cross!

A few blocks further I noticed a similar scene – a smaller cross and smaller American flag in the same set up – on top of the cross the American flag. (The image attached to this blog entry is not the image I saw. But google ‘cross and American flag’ or ‘guns and the Bible ‘and you will see hundreds of images displaying the cross or guns and the American flag intertwined as if they ought to stand harmony)

What is Christianity in America? What is the relationship of Christianity and the United States?

I realize that is a very generalized question. However, with ‘In God we Trust’ on our money, the mention of God a number of times in our founding documents, ‘under God’ in our salute to the American flag and countless other references to ‘God and Country’ in all walks of the American experience and history I believe it may be a question worth consideration.

Have we hijacked the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible (He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6 NRSV) and the ‘way of Jesus’ (36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40).

Have we made Jesus and the prophets into American superheroes, riding off into the sunset on a stallion with a whoop and a holler!? I remember a person I was in conversation with matter of factly state that Jesus knew all the languages of the world as though he were some kind of super educated man of the 21st century. Jesus was a rural Jewish man in a small part of the world ruled and oppressed by a foreign power nearly two thousand years ago.

Where is the ‘Way of Jesus’ really in our world? Where are the Hebrew Prophets, really in our world?

The ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus of Nazareth have been absconded, hijacked, put into a very confined space, which has dulled the sacred meaning of love, mercy, loving your neighbor as yourself, and the idea of justice and good will ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

The Declaration of Independence, one of our founding documents stated quite clearly: – We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I have often pondered the short phrase – the pursuit of happiness.

The Preamble of our Constitution begins with a statement of great hope and a yearning for liberty and justice. We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

These are wondrous documents which instituted the American experiment of governing. As extraordinary as these documents are, they were written by men who had many flaws in character and behavior. Many of the men who signed the Declaration were slave owners. Many who approved the Constitution were slave owners. Many were apparently devoted to their Christian faith as they held it. Most were wealthy. All were white and all were men. These documents were conceived and written in the culture of the time. A culture which allowed and encouraged slavery. In addition, many strongly felt that the Bible upheld this institution of cruelty on millions of men, women, and children. 

In our nation’s history hundreds if not thousands of men and women who proclaimed a love of God forcibly held millions of people of African descent in terrible bondage for centuries. It is this nation’s legacy. It is still exceedingly difficult today to acknowledge that sin and work toward making amends to the descendants of those people. Others of that time strove to build economic empires at the cost of other forms of human suffering and deprivation. And yet, many, many more worked hard to feed family, friends, and communities while likely holding a belief in God and in the supremacy of the white race. 

Approximately 50 years after the formation of our nation, in a newly created cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in November of 1863 President Abraham Lincoln stated that: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In the minds of many in this nation the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes express much of our Judeo/Christian heritage.

   Thou shalt have no other gods before me

    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

    Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

    Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

    Honor thy father and thy mother

    Thou shalt not kill

    Thou shalt not commit adultery

    Thou shalt not steal

    Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor

    Thou shalt not covet (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5)

The Beatitudes, a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Matthew 5 and a slightly different version in Luke 6 represent the love-ethic of the ‘way of Jesus’.  

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

These are profoundly meaningful proclamations of how we as a human family ought to live. These statements call us to live in harmony with others and with nature. How do we as a nation ‘under God’ honor these sacred statements from the Bible?

I am taking a class about Howard Thurman, the 20th Century African American theologian, pastor, and philosopher. In a book about Thurman, written by Professor Luther E. Smith, Jr writes: “Christianity is only religious in so far as it gives a person the sense of his or her ultimate meaning and value.” [1] I believe this statement deserves conversation.

My prayer for our nation, the world, our local communities, and individual persons is a prayer I first heard from my father and later in a book of prayers my father gave me.

We thank you, God for the variety of the human race. We thank you for other people’s labor and love. We are glad that our experience is enriched by men and women from every walk of life, of every color, language, and belief.

We praise you for the development of human character.

(added for family and friend gatherings) We are grateful for loved ones and family being together in this place. We remember those whom we love who are in different places ………bless this food, the hands that prepared it, and keep us mindful of the needs of others.

May we learn the most valuable lessons from life and become useful servants of our fellow human beings.

May the Peace and Grace of our God be with you. Amen[2]

[1] Smith, Luther E, Jr. Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet. P, 126.

[2] I am indebted to my father who introduced this prayer to me and to a book of prayers my father gave me which includes some of this prayer: Contemporary Prayers for Public Worship by Caryl Micklen (1973). My father and I have edited this prayer during our time as pastors.

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