Reflections on Patriotism

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Yesterday, we celebrated the 244th anniversary of our nation’s independence. July Fourth is a day that we love to celebrate. When I was growing up, our family spent every Fourth of July in the town of Chatham on Cape Cod, watching a festive parade with floats, fire engines, clowns, antique cars and colorful dune buggies. At night, we sat on the village green listening to a volunteer band play patriotic songs, followed by fireworks. Most of us have similar memories.

We Americans love to celebrate our freedom. The word “freedom” occurs only 19 times in the Bible, while the word “free” occurs 132 times. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal. 5:1) and “For you were called to freedom…” (Gal. 5:13)

Our text from Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about freedom and independence – two concepts which are near and dear to every American. We pride ourselves on our freedom. We want life without restrictions, wages without taxes, health care without exemptions, cell-phone plans without limits and religious liberty without any obligations.

Likewise, we love our independence. We may be the most independent people on the planet. It’s one reason why it’s so hard to battle Covid-19 in our country. The great idol of our age and our nation is independence. If unchecked, it destroys the Common Good. So, what St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans can be extremely challenging to us. He notes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree the law is good. But in fact is it no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:15-17)

We Americans often use our freedom to excess. Stories abound about individuals refusing to wear masks in public during the pandemic or yelling racial epithets or looting stores during the protests or carrying assault weapons at shopping malls. One person’s freedom can quickly become another person’s nightmare. Individual freedoms must coexist with the Common Good.

When the Declaration of Independence was issued on July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson and the other signers held up a vision of freedom that was radically different from anything previously known. They declared that all human beings were created equal and are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But there was trouble from the start.

Many of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners, and slavery wasn’t outlawed for nearly one hundred years. In this new Constitution, African Americans had no legal rights, no votes, and for political purposes they were counted as three-fifth of a white person. During the nineteenth century, all of the Native Americans were either killed or forcibly removed from their lands to make room for white settlers. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920.

Our vision of liberty, freedom and justice for all declared on July 4, 1776 is a great, aspirational vision, but for many people it remains just a vision on paper. In their recent book Tightrope, Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, note, “We Americans are a patriotic tribe, and we tend to wax lyrical about our land of plenty and opportunity. We proudly assert, ‘We’re number 1!’ and in terms of overall economic and military strength we are, but in other aspects our self-confidence is delusional.”

America now ranks 30 in high school enrollment, 41 in child mortality, 46 in internet access, 44 in clean drinking water, and 57 in personal safety. No one goes around shouting for joy, “We’re number 57!” Our country has regressed under the leadership of both Democrats and Republicans.

Suicide rates are at their highest level since World War II and one American child in eight is living with a parent who has a substance abuse disorder. Some 68,000 Americans now die annually from drug overdoses, another 88,000 from alcohol abuse and 47,000 from suicide. More Americans die from these three causes every two weeks than died during 18 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The opioid epidemic costs the United States half a trillion dollars a year – that’s more than $4,000 per American household annually.

At the same time, inequality is greater today than it was in the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century. Just three Americans – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – now possess as much wealth as the entire bottom half of our nation’s population – 164,000,000 citizens. Connecticut’s Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, notes, “I’m a capitalist, and even I think capitalism is broken.” He added, “The problem is that capitalists typically don’t know how to divide the pie well and socialists typically don’t know how to grow it well.”

In his Second Inaugural Address given on January 20, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Jesus said, “whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me” (Matt. 25:45). His words should apply to governments as well as individuals. Obviously, these must apply to churches. That is why we are working so hard to expand our outreach at Christ Church, to raise up volunteers and greatly increase our financial giving to ministries transforming many lives. Our goal is to make a significant impact.

The problem is that we have created structures that allow the wealthy to become wealthier while allowing the poor constantly to struggle. Kristoff and WuDunn note the “according to documents obtained by The New York Times, Jared Kushner appears to have paid zero federal income tax, year after year, even as his net worth quintupled to more than $300 million…. It’s all quite legal, because lobbyists won loopholes for real estate tycoons.” Meanwhile, corporations like Amazon paid zero federal income tax in 2018 despite profits of $11.2 billion. They didn’t pay a dime. Indeed, they received a $129 million “rebate” from taxes that they didn’t pay. There’s something structurally, tragically and morally wrong.

Kristoff and WuDunn note that, “if the federal minimum wage of 1968 had kept up with inflation and productivity, it would now be $22 an hour instead of $7.25 (many states and localities have higher minimums).” Many of the jobs that we boast of creating are without benefits and are so low paying that employees cannot support a family. The poor have no voice, power, visibility, lobbyists or loopholes. Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Tobin says, “We’re developing a national cataract.”

Pass a bad check and you go to jail for a felony conviction and lose your kids or have a police officer kneel on your neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds and you die – especially if you’re African American. But commit a white-collar crime like tax evasion or fraud, and in most cases crime will pay. The United States leads the developed world in wealth and income inequality, and we’re rapidly becoming more unequal.

We love our country, its fertile farmland, flowing rivers and amazing people. But as Christians we are called first and foremost to love God and all of humanity. The great cellist Pablo Casals once said, “Love of country is a wonderful thing, but why should love stop at the borders?” If we truly love God and humanity, then we must love others enough to care about climate change, pollution, the environment, immigration and gun proliferation. We have to ask what’s best for all of God’s children and not just what’s best for Americans. Preacher Sam Lloyd notes, whenever we hear a politician end a speech by saying, “God bless America,” we Christians should silently add a second prayer, “And God bless the rest of the world, too.”

Patriotism is a complicated thing. If unchecked, it can become blind nationalism, which is dangerous. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the former chaplain at Yale, wrote, “There are three kinds of patriots. Two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. The good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.” When we love our country enough to want it to fulfill its original dream and vision for the world and to embody it’s highest values and to call for it despite strong opposition, then we embody patriotism as it ought to be.

Coffin adds, “How do you love America? Don’t say, ‘My country, right or wrong. ‘ That’s like saying, ‘My grandmother, drunk or sober’, it doesn’t get you anywhere. Don’t just salute the flag and don’t burn it either. Wash it and make it clean.” The Church must be the conscience of our country and call for our nation to be as compassionate and generous-spirited as it can be.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream, where he called for every African American to be treated as a child of God. Dr. King came to our nation’s capital, where the foundations of some of the most historic buildings were built by negro slaves, who had no freedom, independence, or equality that our Declaration of Independence celebrates. Dr. King said, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King added, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash a check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” Most African Americans in our nation are still waiting to cash the check of justice and equality.

That’s why we are creating a Racial Healing, Justice and Reconciliation Task Force and inviting every member of our church – all 1,600 of them – to participate. If you think racism is a think of the past and that we as a nation are not racist, you clearly aren’t paying attention. It’s good to love our country. It’s good to be proud of our nation, but if we cannot name and address then America’s true greatness will fade.

In our national anthem, we sing, “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.” In the second stanza we sing words not just of love but words of a lover’s quarrel with our country:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control.
Thy liberty in law.

Those words invite all Americans to carry on with our country that same lover’s quarrel that the prophets of old carried on with Israel, and that God consistently carries on with the whole world. True patriots are those who love their country enough to address its flaws. Patriotism cannot be blind or deaf. The right to have honest debate and protest when our freedom is threatened is at the heart of the democracy that we cherish. Amen.