On the Fourth of July, we in America celebrate the revolution that won our nation’s independence from Britain and began the process that created our constitution. That constitution enshrined certain liberties and a new notion of limited political authority. In our nation, leaders rule not by military might and not by ignoring the rule of law, but by the consent of the people.
As we celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States, it seems to me that the ground beneath our feet does not feel as stable as it once did. There is widespread anxiety and a good deal of unrest in our country. As one colleague puts it: If America were music, its cords would be clashing…More than any time since the Civil War, we are divided: community against community, neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen. Elections come and go, but still we struggle to speak across the divides. Has it ever been harder to get through Thanksgiving dinner without an argument?”1
I believe that part of the reason we have such bitter divides is because the core teachings of Jesus and the prophets have little influence on the direction of our nation. These giants of faith heralded spiritual principles that can shape a more perfect union. Will we surrender the conversation about our nation’s troubles to Twitter, TikTok, and spin doctors? Or will we strive to shape the conversation by injecting the core values of Scripture – not the White Christian Nationalist version, but the foundational values of love and social justice – and will we endeavor to spread God’s realm on earth?
Today’s passage from the Book of Acts prompts us to reflect on how we are to live when our spiritual convictions clash with governing authorities.
Our text describes the activities of the followers of Jesus in the days following his resurrection. Peter, John, and other disciples are teaching in Christ’s name but the authorities in Jerusalem seek to muzzle them. Peter and John are specifically ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. The authorities threaten them with punishment; then dismiss them – hoping that will be the end of it.
However, Peter, John, and the others refuse to be intimidated into silence because they are no longer the frightened, cowering disciples who ran and hid behind closed doors when Jesus was arrested and crucified. They are now intrepid disciples who have been transformed by the resurrected Christ and filled with energy and passion. They defy the authorities by picking up where they left off, spreading the word of God as it had come to them through Jesus.
The authorities drag them before their council and the high priest declares, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Peter and the others respond with words that have thundered down through the ages: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan said, “To obey God rather than human beings, and to protest that laws of the state and nation cannot contravene the divine law of God, has been the unanimous teaching of both the Old and New Testament, as well as the subsequent history of the church since the earliest centuries. Moses stood up to Pharaoh, Elijah stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, John the Baptist stood up to Herod, Paul stood up to the Sanhedrin…Martin Luther stood up to Charles V, and Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up to the power structure of White America – all were expressing this obligation to appeal from the abuse of political power by human authorities to the ultimate sovereignty of God.”2
As followers of Jesus, our loyalty to God obligates us to stand firm in our religious convictions and to resist evil and injustice. Our loyalty to God is to supersede all other allegiances. That does not mean that we have no loyalty to our family or our nation. Rather, it insists that all of our commitments are practiced in ways that do not conflict with our faithfulness to God.
When we pledge our allegiance to our nation, we do not do it at the expense of the call of Christ to love God and neighbor. Our devotion to our nation does not free us to demonize our enemy because all people are created in the divine image. Our loyalty to our country does not give us permission to neglect the welfare of those with no voice, because God calls on us to treat others the way we want to treated. Jesus and the prophets remind us that we can measure our loyalty to God by the way we treat and uphold the rights of the poor, the ill, and the stranger – Matthew 25.
The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech. For many, at the core of what it means to be an American is to speak your mind. However, over the past few years, as various conspiracy theories spread through social media platforms, we have witnessed a proliferation of lies, such as: the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was staged, or that voting machines switched votes to the other candidate or that people were not dying from Covid 19 – the government and big pharmaceutical companies were deceiving us into taking unneeded vaccines. Many have fallen into those rabbit holes.
When people are pessimistic about the future and are fearful of any number of things: economic collapse, the death of a loved one, climate change, immigration, artificial intelligence, violence, people of different races or religions, biological warfare – the list is long – demagogues find fertile grounds in which to rise to power through conspiracy theories. In such times it bodes well to find trustworthy sources of information and to not rely on only one source and brand of news.
For years, I cruised along confident that the government institutions on which our country was founded, would carry us through any crisis. The past few years have shown that our democracy is far more fragile than many of us imagined. The greater threat not being from outside of our nation, but from inside. I now see the very real possibility of a demagogue grabbing the reigns of power and suspending fundamental rights.
Does being a follower of Jesus have anything to say to our present predicament? I think it does. I believe our religious faith can play a critical role in bolstering our determination to protect our freedoms and to promote liberty and justice for all.
In a day when many think that freedom means that they are free to do whatever they please, people of faith can remind others than freedom comes with responsibility. In our nation, freedom is not a license to trample the rights of others. True freedom is exercised within the boundaries of justice.
The prophet Micah stated succinctly what nearly every Old Testament prophet said: “What does the Lord require of you – not request, but require of you – but to do justice.” Those words perfectly align with the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves. From our everyday interactions with others to the laws of our land, God requires us to treat everyone justly. We are to recognize the inherent worth of every human being regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or social status.
Deep in everyone’s soul is a craving to be free and to be treated fairly. Our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance captures these twin desires in its shining phrase: “Liberty and justice for all.”
Methodist minister, James Howell remembers the evening he was asked to pray at his city’s government center. It was the ceremony for swearing in their new mayor and the new members of their city council. He felt very honored to be there and to have a role in the proceedings. But what really stuck with him was the moment at the event when everyone stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance. Every person present said, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Afterwards, Howell said, “You know what everybody in that room said? Every one of them said, liberty and justice for all.” Then, he said, “I don’t think anybody in the room meant it. Liberty and justice for all? I think what people in the room and in so many American rooms now mean is: liberty and justice for me. Or liberty and justice for people that are like me; or liberty and justice for people who think like I do…Liberty and justice for all? This is a fundamental principle of the Christian faith and we have almost lost it.”3
I think most of us realize that this is a critical time in the life of our nation. We stand at a crossroads. We can choose the path of selfishness, greed, and a philosophy of might makes right. Or we can choose the path of striving for the common good with liberty and justice for all. If our faith means anything to us, we know the path we must advocate.
Independence Day is a day to celebrate the past and the principles established by our founders. However, it is also a call to action to safeguard those precious principles and to fully embody them. If we do, our nation may become the country we have the potential to become – a nation where each person is treated with dignity and equality, and where hope abounds.
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