Psalm 67/Genesis 12:1-3
‘Bless’ – a good word! Simply, ‘to bless’ is to confer well-being or prosperity upon someone. To be blessed is to enjoy happiness, to be fortunate. We all would like to be blessed. I would like God to be gracious to me and bless me. Psalm 67 has a ring of ‘well-being’ to it. It is about being blessed by God. The idea of God’s face shining on me is a nice idea.
But hold on, David. This Psalm isn’t about me being blessed. This isn’t about individual blessings. This Psalm is about corporate blessings. It is about us being blessed. “Our God has blessed us,” it says. OK. I can adjust. We can say together, “May God be gracious to us, our church, and bless our congregation.” May God bless our family. Yes. That’s a good blessing to pray for.
But wait a minute. In this particular Psalm the use of the plural is not meant to refer to a family or a congregation. In this Psalm the ‘us’ is clearly meant to mean the nation: the nation of Israel. May God be gracious to the nation. May God’s face shine on Israel. And in God’s blessing of Israel all the other nations of the earth will see the saving power of God; they will see that God judges people with equity. So let the people of the nation praise God for God has blessed us, our nation.
My question for us today is this: Does this Psalm extolling the blessing of God have anything for us, our nation? Does God desire to bless America? In the months following the 9/11 attack, all across America could be heard singing, “God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night with the light from above.” Even in baseball it became the standard 7th inning stretch moment. Still done today. And while the people of the nation may have sung it as a patriotic song to bring comfort in a scary time, I don’t know if God heard it that way. I think God thought we were having a prayer meeting! God heard us praying, “Bless America, O God.” But it begs the question: How and in what circumstances would God answer that prayer, “bless us, O God?” Does God want to bless America?
However, I think the reality is that America believes it is already blessed by God; that we’ve always been blessed, in a special, extraordinary way. That belief plays out in our national politics repeatedly. It plays out most explicitly in our incursions into other nations. We often tell ourselves that our foreign interventions are for their good. However, with some notable exceptions, World War II being the big one, or some particular incursions as part of a UN operation, such as Bosnia, our incursions into other nations affairs are not altruistic. Rather, they are blatant attempts to gain an advantage over them, economically and politically.
The clearly xenophobic and jingoistic mottos of recent years – “America First” and “Make American Great Again” – sadly are not an aberration. They are merely a more intense expression of “American Exceptionalism.” American exceptionalism is the belief that God has made (‘blessed’) the United States to be qualitatively different from other countries to be God’s instrument of liberty and freedom in the world. Presidents often exploit this belief. For instance, George W. Bush once said, “The Author of Liberty (God) has anointed the United States as the Agent of Liberty. Unique among great powers, this nation pursues interests larger than itself. When it acts, it does so on freedom’s behalf and at the behest of higher authority.” This, he said, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.
Barack Obama engaged is such rhetoric, although maybe not so obviously religious. “At moments of great peril in the last century,” he said, “American leaders…managed both to protect the American people and to expand opportunity for the next generation. What is more, they ensured that America, by deed and example, led and lifted the world – that we stood for and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond our borders.” He went on to say, “The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew. To see American power in terminal decline is to ignore America’s great promise and historic purpose in the world.” The language of American Exceptionalism. Not really surprising. He was merely echoing a deeply ingrained belief held since the founding of our country.
The truth is, though, crediting America with a “great liberating tradition” distorts the past and covers the actual motive behind US politics and foreign policy. Andrew Bacevich, in his insightful book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, says, “Liberation of others has always been a secondary motive for US policy. The true mission of America from its founding was not to liberate but to expand.” Basically, this has been done by any means necessary, such as moving into land that did not belong to us and calling it our own. Or launching full-scale invasions. Or engage in ethnic cleansing. Or enforce or dismiss treaties at will for our own purposes. Or hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, and naked coercion, just to name a few.
And how did we as a nation justify such actions? Because we, the USA, are God’s new ‘Chosen People’, having replaced Israel of that designation. We are the “city upon a hill” by which all other nations will see our light. As Woodrow Wilson once said, we will “show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk the paths of liberty.” And probably most importantly, we have this mandate from God who guides us to live out a “manifest destiny” of inevitable expansion and domination. But in reality, the overriding objective was not the idealism of liberty. But rather of enhancing American influence, wealth, and power.
The signature example of how America lives this out is oil. Remember the Robert Redford movie, Three Days of the Condor? His little-known policy research group is being assassinated by government operatives. On the run himself, he tries to figure out why this is happening. Finally, in a confrontation with a political antagonist he blurts out, “Oil! This is about oil, isn’t it?”
On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter gave a speech from the oval office. He called it the “Crisis of Confidence” speech. But it will always be infamously remembered as the “malaise” speech. In it he lamented the fact that our dependence on oil had led us into a crisis of confidence, striking at the “very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” He pointed out that we, to our detriment, “worship self-indulgence and consumption.” He then suggested choosing a different path, “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.” Which meant, reducing our dependence on oil with a six-point program designed to do that, including summoning the American people “to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools…to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.”
Needless to say, Carter’s speech was not well received. Ronal Reagan, in his speech declaring his candidacy for president, said, “who would have us believe that the United States…has reached the zenith of its power and to tell us we must live with less?” Interestingly, just a few months after his speech, Jimmy signed “The Carter Doctrine” which vowed that the US would use “any means necessary, including military force” to keep the Persian Gulf open for the free flow of oil. This sentiment was highlighted in the days following 9/11 when an administration official said, “We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter.” Interestingly, just the other day a former congressman said on Fox News that we need to be prepared to fight to maintain “unlimited resources in the Middle East.” Exerting our will on the other nations of the world, especially in the pursuit of oil, is part of our national DNA. It is who we are.
Several years ago I attended a conference in which the featured speaker was Rev. James Forbes. Forbes is the former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, the great liberal church with a history of famous pastors like Harry Emerson Fosdick and William Sloan Coffin. Despite the upper-crust reputation of this Rockefeller-endowed church, Forbes brought a Black church preaching style to that august pulpit.
At this conference Forbes asked this question: Does God want to bless America? Surprisingly, he said, “yes!” God really does want to bless America. But with the blessing comes a certain responsibility. That responsibility, says Forbes, is to be a blessing to other nations. The key, he said, is to renew our understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant, which is what we heard in our first scripture reading today. There we see these words: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Forbes suggested that out of our faith tradition we could dare adopt this idea to our own country. This is what Rev. Forbes said (I quote him directly):
The way God blesses is like this: When God blesses a nation it is not so we can sit in inordinate pride and talk about our superpower status. It is not so that we can have a sense of supremacy so we can then lord it over other nations. No. We are blessed by God so that we can be a blessing! Imagine, he said, what it would be like if we could get America to believe this formula: You are blessed to be a blessing. Through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
To illustrate this he asked us to imagine that all the flags of all the nations were up on the platform. And in the corner stood the American flag as the most prominent. And then he interviewed the other flags. He went around asking each one. Afghanistan, Iraq, Chile, Zambia, New Zealand, all the flags,
…how do you feel when you see the stars and stripes coming?’ When you see this flag coming do you have a sense of anticipation that it represents the notion that all are created by God and that we have certain inalienable rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)? When you see this flag do have the sense that there will be respect for you? When you see this flag do you sense that self-determination is what this flag represents? Does this flag mean to you that a great nation has come to truly invest in your well-being? Even though it represents great power and strength are you assured that the coming of this flag will not result in the exercise of domination over you? When you see this flag do you know your children will be well cared for; that the despised and rejected among you will be lifted up because all are created equal? When you see this flag does it mean to you that nation states will be respected, that international criminal courts will be respected, that the United Nations will be respected? When you see this flag coming do you anticipate being blessed by this flag?
Unfortunately, they most often do not experience a blessing from our involvements in the affairs of their country. Yet we delude ourselves into thinking we are a blessing. The thing is, we want to believe we are good, even we are not. To illustrate I draw upon lessons learned from…The Game of Thrones. After eight seasons and 73 episodes this epic, violent drama finally came to an end. The most watched TV series ever. Yes, I know that there might be some here who didn’t watch it. And, yes, I know that many who did watch it are quite upset with how it ended. But hear me out.
Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, had a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. From the very first season we watched her quest. A bunch of unlikely characters joined with because they loved her. Her quest was noble and good. She deserved it. We cheered for her to defeat evil. So, when she killed the slavers to set the slaves free, no one complained because they were evil men. When she killed hundreds of oppressive nobles, who could complain, for they were evil men. She killed evil men and we cheered her on. As she grew in power she and her followers were more sure that she was good and right. She wanted a good world. Everyone believed that.
All she asked is that they bend the knee to her and all would be good. Oh, we saw the tendencies toward violence, tried to temper them, hoping that it would all turn out OK in the end. But in the end, she decided that she needed to kill thousands of innocent men, women and children to achieve her goals for a better world. Her followers saw it coming and didn’t stop her. They saw the reality of the evil that lurked in her all along but didn’t stop her. Why? Because they wanted to believe she was good; they wanted to believe the sacrifice would be worth it. They told themselves lies because, well, Dany was good and wanted a good world.
In the name of “freedom” and “a good world,” we also turn a blind eye to the evils of our country and ourselves. We name our wars “just” without asking who defines “justice,” and people die in the streets. In truth, maybe, when it comes to our nation, we are Daenerys. We tell ourselves we are good even when we aren’t. So, a national confession seems to be in order. First a song that reminds us that God is the God of all peoples, This Is My Song, and second, a prayer for our nation.