“On the Precipice”

~ Psalm 33:8-14 ~


The 4th of July! Independence Day! A day to celebrate our country! Backyard picnics with friends and family! Grand fireworks displays! Oh, wait, they were all cancelled. And, in their place thousands of illegal fireworks going off all over the city late into the night creating hazardous fire situations. And the backyard barbeques? Well, those were discouraged, although I’m sure many ignored the warnings and, of course, didn’t wear masks. Not your normal 4th of July celebrations, were they?

But this isn’t a typical 4th just because of a surging pandemic disrupting normal celebrations. This Independence Day is accompanied with deep and disturbing questions. Questions about just who and what is America. Questions about our heritage. Questions about our history. Questions about our seemingly deeply ingrained racist culture. This 4th of July we just might not be sure what we are celebrating.

What’s more, it is quite apparent that we are a deeply divided country. The ideological divide is every widening. And, sadly, we have a president who seems to delight in exploiting that divide, pushing us apart into irreconcilable standoffs.

At a time when the death of George Floyd could have been a significant moment of coming to terms with our sordid racist history, we are at loggerheads. When the assertion that Black Lives Matter could have been a moment of reckoning, we are mired in endless debates about what that even means. Dog gone it! We can’t even agree that wearing a mask is a good thing, without it somehow devolving into some partisan statement on individual liberty. “You can’t make me wear a mask. This is America, the land of the free!”

Yes, indeed, this is not your typical 4th of July weekend. Wait, no! It is more serious than that. This, I believe, is a crisis moment in the life of our nation. Our cherished ideal of democracy is in danger; the slide toward totalitarian fascism is not a far-fetched idea. As a nation, we are on the precipice, standing on the brink of a most hazardous cliff. How are we, we who belong to Jesus and his kingdom and yet are also citizens of this country – how are we to deal with this unprecedented time?

The psalm that Cindy read speaks of God’s sovereignty over the nations. Thus, “happy is the nation whose God is God.” Presumably God has great plans for such a country. With assurance the people can say, “Happy the people you choose,” because, obviously, God has chosen us!

Over the centuries many countries have claimed to have been chosen by God. Whatever their plans were also God’s plans. So, it is not surprising that our country feels likewise. From our very beginning there was presumed to be a divine favor, a special anointing, if you will. One expression of this “divine favor” is the notion of “American exceptionalism.” Ever since the Puritan leader, John Winthrop, applied the term “a city upon a hill” to that pilgrim community, so American’s have bought into the idea that America was to be a model for the rest of the world. It goes deep into the psyche of us Americans. And we for the most part, for good or ill, have acted on that premise of exceptionalism throughout our history. If America does it, it is good.

One explicit expression of this exceptionalism was in the execution of ‘manifest destiny’. Already in thrall with the ideology of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ that declared that white Europeans could lay claim to newly discovered lands no matter who already lived there, i.e. Indigenous Peoples, manifest destiny allowed for the further taking of land from them. The 1840’s was a time of great expansion into the west, with the opening of the Oregon Trail, the Mexican-American war, and the gold rush in California. By the thousands, white Americans rushed across the American west, pushing aside Native Americans by whatever means necessary, including genocide. This was all based on the idea that God had given white Americans the mission to take the land because God had given it to them. Let me just say that Friday night’s travesty of a 4th of July celebration at Mt. Rushmore, land stolen from Native Americans, could not have been just coincidence. The demagoguery of the president’s blatant appeal to white Americans in opposition to people of color and Native Americans in particular was, I believe, quite intentional. We are, indeed, standing on the edge of a dangerous precipice.

And, yet, I must say there is considerable resistance, pushback, to this president’s vision of America. All across America, indeed, all across the world, there arises a hue and cry for justice and equality. Isn’t it interesting that while there have been many Black people killed through the years at the hands of police brutality, this time, this 8 minutes and 46 seconds of time, it took off like never before? Maybe, just maybe, this time significant changes will happen. Instead of a dangerous precipice, maybe, as we stand on this precipice, we can see some hope off in the distance.

The other day on NPR, actually on Amanpour & Co, American historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Meacham, engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about what to do with Thomas Jefferson, that terribly flawed Founding Father who penned some of our most cherished ideals as a nation and yet was a slave owner. I won’t get into that discussion but would recommend you look it up on YouTube. It’s worth the 20 minutes. But one of the things they said that I found to be quite insightful is that when you really think about it our nation is only 60 years old. The signing of the  Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Act in 1964-65 totally changed the polity of our nation. Equality, on paper at least, is the law of the land. Discrimination on the basis of sex and race is illegal. But it’s only been 60 years! A veritable blink of an eye on the historical timeline. So, as they said, it’s no wonder we are having a difficult time working all that out. It just goes to show that we have to keep working at. And, as we witness serious pushback by many in our society from those ideals of equality, indeed from the laws of equality, it just makes the work all that more urgent and necessary.

As Christians, as those who follow the way of Jesus, as those who belong to his Realm, we are called to this work. These aren’t political issues; these are moral issues, in some ways, the great moral issues of our day. We are called to be vigilant and steadfast, not shrinking back, not giving up hope. Yes, we might be standing on a precipice, but God has given us wings to step off the cliff and soar into hope.

The hope that we work towards is that “when every heart joins every heart and together yearns for liberty, that’s when we’ll be free.” These are lyrics of the hymn we are about to sing (or listen to) – Hymn to Freedom by Oscar Peterson, a great jazz pianist who was in his prime in the 1970’s. “Any hour, any day, the time soon will come when [people] will live in dignity. That’s when we’ll be free. When every [person] joins in our song and together singing harmony, that’s when we’ll be free.” That is what we work for. And in that there is much hope.

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