I just finished N.T. Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective. One of Wright’s points in this book was that Paul was always a very nuanced writer. He maintained respect for the Jewish community, even as he grieved over its failure to embrace Jesus as the Christ. He recognized the brutality of Rome, but did not support insurrection. He encouraged the churches to be accepting of moral weakness and differences of conscience, but certain things – like incest and drunkenness – would not be tolerated within the church community.
If Paul were here today, I think he would say the same things about our national holiday of July 4. He would encourage neither full-blown cheerleading for every act of the state, nor a constant stream of spit-on-the-flag protests.
Paul would caution us that America is temporary – that it is not a final expression of God’s kingdom on the earth. He would ask us to be aware that we still have many problems to face: our military and economic arrogance, our failure to fully deal with poverty – both at home and abroad, our profound lack of appreciation for what our consumer-driven culture may be doing to creation.
But he would not forbid us from celebrating. And I don’t think he would ask us to take down our flags. Honor and respect for those in authority is a dominant theme in Paul’s writing. God is not an anarchist, and when the state acts justly – we should think of it as God’s agent, keeping society from sinking into complete disarray.
So today I am grateful for the people of America – who govern this nation through the remarkable document that is our constitution. We are far from perfect. We have a long, long way to go. But, along the way, we are also doing some things right:
– We are coming to value diversity race and culture, giving coequal status to people regardless of their convictions or origin.
– We are coming to learn that the oppression of those whose beliefs are different from our own is not appropriate.
– Slowly, we are coming to grips with the environmental impact of our actions. Our policy of encouraging open, public debate on political issues means that there is hope.
– We have an open justice system, in which we try to give an equal voice to everyone.
– We have in place a system by which our leaders can be brought into accountability. Flawed though it may be, it is still better than the absence of any such system, as has been the case with most systems of governance.
– There are literally millions of people – policemen, firemen, soldiers – who are willing to give up their lives to keep this system going. Even if you come down on the “no war” side of the “just war” argument, you should respect those who hold a different opinion and who, as a result, have placed themselves in a position where they could die so that our system can stay in place.
It is possible – very easily possible – to become overly exhuberant on a day like today. We are not “God’s nation.” God loves all of the peoples of the world. He does not favor us over anyone else. We should not think of ourselves as superior or greater than any other peoples. And sometimes our rhetoric seems to suggest that.
But there is nothing wrong with taking a day to recognize and celebrate, and to even take pride in, the things that are good about our nation.
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