Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
July 5, 2020
I Timothy 6: 11-16
Matthew 22: 15-22
“The American experiment rests on three political ideas—’these truths,’ Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. ‘We hold these truths sacred and undeniable,’ Jefferson wrote in 1776…. The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be.”—Jill Lepore, 1966-present, Historian
This weekend we celebrate the Fourth of July. It’s a strange one this year, with Americans in lockdown over the corona virus and with protesters on the streets taking down statues and speaking out for justice and equity for Black Americans. We can’t gather to celebrate the way we normally do. Americans are divided over any possible issue you can think of, even wearing masks in public. One group of people thinks our leaders haven’t been responsive enough and another group thinks they’re way too responsive.
But one could also argue that, except for the coronavirus, all is as it has always been in the United States, and in fact all is pretty much what the founders of our nation envisioned. Politics has always been a rowdy and undisciplined process in a nation that spent its earliest years taming both the wilderness and its own wildly diverse and adventurous citizens. Our conversation about the meaning of the word freedom has always been fraught. The mask debate today encapsulates it: on the one hand, freedom means our personal freedoms, especially those encapsulated in the Bill of Rights; and on the other hand freedom is our corporate responsibility to ensure that everyone is able to experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because to ensure it to others is also to ensure it for myself.
You’ll notice I framed this as one idea versus the other, not one side versus the other: that’s because all of us go back and forth on the continuum between those two concepts. This internal debate about freedom is both personal and political. It fueled the founding of our country, in the debate for instance around whether each state was its own country or whether the thirteen colonies could and should form a federated government; and if they did, what its powers and limitations would be. It was incorporated into what most historians view as the great and terrible dynamic tension of our nation, personified in the man who man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson: the tension between laying out some of the highest ideals imaginable of human dignity and equality, and making those the founding principles of a nation; and on the other hand, that this man, and many of the people who propagated these new and revolutionary ideas of equality and freedom, were slave-owners and were often cruel and abusive to their enslaved captives. People have rightly called slavery America’s Original Sin, and this tension has defined some of nation’s highest acts of character and lowest acts of cruelty. It is a shame that this issue still rips at us today, but it is no surprise. This isn’t simply a debate about history, though obviously history informs it. It is a debate about how our highest ideals, our founding ideals, are supposed to be lived out on the ground and enforced in our laws and in our character as a people.
Our founders knew that these tensions existed when they founded the nation and wrote its Constitution. They knew it because they’d debated these tensions endlessly, from the first Continental Congress in 1774, through the Federalist Papers that laid out the argument for the Constitution, to the version of the Constitution that was finally enacted in 1789. They didn’t believe they were resolving all problems or ending all debates. What they were trying to do was lay the groundwork for a nation in which a people are able to have those debates without ripping the nation apart. As Abraham Lincoln would put it some 74 years later at Gettyburg, our nation’s founders “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Our nation, says historian Jill Lepore, was founded as a great experiment to test the hypothesis that “any nation” “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal… can long endure.” The experiment is ongoing.
Our founders, many of whom as products of the European Enlightenment were amateur scientists themselves, knew the Bunsen burner needed to stay hot and the test tube bubbling if the experiment were to succeed. And so they created a Constitution that facilitated controversy. It said that public debate and disagreement are human rights. It set up three co-equal branches of government so that even built within the very framework of our government was the idea that parts of it could argue with other parts. Our founders were flawed and their perspectives often seem jarring and disturbing to people today—but they knew that they were flawed and were far-sighted enough that they wanted to create a nation where the limited perspectives of 1789 would not hamper “‘these truths,’ as Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people,” truths they felt were so important that they transcended history itself.
For us as Christians, “these truths” are true, too, but maybe not for the reasons that Thomas Jefferson and many of the other founders thought they were true. We don’t believe in “natural rights” the way that 17th Century Deists and teachers of the Enlightenment did. To be honest, you’d be hard-pressed to find “rights” of any sort in the Bible. The concept of rights was as alien to the Biblical authors and heroes as spaceships, baseball, and the fact that the earth is round.
The Biblical worldview took for granted that life was hard and that nothing was handed to you on a silver platter. It also took for granted that there are any number of things we can’t easily do for ourselves, and so we have to count on God. I’m not sure we often think about how different a belief in a sovereign God is from a belief in natural rights. Natural rights implies there is any number of things we deserve just because we are human beings and walk on the earth. Essentially rights could be viewed as “entitlements”—the very fact that I exist means I deserve this and if I’m not getting it it’s because some malignant force is keeping it from me.
But to believe in a sovereign God is to believe everything we have is a gift from God, not a right or entitlement; and for that matter that we can’t earn our way into God’s good graces, either. Everything we have is an unearned gift. Strictly speaking, from a biblical perspective, none of us has a right to anything, so be grateful for what you have, even if you don’t have much. If you believe in a sovereign God then you think that whether you live or die, whether good or bad happens to you, is completely out of your hands in the hands of a being of absolute power who has no reason to think you are special and who can’t be held accountable for how It treats you, anyway—it’s God.
If that was all there was to the Biblical worldview, of course, life would be pretty bleak. But not only do we believe in a sovereign God, we believe in a God of blessing. This belief is so important that it reframes the meaning of human life. One could argue that the whole idea of individual human dignity and equality comes from Genesis’ assertion that we are made in the image of God. It is not a hard case to make that our understanding of political liberty comes from the story of God freeing the Israelite slaves from Egypt. For us protestants, it’s worth noting that the rise of nationalism and democratic ideas in Europe coincided with the Reformation’s return to the New Testament idea of “the priesthood of all believers,” that is, that each individual Christian can interpret the bible and decide how to live a Christian life for herself. And of course we can reinforce the idea of human equality with the early church’s assertion that all Christian believers were equal in the eyes of God—as Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). My point here is that we Christians can come to many of the same conclusions that the Founders did without having to adopt the Enlightenment concept of “rights.”
And furthermore, many of the Founders who endorsed these Enlightenment ideas were also Christian, and they saw these concepts as the political expression of their Biblical faith. And even if they were explicitly non-Christian, as Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, they could acknowledge that their Enlightenment ideas had some Biblical root. What unites Christian ideas of God’s sovereignty and grace to those Enlightenment ideas of “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people” was one simple concept: The idea of blessing. Humans are blessed, whether by the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, or what the Founders would have called the “Mohammedan” sovereign Allah, or by the Deistic God of Nature and Nature’s God; they are blessed because that’s what God does—God blesses them. And what God wants, furthermore, is for us to be blessings to one another. So far the best tool that humans have come up with to make that happen is this concept of human rights, the idea that all humans are deserving of these inherent benefits and so it is the job of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people to make sure those rights are enforced both in concept and in law.
And we Christians can be down with that idea because it largely aligns with what we think God wants in the world and the way we believe God wants humans to live together. The concept of rights gives us a way of making God’s blessings concrete and to ourselves be a blessing to others.
This is the key point of our psalm for today, Psalm 67.
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make God’s face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
This psalm builds on God’s powerful promise to Abraham that God will bless him and his descendants, and that furthermore through them all the world would be blessed. The psalmist is thanking God for blessing the nation of Israel, and saying that because Israel is blessed, then they are being a blessing to all the nations of the world, so that those nations can worship the God who “judges the peoples with equity and guides the nations upon the earth.” But the psalm’s positive and upbeat framing also hides a warning: if the nation is not a blessing, then it isn’t a blessing to the other nations of the world, and it is not fulfilling its part of the covenant it made with God.
When Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about taxes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s!” his answer is as confounding to us as it is to the Pharisees. Christians have read this so many different ways, as endorsement of government or condemnation of government, but frankly I think there’s only one completely true way to read this, which is that to God the emperor and the Empire are irrelevant. Irrelevant. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Irrelevant. Nations do not live eternally, but people do, so what matters is whether we people give ourselves over to the image of God in which we are made.
There is an inherent expectation at the heart of the Judeo-Christian claim that we are made in the image of God. The expectation is that we are to be godlike. We often take that wrong, and in fact the Bible maintains, and Jesus is here implying, that governments, emperors, presidents and politicians, authorities of any sort, are the ones most likely to get it wrong. We think that if we are powerful, dominating and indomitable, we’re being Godlike. But the sovereign God has no interest in our behaving that way—in fact, it is exactly in those characteristics that we are NOT godlike. Not even the strongest nation that has ever existed has ever been even vaguely all-powerful. God’s sovereignty is God’s alone, and there’s no way we can imitate it. That’s not the quality of God that we are made in the image of.
No, that quality is this: to be a blessing. That is the unique quality of the God of the Bible, the thing that makes the Judeo-Christian God so different from other concepts of God. It is such a unique characteristic of God that the Bible assumes we could never have discovered it for ourselves. Instead God has to reveal it to us. God first reveals it to Abraham, telling him that God will bless him and make him and his descendants a blessing to the world. God next reveals it to Moses in the Burning Bush and gives him the surprising news that God cares so much about the Israelites and the concept of justice that God will free the Israelites from their slavemasters. And God ultimately reveals this amazing, unique quality in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To the extent that you and I are made in the image of God, this is how we live into that image: we are to be a blessing to each other, and through living in this blessed way we are a light to the whole world that all may see and celebrate the God of blessings.
This is as true of nations as it is of individuals. A nation that practices blessing one another, and a nation that believes its role in the world is to be a blessing to other nations, is living into God’s hope and image. Over the last two and a half centuries, the United States has gone back and forth in this. Sometimes we are a blessing to the world, because we’re living into our highest ideals, both internally in how we treat each other, and externally, in our dealings with other nations and in how they perceive us. Other times, we are not such a blessing, to each other or to the world; and generally, we’re a little bit of both.
But our idea as a nation, our idea at our founding, started from the concept that it is possible for there to be government by the people which can be a blessing to all the people in our nation; and that a nation so conceived could not only survive, but thrive could be a light to the rest of the world that if we can do it, they can too. When we are at our best we live into that calling to bless and be a blessing. Today, let’s remember that and celebrate it; then let’s roll up our sleeves, put on our facemasks, pick up our picket signs or write our letters to the editor or fill out that early voting ballot and get back to work doing it.