Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Recommended Works on Frederick Douglass

In my last post, I mentioned that there is a mini-scholarly renaissance in studies on Frederick Douglass.  Here are some of the better studies.

First, one needs to be familiar with the primary sources.  Douglass wrote 3 autobiographical works:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).  All 3 have been collected together as Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Library of America, 1994).  Many of Douglass’ articles from The Liberator and from The North Star have been collected as Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass–A Slave (CreateSpace, 2010).  Another excellent collection is Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (1910-1994), abrided and adapted by Yuval Taylor (Lawrence Hill, 2000).  Two other excellent collections are The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Frederick Douglass:  A Critical Reader (Blackwell Critical Readers), ed. Bill Lawson and Frank Kirkland (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

Among the many secondary sources on Douglass’ thought, I especially recommend the following:

Reginald F. Davis, Frederick Douglass: Precursor to Liberation Theology (Mercer University Press, 2005).

Scott C. Williamson, The Narrative Life:  The Moral and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass (Mercer University Press, 2002).

John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, 2008). 

James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican:  Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Anti-Slavery Politics (Norton, 2008).

Maria Diedrich, Love Across Color Lines:  Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (Hill and Wang, 2000). 

William B. Rogers, We are All Together Now:  Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Prophetic Tradition (Routledge, 1995).

I’d also recommend Per Caritatem, the blog of theologian and philosopher Cynthia R. Nielsen, one of the few white theologians or philosophers who regularly interacts seriously with African-American scholars (and other non-white scholars).  Her work on Douglass is on a par with her excellent work on St.  Augustine of Hippo.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, civil rights leaders, History, oppression, racial justice | Leave a comment

Garrison and Douglass: Friendship and Estrangement

The most famous white abolitionist in the U.S., and deservedly so, is William Lloyd Garrison.  The most famous black abolitionist, and deservedly so, is Frederick Douglass.  For over a decade (1841-1850), they were also close friends and co-workers in the American Anti-Slavery Society.  While not identical, their views on most topics of the day were close and each defended the other from attacks by critics.  Yet their friendship ended and the two men became estranged–a breach that was never healed in life.  Why?

Was it lingering racism on Garrison’s part, or an unconscious patronism that had difficulty when Douglass’ fame and leadership began to outstrip Garrison’s in the cause they both lived for?  Was it simply natural competition and resentment between two selve-made men from humble backgrounds–both strong-willed, ambitious, strivers?  Was it a growing “black nationalism” on Douglass’ part–an estrangement from the goal of an equal and integrated society?  Did the complex tensions of self-determination and integration break the two men apart in a way similar to the break-down of “black and white together, we shall overcome” in the face of militant nationalism and smoldering resentments in the Freedom Movement a century later?  Can we who seek a just and equal “rainbow society” today learn from both their friendship and its breakdown?

First, let us examine their very real friendship.  William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was older than Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) by more than a decade and began as a mentor to Douglass.  They met in an 1841 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in which Garrison was the headline speaker but Douglass was unexpectedly asked to tell the story of his life during slavery and his escape to freedom. (Even his name, Frederick Douglass, was a pseudonymn to make it harder for slavecatchers to find and return him to slavery.) Riveted like everyone else, Garrison asked the crowd, “Have we been listening to the testimony of a piece of property or a man?” “A man!” they thundered in reply. “Can we ever allow such a man to be treated as property?” “Never!” “Can you doubt that such treatment is the grossest sin?” “No!” “Then will you pledge with us to end this sin and crime in which 3 million of our fellow beings are not seen as fellow citizens, but simply as property and tools of another to use as he will?” “YES!!”

Garrison and Douglass often shared a speaking stage for the American Anti-Slavery Society and they worked well together.  Because Garrison’s religious views had become more suspect (from hanging around Hicksite Quakers, Unitarians and holiness perfectionists) and Douglass was seen as more theologically orthodox, the tag-team often had Garrison keep quiet on-stage about the churches’ complicity in slavery while Douglass would thunder against the racism of the white churches.  Meanwhile, because Douglass was more vulnerable to reprisals by local, state, and federal governments, it would be Garrison who took the lead in criticizing the racism even of the free states.  This was a careful strategy since both men actually had radical views about the need for reform of both state and church.

Both were also strong supporters of women’s rights–although, after Garrison’s death, Douglass would strain his relationships with many white feminists by supporting the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution even though it protected the voting rights of black men but continued to deny the right to vote to women of all races. 

Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, first published Douglass’ story in 1845 as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  Garrison has never received enough credit for this publication. It was a bestseller and most of the profits went to Douglass and to the abolitionist movement–Garrison was poor throughout his life and made no attempt to exploit Douglass’ story for his personal gain.  He also took quite a risk in publishing Douglass’ book and was charged with several crimes, but he faced the charges bravely. Moreover, he recognized that this publication placed Douglass in grave danger of being recognized and reclaimed by his former “masters.” Garrison solicited wealthy abolitionists for funds to enable Douglass to tour Britain on the lecture circuit in order to avoid capture.  Further, although Garrison was against schemes of ending slavery by paying off slaveholders (enabling them to profit from their sin of slaveholding) instead of compensating slaves for their free labor, he defended the morality of escaped slaves and free blacks purchasing their own or others’ freedom.  Just as in cases of kidnapping and ranson, Garrison argued, the sin is not in paying for freedom, but with those who receive such money for the crime the King James’ Bible called “man-stealing.”  Thus, against further criticisim, when he joined Douglass in England at the end of the lecture tour, Garrison helped him raise money and purchase his freedom so that he could return to America without risk of arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law.

The split between the two men began in 1848 when Douglass started his own newspaper, The Northstar instead of continuing as a lecturer for the AAS and a regular writer for The Liberator.  This cannot be seen as a racist attack on black-owned business by Garrison.  He had long been a supporter of black entrepeneurs.  He had even previously supported a black-owned abolitionist paper in New York (The Ram’s Horn).  But, while The Liberator had once had a virtual monopoly on abolitionist papers, there was now much competition and Garrison had to see The North Star as an economic rival, especially for black subscribers.  Black subscribers had kept the always-poor Garrison afloat during many hard times. Now that abolitionism was a much bigger movement, there was competition for subscriptions and The North Star’s success might come at The Liberator’s expense–or so it had to appear to Garrison.

The split continued when Douglass changed his mind over political activity.  He had started in complete agreement with Garrison that the Constitution so protected slavery that the legal overthrow of slavery would need “disunion” and a new Constitution.  But after founding The North Star, Douglass came to agree with members of the short-lived Liberty Party that the Framers had intended  the Constitutional compromises with slavery to be short-lived, that slavery was un-Constitutional, and that Congress had the power to end slavery.  He was thus a supporter of the new Republican Party (a “free soil” party) while Garrison continued to see party politics as a distraction from the work of abolishing slavery having it seen as morally abhorrent by the overwhelming majority so that the popular will would demand a new (anti-slavery) Constitution. 

The split widened when Douglass rejected his earlier pacifism to praise John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Garrison saw Brown as being more morally right than the defenders of slavery–and struggled to show non-pacifists that Brown should be seen in the same light as the American patriots who rebelled against Britain.  But he continued to see nonviolence as a more excellent way, still.  But Garrison also, reluctantly supported the Civil War (and saw one of his own sons enlist on the Union side) and black soldiers after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But while Garrison abandoned his absolute pacifism reluctantly and returned to the struggle for a peaceful world that would outlaw war after the end of the Civil War, Douglass moved to support the concept of “defensive” wars.  And Douglass ended up being influential with Abraham Lincoln in a way that Garrison never was.  The differences caused resentments.

But was this racism on Garrison’s part?  Perhaps.  I am among those who believe that in a thoroughly racist society like ours, it is impossible to be completely without racial prejudices.  The best we can do is to try constantly to become aware of our lingering prejudices, confront them, and attempt a life as a “recovering racist.”  I don’t think Garrison would have disagreed. He worked his entire life to see where he fell short of holiness, repent, and become more sanctified.  But I also think that some kind of split might have happened even if both men were the same color–because when students surpass mentors in fame and influence it usually creates generational rifts even if the mentor is rightly proud of the student’s success.

It is also difficult in our competitive society for two men to work so closely together, share so much, and maintain a close friendship.  The failure in Garrison and Douglass’ case is a case study in the tragedy of so many men to be able to sustain close friendships over a lifetime, but we ought also to give praise to the way they were able to sustain such a friendship for over a decade in very trying circumstances.  Outside of military service during war, we have few examples of such close friendships among heterosexual males for any length of time.  Garrison and Douglass both worked for a society that would go beyond the patriarchy that works against close male friendships, so it is sad that they did not succeed with each other–friendships should be able to survive differences inviewpoints when two kindred spirits agree on so much of the “big picture.”

Douglass was probably the deeper thinker–and it is good to see today a renewed interest in Douglass by political scientists, moral philosophers, and theologians.  But Garrison deserves more credit in all those areas than he usually gets, too–and without Garrison, would we have ever known Douglass at all?

July 29, 2010 Posted by | biographies, civil rights leaders, History, oppression, racial justice, slavery | 4 Comments

Reclaiming Prison Literature for the Life of the Church

Prison literature–literature composed by people in prison–tends to be some of the most powerful writing in all literature.  The authors have sometimes been actual criminals whose experiences behind bars changed them (e.g. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice) in different ways.  At other times, the authors have been imprisoned for their political views (or actions of civil disobedience and political resistance) or religious views (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison; Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail; Philip Berrigan, Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary; Daniel Berrigan, They Call Us Dead Men.)  Often whether a writer is a criminal or a political prisoner is a matter of great dispute within a society (e.g., Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance; Mumia Abu-Jamal, Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead; Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks).  The perspectives vary widely, as do the genres.  But almost always the literature is powerful and moving–even if the reader continues to disagree with the writer.

I haven’t seen any scientific survey, but my experience is that U.S. Christians are less exposed to prison writings than almost anyone else.  Many have probably read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but they are unlikely to realize that Bunyan wrote this while in prison for “unlicensed preaching,” which was smuggled out by his wife.  But they probably haven’t read much literature written from prison.

This is unfortunate since Christians seem to have invented prison literature with the Apostle Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, & Ephesians) and with the Book of Revelation written by a Christian named John imprisoned on the isle of Patmos (who may or may not have been John the Apostle).  We still read these biblical books, but I suspect that our interpretation is hindered because we no longer have a “feel” for prison literature.

I suspect our alienation is also due to the fact that few in today’s U. S. churches know anyone in prison.  Jesus commanded his followers to visit those in prison (and expected Christians to frequently be imprisoned for our witness), but this is usually neglected or relegated to specialized ministries, today.  And we expect to be on the side of the Powers who enforce “law and order” while the New Testament expects us to be a challenge to the lawmakers, to be subversive of the “order” of imperial forces.  Reclaiming prison visitation as a normative Christian practice and reclaiming the reading of prison literature (and not just of Christians).

July 27, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, hermeneutics, literature, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Book Review: Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Henry Mayer, All on Fire:  William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; pb. ed., 2000).

Looking backward, it has seemed to many historians that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable.  From that perspective, the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky have seemed reasonable and historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.”  The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), founder of The Liberator (the first and leading abolitionist newspaper) and founder of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices too often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.”  Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way and were usually surprised that the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the moral complacency of his age was, in person, mild-mannered, soft spoken, and careful of personal relationships.  Henry Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that rehabilitates him–showing that Garrison, as a professional agitator, changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a moral priority that could not be ignored.

This is a wonderful biography that has made Garrison one of my heroes.  Born into poverty in a pious New England Baptist family (though never baptized because he couldn’t describe a conversion story in the style expected by his time), Garrison was a self-educated “mechanic,” as a printer, editor, and publisher.  When he began The Liberator in 1831 there were few if any voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery.  All but two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams) presidents had been slaveowners and there were no political parties or presidential candidates who were not either apologists for the perpetual continuation of slavery or appeasers of the Southern slaveholders.  The U. S.  Constitution counted slaves as “3/5ths of persons” for census purposes, thus giving the slave states more political power than the non-slave states and forcing slaves to virtually vote for their own continued slavery.  The Missouri Compromise created a gag rule against even discussing the end of slavery in Congress (with Southern politicians constantly threatening secession if the rule was removed) and Southerners schemed to annex much of northern Mexico (which abolished slavery after independence from Spain) to spread slavery westward and keep slavery in perpetuity.  When Garrison began, the “liberal” view of reforming philanthropists was represented by the American Colonization Society which worked for gradual emancipation of slaves on condition of deportation to the U. S. colony of Liberia in West Africa (whose capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, a slaveholder and pro-colonization man).  These gradualists and colonizationists, including presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Monroe, all deliberately denied any future for free blacks in the U. S. and all argued that equal citizenship was impossible because of the “degraded” condition of slaves and the inherent inferiority of persons of African descent.  To say it differently, when Garrison began his campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery and creation of a racially just and equal society, the “liberals” were all white supremacists and proponents of massive ethnic cleansing schemes–and they had the Constitution on their side.

So, Garrison, using the popular media of his day, sought not to play party politics, but to change the moral and political context in which any would be politician had to operate.  Within 5 years he could no longer be ignored or dismissed, colonization schemes were seen as the racist plans they were, and the question of abolition became THE moral issue of the day.

Garrison’s story could be seen as one of failure:  A Christian pacifist, Garrison hoped to abolish slavery by “moral suasion” that created a nonviolent social revolution that would call for a new Constitution. Instead, slavery was only abolished after a bitter civil war and even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (which could only be passed and ratified because the former slave states were under military governments), white supremacy, segregation, and legal discrimination continued for another century. We have yet to see the racially just society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists worked so hard.  The churches he hoped to purify divided over slavery along sectional lines and 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the U.S.

But Mayer doesn’t present Garrison as a failure.  Instead, his is a story of how an ordinary person–not a general or politician or “captain of industry,”–can make a difference.  One person became a small group of people which grew into a movement.  The movement widened–participation by women created the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality (which Garrison completely supported).  The movement divided over “the woman question,” over questions of political strategy (Garrison opposed voting until the Constitution was changed since voting in the current context perpetuated the flawed system, but others wanted to create abolitionist parties and candidates), over the issue of the use of violence in the struggle for justice, and much else.  Even many of the abolitionists were racially prejudiced, but Garrison and others worked to overcome this–attending black churches, staying in black homes and hosting black families in theirs, pushing against discriminatory laws.  Garrison even urged an end to all laws against interracial marriage–laws that would exist in 13 states until 1967.  If struggles continued after Garrison’s death, they built upon the struggles and victories of Garrison’s day.  His is a legacy which needs to be reclaimed for this generation.

Mayer’s book also deepens the account of U.S. history in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), showing how deeply slavery and racism were woven into the law and culture and how the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, the rebellion of Texas (and schemes of Texas annexation), the War with Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine, and, of course, the economics of cotton.  We also see Garrison intersect the lives of less-neglected figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass,  Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and many others.  It was Garrison who first introduced Frederick Douglass to the world and who published the first edition of Douglass autobiography–for which he has receieved little credit.  (Today, Douglass is being recovered by scholars and popular history, too, after long neglect. But Garrison has yet to get his due.)

Readers of this magnificent biography should also see the collection of primary sources, William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator, ed with and introduction by William Cain.

 

July 25, 2010 Posted by | biographies, book reviews, books, civil rights leaders, ethics, History, racial justice, slavery | 2 Comments

Raise High the Cross of Jesus (based on Eph. 6:11-17).

Raise High the Cross of Jesus

Raise high the cross of Jesus for pow’rs and all to see.
The forces of grim darkness before its flashing flee.
Let presidents and princes attend his just decree
“Whatever you have done to these you’ve truly done to me.”

Put on the mighty armor of God whose cause is first
His justice and compassion for those who hunger, thirst,
And cry against oppression, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Enlisted in his services, we are his army strong.

Put on the belt of truth now — its power will not cease —
The breastplate of his justice, the marching boots of peace,
The helmet of salvation, and “keep the faith” your shield,
And blazing sword of God’s own word, then none shall make us yield.

Christ leads us in the battle ‘gainst principalities
And pow’rs who care for nothing but profits, wealth and ease,
Who let his children languish in poverty and pain,
And ravish his creation for their monetary gain.

We march in Christ’s own army whose enemy is war.
No swords or guns or bombers are wielded by this corps.
Our arms are light. Our orders are “speak the truth to pow’r.”
We’ll see his peace and justice in his final vict’ry hour.

Raise high the cross of Jesus for pow’rs and all to see.
The forces of grim darkness before its flashing flee.
Let presidents and princes attend his just decree
“Whatever you have done for these you’ve truly done for me.”

All Rights Reserved 2005 John Schimminger
johnwschimminger@yahoo.com

July 4, 2010 Posted by | hymns, pacifism, peace, worship | Leave a comment

God of Grace & God of Glory

God of grace and God of glory
On Thy people pour Thy power
Crown Thine ancient church’s story
Bring her bud to glorious flower
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
For the facing of this hour
For the facing of this hour

Lo! The hosts of evil ’round us
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways
From the fears that long have bound us
Free our hearts to faith and praise
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
For the living of these days
For the living of these days

Cure Thy children’s warring madness
Bend our pride to Thy control
Shame our wanton selfish gladness
Rich in things and poor in soul
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal

Save us from weak resignation
To the evils we deplore
Let the gift of Thy salvation
Be our glory evermore
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Serving Thee Whom we adore
Serving Thee Whom we adore

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
For the living of these days
For the living of these days

Words by Harry Emerson Fosdick
Music by John Hughes

July 4, 2010 Posted by | hymns, worship | 1 Comment

O God of All the Nations

In response to my last post, Paul F. rightly notes that few U.S.  Christians today have the virtues to display the kind of humble, critical patriotism that I believe is compatible with faithful Christian discipleship. Lacking such virtues, they all too easily fall into the jingoistic, militaristic nationalism, hubris, national chauvenism, and triumphalism that most U. S. Christians mean by “patriotism.” (It’s a warped form of patriotism, just as co-dependency is a warped form of romantic or familial love.) So, how do churches form members in the kind of virtues that can display humble, critical patriotism and resist jingoistic nationalist distortions?  It takes more than good sermons. I would suggest that one resource is good hymns.  That which we sing regularly is what we truly believe (which is why Charles Wesley, Fannie Crosby, and Isaac Watts may be the most influential theologians in the Anglo-American world–and why parents who worry about what music their children listen to and sing are not just old curmudgeons).  Today, tomorrow, and Monday, I shall print some hymns that I think are helpful in forming the kind of virtues that display the international concern and humble patriotism appropriate for citizens of the Rule of God.

Today’s is listed in different hymnals variously as “This is My Song, ” “O God of All the Nations, ” and “A Song of Peace,” all of which are appropriate titles.  The tune is the Finlandia hymn melody composed by Jean Sebelius.  The words of the first two verses were composed in 1934 by Lloyd Stone (1912-1993) and the 3rd verse was added by the great U.S. Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness (1891-1974).

This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.
May truth and freedom come to every nation;

may peace abound where strife has raged so long;

that each may seek to love and build together,

a world united, righting every wrong;

a world united in its love for freedom,

proclaiming peace together in one song.

People who gather to sing like that on national holidays such as Independence Day will have a far different outlook from those who are moved by Lee Greenwood’s military recruiting tool, “God Bless the U.S.A.” or Toby Keith’s poisonously oblivious “American Soldier.”

July 3, 2010 Posted by | hymns, nationalism, peace, theology, worship | 2 Comments

Can a Christian be Patriotic (and Still be a Faithful Disciple)? (Update)

 Sunday is Independence Day, celebrating that day in 1776 when the British colonists of 13 colonies in North America declared themselves to be an independent nation known as the United States of America. People will barbecue and wave flags and there will be parades that celebrate the greatness of the country.  Love of one’s country is fairly natural, but at times in our history, much of the U.S. has felt the need to show that love by putting down other nations–by not only singing our nation’s praises, but refusing to learn from other countries or ever admit to any of our faults.  Disturbingly, many U.S. Christians embrace a “civil religion” which identifies the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” (there is no such thing–just nations that have  Christian majorities and/or in which Christianity has been influential).  When (in my pre-pacifist days) I was in the U.S. army, guns, rifles, and other munitions were strictly forbidden in base chapels, but I have been horrified to see civilian churches (and not just fundamentalist ones) celebrate the Sunday closest to some patriotic holiday with ARMED COLOR GUARDS from local military or national guard units!  Christian faith and the commitment to the global, ecumenical, church as the New/Renewed People of God scattered among the nations are confused with patriotic love for the homeland.

But can a Christian be a patriot while being a faithful disciple of Jesus?  An honest study of the New Testament would incline one to the answer “no.”  I think one can give a qualified–and very cautious–“yes,” but I want us to hear the “NO” pretty strongly first.  Against perspectives like Jerry Falwell’s Listen America, or Peter Marshall’s 3 volume re-write of U.S. history (The Light and the Glory, 1492-1793; From Sea to Shining Sea, 1787-1837; Sounding Forth the Trumpet, 1838-1860;–all with the same subtitle of “God’s Plan for America”), the Bible never describes any nation other than ancient Israel (later Israel and Judah) as an elect nation. In the New Testament, it is the Church as the new people of God which inherits the promises of Israel–and not any earthly nation.  In the Great Commission (Matt. 28-1920), the Risen Christ sends his disciples forth to make disciples from all the nations.  In both 1 Peter and Revelation, the Church is seen to be the people of God called from every tribe and tongue and nation.  A Christian in the U.S. should have more in common than a Christian in Iraq (there were over a million Christians in Iraq before the war and occupation displaced most of them) or North Korea or Venezuela than with the non-Christians who share the same homeland.  As the great Christian philosopher of the Enlightenment era, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put it “Patriotism may be a good thing, but why should love stop at the border?”  Or, again from Pascal, “Can anything be stupider than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

One of the reasons the early church was pacifist and one reason I became a pacifist was the realization that Christianity is a global faith and that our ultimate loyalty is to God in Christ (not any earthly government) and that our loyalty to the global church should override national loyalties. If a Christian from one nation is in the military and asked by the government to kill members of a different military, how does the Christian know that s/he is not aiming at fellow Christians?  And if the person whom s/he kills for his or her government is not a Christian, then is s/he prepared to cut off that person’s chance to repent and convert?

Nation-states are part of what the apostle Paul refers to as “Principalities and Powers” or “Powers and Authorities,” i.e., earthly, created forces (depicted in mythical terms) with their own spiritualities which are fallen and rebellious toward God and which seek to enslave humans–but which God nevertheless uses for good purposes and which can be (possibly) redeemed.  Paul spends much time warning about the dangers of these Powers, including “thrones and dominions,” (i.e., nations and governments), not singing their praises.  The Kingdom of God is the revolutionary new order inaugurated by the work of Jesus Christ–and never to be identified with any earthly government or ideology or political party or causes. 

The early church knew this well–and so did their pagan neighbors.  In The Letter to Diognetus (c. 195 C.E.), an anonymous Christian writes to a pagan interested in the faith and says:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric form of life. . . . They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything [i.e., in all responsibilities] as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their fatherland and, yet, for them, every fatherland is a foreign land.  . . . They obey the established laws, but in their own lives go far beyond what the laws require.  They love all and by all are persecuted.  . . . They are poor, yet make many rich. . . .

This is a perspective that was largely lost after Constantine when, under the influence of Eusebius, Christians began to endorse the empire in order to get special privileges.  It is one we do well to recover today. 

Yet, must one hate or be indifferent to one’s own country?  If one cheers for one’s homeland during the Olympics or World Cup, should one feel guilty? I don’t think so.  Patriotism has often degenerated into jingoistic, militaristic, nationalism, but it need not be so.  Though he reached out to Roman soldiers (in peacemaking initiatives), Jesus identified with his fellow Palestinian Jews and the zealot (terrorist) option of using guerilla violence to repel the occupiers from the Holy Land was one he understood–and evidently encountered as a real temptation. Among his followers were patriotic rebels and/or sympathizers and Rome crucified Jesus as a would be revolutionary (not understanding the nonviolent nature of his Kingdom, but correctly identifying his movement as a threat even if for the wrong reasons).  The Apostle Paul, though later counting it all “dung,” identified strongly as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and evidently also prized his Roman citizenship.

I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu was and is a better South African patriot than were those who championed apartheid. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though forced by circumstances to pray for the defeat of his own country during World War II, was a better German patriot than were the “German Christians,” who tried to combine Hitlerism and Christianity.  I think Martin Luther King, Jr., even when condemning the U. S. as “the largest purveyor of violence in the world,” in 1967, was a better American patriot than either the defenders of segregation or the unthinking supporters of the Vietnam War. 

We Christians can love our countries and be loyal to them–but we can never be uncritically loyal. We cannot confuse our countries with the Rule of God. We can never say, “for God and country,” because we remember that God is a jealous God and will not be reduced to a tribal deity, nor tolerate any idolotrous rivals.  We should not have national flags in our churches (and there is no such thing as a Christian flag–flags are for armies; Christians have a cross–which we bear and follow unarmed), nor pledge allegiance to any nation state (since, in baptism, our allegiance is already pledged elsewhere and since we are forbidden in the Sermon on the Mount from taking oaths).  We would not want visiting Christians from other nations to come into our sanctuaries and see a flag of our nation and wonder if they belong!  We can never say, “my country, right or wrong.”  And we must not allow love for our homeland to become contempt or hatred (or even a feeling of superiority) to others’ homelands.

I plan on grilling out this 4th of July.  I will celebrate the good things of my country–and call that patriotism.  But I will not pretend that my country has never had sins and faults. I will criticize its shortcomings today and seek to learn from other nations.  We Christians can be qualified, critical patriots–but never nationalists and never militarists.  Remembering the difference is crucial around national holidays.

UPDATE: As I mention in comments to my friend Daniel (Haitian Ministries), it is probably harder for Christians to be patriotic WITHOUT falling into jingoistic nationalism here in the U.S. than in other countries.  After WWII, Christians in Germany and Italy and Japan had periods of profound soul-searching concerning the way they supported the war–their tendency to be captured by nationalist ideology.  Both the churches and the wider national cultures underwent periods of repentance for past sins.  Nothing comparable has ever happened in the U.S.

The Civil War ended slavery, but there was no repentance.  In the South there arose the “Religion of the Lost Cause” which glorified the Confederacy and turned slavery into a footnote. In the North, the Civil War became seen as a righteous crusade with no mention of the utter failure of the Northern political culture to have found a way to abolish slavery without war, no mention of the continued racism (even of many white abolitionists!), nor of the war-profiteering of the Yankees.  The U.S. has become the nation that never sees a reason to repent and certainly not to apologize.  When Pres. Jimmy Carter renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty in a more just fashion (Teddy Roosevelt had simply used the U.S. military to back a revolution in northern Colombia, creating Panama in exchange for the right to build the canal!), the rightwing hue and cry went up that “Jimmy Carter is giving away our canal!” Many were even outraged that Carter spoke Spanish when in Latin America rather than forcing everyone else to speak English!  Americans never apologized for the genocide of Native Americans, or for the Japanese internment camps or for turning away boatloads of Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.  And this heretical view that our nation never does evil pervades the churches, too.

So patriotism is more dangerous, harder to tame, in the U.S. than elsewhere.  Our churches often fail to portray a view of the Church that is global and fail to foster greater loyalty to the global Church than to any earthly nationality.  Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the failure to distinguish the nation from the Kingdom of God greater than in the majority of U.S. churches.  Given that reality, the skepticism that Paul F. and Daniel have toward the possibility of a humble (truly Christian) form of patriotism is well-founded. Maybe most U.S. churches should commemorate 04 July 1776 by holding days of repentance and confession of our national sins?

July 2, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, ecumenism, ethics, moral discernment, nationalism, peace, theology | 10 Comments