Acts 5:25-42; Luke 20:20-26; Judges 21:25
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
The last line of the book of Judges reflects a reality in ancient Israel that may sound eerily familiar to those of us living in 21st-century America. The twelve tribes of Israel had split apart. There was no king – no central, trusted authority. The commitment to belong together as one people had evaporated. Rumors and conspiracies were spreading. Violence was on the rise.
Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Tribes were turning against one another. The future looked grim. It was a time of political crisis and cultural chaos. That could well describe our own nation today: In those days there was no unified vision for the Unites States. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
In the face of a devastating pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 in our land, significant numbers of people across the country still refuse vaccination, and in those areas Covid is on the rise. Some reject what are widely accepted scientific conclusions – about the pandemic and about climate change.
Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
Some want to defund police and others want to increase funding; some want pipelines to deliver more oil and others adamantly oppose fossil fuels. Some want to teach our children about racism in our national narrative; others want to downplay or even ignore that history.
To state the obvious, people in our nation don’t agree on everything. That is not new. Cultural and political divides have played out before in our history – like they are now – as winner-take-all conflicts, with no room for compromise or civil disagreement and debate. You are either with me or against me, and if you aren’t with me then we have nothing in common and we are enemies. Some will remember that during the 1960s and 70s, as we argued over the Vietnam War, this national tendency reflected itself in the slogan: “America: love it or leave it.”
The people of God do not exist in isolation, floating above conflicting currents flowing through their particular historical setting, whatever that might be. That’s been true in every age, including in the first century. When Jesus is asked if taxes should be paid to the emperor, his response acknowledges as much. “Give to the emperor that which is the emperor’s,” he says, “And to God that which belongs to God.”
This is not a benign inquiry. Taxes levied by imperial Rome are despised by Jews in ancient Palestine. The questioners want Jesus to link himself to those opposing Rome, which would trigger his arrest, or to support paying taxes to Caesar and incur the wrath of fellow Jews. It’s a double bind for Jesus. They’re trying to trick Jesus into aligning with one side or the other. He deftly avoids doing that.
In his response, he sets up a distinction that would later influence the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, with the separation of church and state. And in his response, Jesus implies that we should not equate obedience to the state with obedience to God.
It’s a first-century, zero-sum culture war playing out in the gospel, not unlike what we have wrestled with in America over the years. But our current national discord feels unique in some ways.
On this Independence Day, when we commemorate our 245-year old democracy, we find ourselves in a paralyzing political impasse. Many are captive to the false claim that the results of last fall’s presidential election are not valid. Some church leaders are complicit in animating this present national crisis. Their rationale seems more political than theological. They risk conflating Caesar and God, which would be a form of idolatry dangerous not only to the faith, but to the nation, as well.
In the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the moderating role that religion played in American life, something we are seeing less of today. In his book Democracy in America, he wrote,
“The law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything, and forbids them dare everything.”
If only it were so. More than six months after the election, efforts to overturn the results continue. In spite of scores of court rulings against the claims of election fraud, by judges appointed by both political parties, and the conclusion of local election boards, led by members of both parties, confirming the results, 30% of Americans believe the election was not legitimate. The violent attack on Congress on January 6 laid bare the anti-democratic extremism of some who reject the election results. (https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2021/05/28/politics/poll-qanon-election-conspiracies/index.html)
While there are many things to celebrate about our nation this July 4, the state of our democracy is not among them. Free and fair elections, accepted by the people, are the bedrock of our form of government. To persist in a falsehood about election results undermines the very foundation of America. This moment in our nation has a biblical echo: Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
America has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to supporting the standards of democracy written into our founding documents. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, inalienable rights given to all people by our Creator according to the Declaration of Independence, were actually limited to a subset of Americans when the nation came into being. Only land-owning, white men, 21 years or older, could fully participate in American democracy – could vote.
One of the ironies of the Continental Congress in 1776 was the invited presence and welcomed advice of 21 leaders of the six Iroquois nations. They were there in Philadelphia. The Declaration of Independence, drawing in part on the governmental philosophy of the Iroquois, would nonetheless dismiss Native peoples as “savages.” Native Americans would not receive the right to vote until 1924, only four years after women. And African Americans still struggle today against efforts to make voting more difficult for them. (See, https://ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/EoL/chp8.html)
From the beginning, the nation whose independence we mark today had grand aspirations. But it would take many generations to see some of those ambitions enacted – and that work is not yet complete. It is best, perhaps, to think of our nation as an experiment still underway.
That approach is essentially what the powerful Pharisee Gamaliel proposes in the scene in the Book of Acts, when Peter and the Apostles are imprisoned for preaching about Jesus. They break out of jail with the help of the Holy Spirit and return to their public preaching about Jesus, for which they had been arrested. The authorities are enraged and want to kill them, but Gamaliel intervenes.
He reminds them – the Council – of others perceived as threats over the years by those in power – including one named Judas the Galilean, who led a revolt against the very taxes to which Jesus refers in the scene with the Roman coin. Judas the Galilean and others who caused trouble and resisted authority eventually failed, Gamaliel points out.
“So, in the present case,” he says of the followers of Jesus,
“I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them– in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-38)
The Jesus movement, he argues, is an experiment that will either fail because it is of human origin, or succeed because it is the will of God. Convinced by Gamaliel, the leaders let Peter and the Apostles go, after roughing them up, to see what happens.
The Christian Church in America finds itself in a Gamaliel moment today. The national crisis calls us to stand up for what we believe is of God. Our democracy needs voices to defend the ideals at the heart of our American experiment and at the core of the gospel: fairness, equity, opportunity, freedom, inclusivity. These biblical convictions helped form our nation, however imperfectly; now is the time for the Church to redouble its commitment to them, by practicing the love of God and the love of neighbor as vigorously and fully and faithfully as possible.
This morning we will sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee, first sung 190 years ago today: July 4, 1831. It was then, and still is now, an expression of national aspirations. In 1843, in another Gamaliel moment in our nation’s history, a Christian abolitionist re-wrote the lyrics. Here’s a stanza from that version, in 1843:
“My native country, thee,
Where all men are born free, if white’s their skin;
I love thy hills and dales,
Thy mounts and pleasant vales;
But hate thy negro sales, as foulest sin.”
People of faith can play, and have played, a leavening role in American democracy, like yeast in the national dough, summoning it to rise up, and live according to its best values.
In today’s troubled times, there are at least three things people of faith can do to help our nation.
First, let us maintain a commitment to the truth. One of the historic principles of the Presbyterian tradition is that truth is in order to goodness. (PCUSA Book of Order, F-3.0104) We tell the truth because it leads – inevitably, eventually, inexorably – to the good. In the long run, nothing beneficial comes out of falsehood, whether in our personal relationships or in politics. To tell the truth can be difficult at times, and we may not want to hear it, but our democracy’s pursuit of justice depends on telling the truth. Jesus says it like this: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
Second, let us be modest in our claims, whether religious or political. Scripture is replete with reference to wonder and mystery. To be filled with wonder is to accept that we do not have all the answers, that our power has limits. It’s why we pray. God is discovered in the still small voice, not in dogmatic declarations of certitude. A pluralistic democracy depends on the humility needed to listen to others with viewpoints different from our own. We have a piece of the truth, but not the whole truth. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” the Apostle Paul says, “But then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully.” (I Corinthians 13:12)
Finally, let us bring to our hurting nation a sense of inner peace, of being at home in the world and caring for it and for one another. De Tocqueville warned of the peril to democracy in “perpetual agitation in all things.” Democracy needs righteous anger to help correct it, but not self-righteousness. Its health depends on citizens who have what writer Richard Just calls a “baseline level of inner peace that is a prerequisite to the functioning of a normal, rational, pragmatic democratic citizenry.” Religion, at its best, encourages such tranquility. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus says. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) (Richard Just: How religion can help put our democracy back together – The Washington Post; many of the ideas expressed here were helped by this essay.)
In those days – in ancient Israel, and in America today – everyone did what was right in their own eyes. There is no future in life like that.
Christian faith should be an ally of American democracy, not an adversary. We were there at the beginning, and ought to be there today: a partner – one among many – eager to offer critique where needed, yet, doing so even as we hold fast to the fundamental ideals that make this a great nation, and can make it even better. May it be so.
Thanks be to God.