“There are three kinds of patriots: Two bad and one good,” theorized the Rev. William Sloane Coffin while preaching at Riverside Church in New York. “The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. The good patriots,” he noted, “carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”
Even as we proudly sing that “this land is your land, this land is my land,” we confess that a) it’s all ultimately God’s land, not humans’, and b) the humans to whom this land was entrusted for its overwhelming history were/are the indigenous peoples. It became “ours” (whatever THAT implies) by conquest, genocide, and assimilation and became prosperous on the backs of people ripped from other homelands and traded as chattel in the slave industry.
We also confess that “all men created equal” didn’t include slaves until 1863 and didn’t acknowledge women’s right to vote until my Grandmother Smith was 32. Certain unalienable rights did not apply to Japanese citizens in the early 1940s or again, African Americans in the Jim Crow South. One of our greatest causes for celebration this holiday week is the freedom to vote, advocate, and work for legislation to change the injustices that did not and do not equally offer and protect the freedom we all seek and treasure.
In his book titled Credo Coffin asks, “How do you love America? Don’t say ‘My country, right or wrong.’ That’s like saying, ‘My grandmother, drunk or sober;’ it doesn’t get you anywhere. Be honest. Say what you believe and feel, but always to build up, not tear down.” That is to say, we are, unavoidably, political creatures.
Martin Luther, whose name our church bears, knew nothing of democracy, but he did assert that we all have one foot solidly in the ultimate kingdom of God while the other foot is firmly and unavoidably planted in the kingdom(s) of this world. For us as Lutheran Christians, this dichotomy is a referendum on the very first commandment of having our priorities and allegiances in proper order. Even our (1950s and beyond) pledge of allegiance says “one nation under God”—not the other way around!
It’s also helpful and intriguing to note that the citizens of this country who in 1776 declared independence from Britain and 13 years later codified that in a constitution could easily have established a “Christian nation” but instead quite intentionally avoided that as well as the suggestion of a theocracy in general. Jefferson, who had a Christian heritage but personally did not believe that Jesus was God, included explicitly in his “fair experiment” the prohibition of a “state church” as existed in most of Western Europe. We were to be guided by principles and ideals, most of them clearly borrowed from the secular Enlightenment which placed humans, not God, squarely at the helm of the universal ship.
So how is this experiment going? The jury is still out—and should be worried, at that—lo, these 200+ years later. As Lincoln scribbled on an envelope in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers 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.” Freedom is a risky proposition. I’m tempted to believe, as with money, power, etc., that I enhance my freedom by diminishing yours. The way of Jesus is radical in that it dares suggest implicitly that nobody is free unless all are free.
Jesus risked reaching out to all people in love, inclusion, welcome, and value—Gentiles, Jews, slave, free, male, female, eunuchs; (i.e. non-binary), righteous, established, excluded, unclean, sinners—and we killed him for it.
Both “kingdoms,” in Luther’s language, God and government, have community at the core and therefore require responsibility and accountability for the welfare of others. Luther wrote in his famous treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian,” that 1. “A Christian is a perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none,” followed immediately by 2. “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” Whether it’s from Britain, or from sin, death, and the power of the devil, freedom always pursues the good of community, meaning all.
Great divide continues to threaten our nation and our church, calling to mind both the days and the questions of Lincoln. Lutheran Americans are neither loveless critics taking potshots at government nor blind patriots who put country before God. Thanks be to God for the Gospel’s freedom from self lived out in love of neighbor, and thanks be to God for a nation that by design, if yet experimental, gives us all a voice and vote. May our identity as lovers always outpace—and even guide—our moments and causes for quarreling!