Posts tagged ‘Country’

Thanksgiving Lessons From Lincoln

Thanksgiving Dinner

Credit: Luminary PhotoProject / Flickr

I have made it a tradition of sorts to read one of Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamations each year during this time.  His proclamations are not only extraordinarily well-crafted pieces of oratory statecraft, they are also genuinely theologically rich.  In his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, Mr. Lincoln recounts the blessings God has bestowed on this nation and then declares:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

President Lincoln beseeches the nation to give thanks on its knees, humbly recognizing that anything it has is not due to some inherent civic merit or to some twisted theology of a manifest destiny (a concept Mr. Lincoln resolutely opposed), but to the unmerited mercy of God.  In other words, the president recognized that rather than judging this nation as its sins deserved in wrath, God instead blessed this nation apart from its sins out of grace.  And for this, Mr. Lincoln was thankful.

What struck me the most about President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation as I read it this year was how the president believed divine mercy should lead to concrete action.  Mr. Lincoln concludes his proclamation thusly:

I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to God for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In view of God’s mercy, the president invites the American people to three things:  repentance, remembrance, and restoration.  He invites the American people to repent of their sins, both in the North and in the South, understanding that any snooty swagger of self-righteousness can never receive mercy from God because it does not understand the need for the grace of God.  He also invites the American people to a remembrance of those who are suffering – those who have become widows, orphans, and mourners in the strife of the Civil War.  He finally calls the American people to restoration – to be healed from a wound of division that runs so deep that it has led Americans to take up arms against Americans.

As I reflect on the wisdom in President Lincoln’s proclamation, the words of the teacher in Ecclesiastes come to mind: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  Today, as in Mr. Lincoln’s day, examples of delusional self-righteousness abound – both among the secular and the spiritual – which close us off to appreciating and receiving God’s mercy.  Today, as in Mr. Lincoln’s day, widows, orphans, and mourners still live among us, often unnoticed and sometimes even ill-regarded, suffering silently and in desperate need of our help.  Today, as in Mr. Lincoln’s day, America still suffers from a wound of division, which some, almost masochistically, delight in ripping open farther and cutting into deeper for their own cynical political purposes.  The problems that plagued our nation in 1863 still plague our nation today in 2017.  Our problems persist.  But so too does the mercy of God.

154 years later, we are still extravagantly blessed with bounty.  154 years later, our republic has not dissolved, even as it has frayed.  154 years later, God still is not treating us as our sins deserve.  Our sinful rebellion, it seems, cannot thwart the tenacious grace of God.  And for that, on this Thanksgiving, I am thankful.

November 23, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

God and Country in Order

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.44.48 PM

In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado writes about why the Christian claim that there is only one God was especially offensive to those in the ancient Roman world.  His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities… 

The early Christian circles such as those addressed by Paul…could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.  For, prior to their Christian conversion, these individuals, no doubt, had taken part in the worship of the traditional gods, likely as readily as other pagans of the time among their families, friends, and wider circles of their acquaintances…

Of course, a pagan might choose to convert fully to Judaism as a proselyte, which meant becoming a Jew and ceasing to be a member of his or her own ancestral people.  By such a drastic act, proselytes effectively changed their ethnic status and so could thereafter try to justify a refusal to participate in worshipping the pagan gods as expressive of their new ethnic membership and religious identity.  But this was not the move that Paul’s pagan converts made… 

Indeed, Paul was at pains to emphasize that his pagan converts must not become Jewish proselytes.  For Paul saw his mission to “Gentiles” as bringing to fulfillment biblical prophecies that the nations of the world would forsake idols and, as Gentiles, would renounce their idolatry and embrace the one true God.  That is, unlike Jewish proselytes, Paul’s pagan converts did not change their ethnic identity.[1]

Categories of ethnicity and faith were not clearly delineated in the ancient world.  Instead, they were broadly interchangeable.  To be a part of the Jewish nation was to adhere to the Jewish faith.  To be a Roman Gentile was to be a worshiper of the Roman gods.  There was no concept of religious freedom like we know it today – where a person can worship and live out their convictions freely quite apart from their nationality.  Thus, part of what made Christianity so offensive to the ancient pagans was that it began to decouple a presumed synonymy between ethnicity and faith.  A person’s ethnicity, in the Christian conception, no longer informed ipso facto a person’s faith.  A person could be a Roman Gentile and a Christian monotheist.

Not only did Christianity decouple ethnicity from faith, it actually claimed that a person’s ethnicity was subservient to faith!  Again, to quote Hurtado:

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)…Whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, this was now to be secondary to your status “in Christ”…Irrespective of their particular ethnic, social, or biological categories, therefore, all believers were now to take on a new and supervening identity in Christ.[2]

According to Paul, Christ comes before clan.

Like the ancient Romans, we too have a tendency to couple our ethnicity with our faith, or, to put it in another, more recognizable, way, to couple our country with our God.  When this happens, however, it is almost always our God who winds up serving our country.  When it appears particularly expedient or reassuring in the midst of a dangerous and changing world, we can be all too willing to sacrifice fidelity to our faith for the prosperity of our nation.  Hurtado offers us an important reminder:  though we may retain our ethnicities and citizenships and still be Christians, ethnicities and citizenships are subservient to faith.  Faith cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the State.  Furthermore, as we are learning our increasingly secularized society, faith is often at odds with the goals of the State.  Everything from the legal enshrinement of the sexual revolution to the often raucous and raunchy rhetoric of our most recent presidential campaign demonstrates this.  So let’s makes sure we keep the State and our faith straight.  Faith comes first.  After all, the God of our faith will continue to stand, long after the State has fallen.

_______________________

[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 53, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55-56.

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am Leave a comment


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