In my lifetime, I’ve been a member of both the Republican and Democratic parties. I am an Eagle Scout and proudly served as an Assistant Scoutmaster during my years in college. My ancestors were Patriots and Loyalists, members of the established Church of England and dissenters, including Puritans in Plymouth Colony. I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, which presumes to call its cathedral in Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral and includes Independence Day on its church calendar.
I have participated in plenty of “state religion,” having preached numerous times on the Fourth of July at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, and having both organized and presided over an interfaith prayer service in that same historic church on the morning that Governor-Elect Tim Kaine was sworn into office in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2006. Yet I understand why Mennonite and Amish Christians reject these expressions of state religion and refuse either to salute the American flag or to say the Pledge of Allegience. They don’t want others confused about the fact that their first loyalty is to God and that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.
Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted passages from the Bible, including Romans 13, in defense of the President’s immigration policies, which until recently included the separation of children from their parents after crossing the border. People can and do have a variety of opinions about immigration policies, and those opinions should be debated in the public square. However, unnecessary separation of children from their parents and the invocation of the Bible to justify that isn’t something that should be done in the name of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth extended a special welcome to little ones, asking his followers to do the same, and reserved harsh words for those who would put a stumbling block before them.
Nevertheless, the words of Romans 13 remain a source of anxiety among those who struggle with the idea that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” and that we should quietly be “subject” to them. So I thought this sermon on Romans 13 from several years ago might be helpful to some folks in light of current events and the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Here’s what I had to say about it:
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper for the Nation, July 5, 2015
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)
Yesterday was obviously the Fourth of July, otherwise known as Independence Day. And I doubt there’s too much confusion this morning over the meaning of our most popular national observance. Last night there were fireworks and cookouts and gatherings of all kinds, both public and private, to celebrate not only our national independence but also the individual liberties that we enjoy as American citizens.
Those ceremonies and rituals take on added significance in cities like Williamsburg, Virginia, where I once served on the clergy staff of Bruton Parish Church. In that congregation, which dates back to 1674, one can’t help but feel the weight of American history while just sitting in the pews there. It’s one of those places where the history of the church is very much intertwined with the history of the nation.
But that can also be confusing, right? Today, for example, is the Lord’s Day, a holy day that begins each new week on the calendar of the Church Universal. This is time set aside to worship the living God. That’s always our highest purpose for being here. Even in those years when the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday, it’s still the Lord’s Day. That takes precedent. But there’s often a temptation in those moments to confuse something of great importance — national honor — with something of the greatest importance — divine honor. And our failure to distinguish between those two categories of importance can easily lead us into the greatest sin of all — idolatry.
Let me give you an example.
I spent one summer during divinity school at home in North Carolina. While I was there, an old college friend called me up. He had been asked to preach a sermon on the Fourth of July in a rural church of another denomination. Thinking that would be a really great way to observe the holiday, I drove out into the middle of nowhere in order to worship with that small congregation. I knew that my friend would give thanks for our independence as a nation and proclaim our dependence upon God’s grace. So I walked into that little church expecting to encounter God.
But I was shocked to discover that, outside the sermon itself, God had been forced to observe the holiday by taking the afternoon off. And that’s because every symbol of the transcendent, anything that might have pointed someone to God, had been visually obliterated by the Stars and Stripes. If the preacher had been replaced by a politician, it would have been a perfect display of Americana.
And that’s my point. It would have been a completely different experience in the town square. But inside that little church it seemed almost cartoonish — as though we were looking to Captain America rather than Jesus, “the Captain of [our] salvation,” as he’s described in the Letter to the Hebrews.
As a minister of the gospel, I’m called to remind us to love the right things in the right order. God always has the first claim on our life and our loyalty. Many years ago, a stranger gave me a simple image for that on my way to a conference down in Orlando. Traveling south from the Carolinas on the I-95 corridor is like going into a funnel as all the traffic begins to converge on the State of Florida. I’ll always remember a small pickup truck that passed me on the interstate there. It had a cover over the truck bed and a homemade message on the window above the tailgate. The message was actually a short list:
3. FSU [i.e., Florida State University]
I took that as the driver’s personal revision of the old slogan: “For God, for country, and for Yale.” However, I thought this stranger had improved upon the old slogan because he had clearly ranked these different claims on his life and his loyalty. To make them all equal would be to create an unholy trinity and to adulterate the worship that properly belongs to God and God alone.
How then are faithful Christians to understand the relationship between love of God and love of country? Simply put, how are we to understand our own relationship to the State?
One answer has already been given in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. The opening verses of chapter 13 would seem to suggest that Christians are subject to ruling authorities in all places at all times under all circumstances.
But the absolutizing of Paul’s words in that passage has caused severe difficulties in the past. It contributed to a crisis of conscious in the 18th century among Anglican clergy serving the American colonies at the time of the Revolution. After the Revolution, in the 19th century, it was used to claim that chattel slavery in this new republic was ordained of God. In the 20th century, it diminished the resistance of German Christians to the Nazi regime. And it even served as a divine endorsement of apartheid policies by the white supremacist government in South Africa, which only came to an end in the early 1990s.
It has to be understood that Paul wrote those words during the early years of Nero’s reign as emperor. The imperial government had not yet persecuted Christians living in Rome. And Paul was certainly not going to counsel Christians to hasten their own persecution. So, in this case, the State’s toleration of Christianity nurtured Christianity’s benevolent view of Roman imperial power. But there are other voices in the New Testament also speaking to the question at hand.
Toward the end of the first century, the Book of Revelation foresaw the inevitable clash between true allegiance to God and coerced allegiance to the emperor. The latter involved an act of worship in the emperor cult as a sign of ultimate loyalty to the State. However, for Christians, that kind of loyalty, the kind expressed in worship, can only be given to God. The Führer of the Third Reich would demand that same kind of ultimate loyalty, forcing German Christians to make a choice.
So, in this context, Roman imperial power was seen as demonic. It was to be resisted because it sought to usurp the place of God in the life of the Christian. This is the opposite view of Romans 13. But these two views do have something in common. They share a message conditioned by particular circumstances. And that realization brings us to a third and final answer to our question about love of God and country.
This third view represents a via media, a middle way. It comes from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which are two volumes by the same author. Here one finds a general deference to the ruling authorities unless their actions directly conflict with allegiance to God. Here the Church stands at a critical distance from the ruling authorities. In other words, the Church must be ready to respond to the State in a manner determined by the State’s own actions.
At times the Church will be chaplain to those in authority. Perhaps you watched on television President Ronald Reagan’s state funeral at the National Cathedral. At times the Church will be challenger to those in authority. Maybe you’ve heard about the time that President Lyndon Johnson was sitting in the pews at Bruton Parish Church while the Rector, Cotesworth Lewis, wondered aloud from the pulpit about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although it should be noted that news reports made it sound like that was the theme of the whole sermon, which it wasn’t.
At all times the Church thus seeks to serve the good of our society, loving our neighbors, even debating them, for the sake of the gospel. We should be grateful that the American experiment in liberal democracy embraces such a dialogue. Far too many of our Christian brothers and sisters endure suffering in countries where there is no freedom to speak to those in power on behalf of “the least of these.”
For two years my brother lived in one of those countries on the African continent. He worked for the State Department in the land-locked and poverty-stricken country of Chad. There he oversaw the buildings of the American embassy in the capital of N’Djamena. The people who lived in that city were forbidden from even catching a glimpse of their president being driven through the streets.
My brother had a fairly large staff drawn entirely from the local population. At some point he realized that one of the few women on his staff was clearly the person who was most likely to get things done. So, acting like a good American pragmatist, my brother appointed that women as his most important supervisor.
However, the men quietly protested that this was not how they did things there. And my brother responded by saying, “Welcome to America! When you walk into this compound you’re walking onto American soil. And this is how we do things here.”
What I would like to suggest is that the image of an embassy is a good way to think about the role of any parish church in America. When you walk through the doors of the church into this sacred space, you are walking onto the soil of the Kingdom. It is the place where heaven and earth touch as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels. It is the place where the power of God transforms ordinary bread and wine into holy food, and ordinary men and women into holy people. It is truly an outpost of another country, a heavenly one. And we are citizens of that heavenly country. Here we are invited to catch a glimpse of the One whose Kingdom this is, and to bring the burdens of the nation and the world before the throne of grace.
I think that understanding of the Church disengages us in a healthy way from endless debates about how “Christian” America really is (or ought to be). Quite frankly, I’m less concerned about preserving an appearance of “Christian-ness” in the civic life of America, like a bouquet of flowers that’s soon tossed aside, and I’m more concerned about preserving a depth of “Christian-ness” in the daily life of the Church, like a meal that sustains us each day across a lifetime of joys and sorrows.
Some of you may be familiar with the name of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus. He was a conservative Roman Catholic priest who often commented on the role of religion in American public life. While I didn’t always agree with his opinions, I did and still do agree with his critique of America as a Christian nation.
Here’s what he wrote about that:
I count myself among the many Christians, perhaps the majority of Christians in America, who have the gravest reservations about the idea of “Christian America.” It makes sense to speak, always cautiously, of America as a Christian society in terms of historical forces, ideas, and demography. But no society is worthy of the name of Christ, except the society that is the church, and then it is worthy only by virtue of being made worthy through the grace of God in Christ.
In making that observation, I believe Father Neuhaus was loving the right things in the right order. That’s why my hope on this Fourth of July weekend is that we will render thanks to the Almighty for the freedom to worship, that we will exercise that freedom week in and week out here at Palmer, and, most importantly, that in our worship we will always respect the sovereignty of the One who reigns over not only this nation but all the nations of the earth. “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”
1 BACK TO POST Romans 13:1.
2 BACK TO POST Hebrews 2:10, King James Version.
3 BACK TO POST Charles H. Talbert, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Romans (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 307. Talbert’s presentation of the biblical material covered in the next three paragraphs takes place on 295-298.
4 BACK TO POST Matthew 25:40.
5 BACK TO POST Richard John Neuhaus, “Democratic Morality: A Possibility,” an unpublished paper noted by Stanley Hauerwas in “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” in The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) 470.
6 BACK TO POST I Timothy 1:17.