Listen To Article
With the 4th of July on the horizon, I’d like to pick up on Tom Boogaart’s recent post about pledging allegiance.
For most of my adult life I would have responded to Tom’s words with three cheers, but now, in the hour of the United States’ mortal illness, I would change that to two cheers, or two and a half, reserving some space for a “yes, but…”
Yes, we owe prime allegiance to God alone, but we can also show some loyalty—a critically constructive loyalty—to the sites and objects of our secondary loves, including whatever nation it is in which we have been nurtured and protected.
So I’m wondering now whether, as a strategic opportunity, and even—big “perhaps” here!—as a Gospel calling, those of us who are Christian (as opposed to Christianist) in America not only can but must show forth such a loyalty.
Of course, the “protections” I just alluded to have been more robust and consistent for some than for others. But as one for whom they have been ample, don’t I owe something back?
The good in American history
Yes, I think I do, and for most of my career as a professor of American history, I’ve tried to fulfill that obligation by offering my students and readers a two-pronged communication about the American past. On the one hand, and first of all, a duly critical portrayal of the flaws, the rank evils, and the persistent injustices in that past. But on the other hand, and with the psychologically strategic last word, by noting as well the chorus of what Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address called “the better angels of our nature,” and encouraging my students to join it.
For there is much good to work with in American history. Much in its principles and practices and better moments that a Christian can invoke as measures to which we ought to aspire in our own time. No, these do not amount to the full counsel of the Gospel. No, the USA is not God’s chosen people; that title belongs to the church, shamefully as it too has fallen short of its promise and calling over the course of its own history—and in the present moment. Nor are the goods unambiguous, usually being tainted and often enough entwined with their twin defects in a fateful double helix.
Nonetheless, as a civil society the USA has provided a model and hope that has encouraged and inspired many people around the world. If it is not the only such model or inspiration, nor necessarily the noblest, it is one such, and it’s the one closest at hand for most of the readers of this blog.
After all, the scandal going on at the American-Mexican border these days is a shameful response by the authorities to thousands of people driven by fear and danger but toward the American promise of prosperity and the rule of law. (The very same combination is attracting a zillion dollars of sometimes dubious provenance from Chinese and Middle Eastern investors to American banks. The golden droppings, I suppose, of s—hole countries.)
Back to the point. The American past offers some potential good with which American Christians can work. Given the realities of public exchange around us, I think it’s one with which we have to work. Face it, people are going to be driven by some narrative or other, and in the predominant American media environment today, only a few of these are going to gain true salience. Malign forces have commandeered one narrative of American history to the ends of exclusion and oppression. How to respond?
Harping on the grim side?
I wonder—and that’s not a rhetorical ploy; I really am wondering aloud here—whether too many of us in the American historical guild have not given away too much by harping so persistently on the grim side of the past. In taking up good and necessary initiatives—setting the record straight, bringing evil into the open, exposing the gross record of violence and injustice in the past—have we left the public with too little hope, too few objects for inspiration or emulation?
It’s been said that on the American frontier of the early 1800s, the Calvinists made sure everyone knew the depth and detail of sin, while the Methodists held forth on salvation. Is the American historical profession too Calvinistic this way? Maybe so, maybe not. It could well be that even if we sounded forward in a more modulated voice, the violent would still bear it away. And the half has not yet been told about the underside of the story, not by a long shot. The critical task remains.
Thus, to put it mildly, the right way forward looks daunting. It requires a trusting patience amid urgent, even panicky, times. It will require all the cunning that arises from being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Yet, we have some hopeful examples from history itself. One is lying in plain sight in an often-invoked—but too seldom read—piece in the American canon, Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream.”
I used to criticize the speech for its blatant mixture of biblical and American civil religion. But now I wonder whether it’s not exemplary in its craft. Whether King was not posing the first—the biblical—standard as his ultimate criterion of judgment, also over the second, but mixing in the second as a ground of common appeal to people who might be persuaded to some right action even if they did not (yet) share his allegiance to the first.
Honey from the Rock
Here’s another voice, from within the tradition closest to the origins of this blog. Lexham Press will soon publish an English translation of Honey from the Rock, a set of 200 meditations that Abraham Kuyper wrote for his Sunday weekly paper between December 1877 and mid-1882.*
The series began soon after Kuyper returned from an extended convalescence from a crippling breakdown in early 1876, and that breakdown in turn had been triggered in part by his immersion in the tides of Christian perfectionism that would become known as the Keswick movement. Kuyper’s meditations, accordingly, have a lot to say about the self-delusions that can accompany piety. As always, however, his critique is not only of the psychology but also of the sociology of religion—not only of the traps belaying the individual Christian but also those tempting the collective church.
In terms of resources for the way forward, then, we can do much worse at the present American moment than to hear the voice of a most orthodox Christian authority. “The Lord’s favor rests on whoever is small, on whoever is despised and discouraged, on whoever is laid low in the dust,” Kuyper began his third meditation in the series, “For He is so Small” (based on Amos 7:2).
Can we hear the word of the Lord to an America that would be Great Again? “The Lord’s anger turns against whatever is exalted. His power is directed against what is haughty and pompous, against all that is lofty. It will all be laid low—every high tower, every solid wall [Kuyper’s words, not mine]—until people’s pride is broken and their arrogance is trampled!”
For those on the receiving end of power, however, the prophet’s words hold comfort:
…everyone who suffers and is oppressed, everyone who is miserable and poor, everyone who is naked or blind, everyone who is helpless and wandering around abandoned—you have the assurance that your appeal will be heard.… The entreaties rising from your heavy heart and oppressed soul, as well as your own piercing cries, you may be sure, will register your complaints before the throne of grace…
Lest it be said that Kuyper’s was speaking about the sufferings and prayers of Christians, let us inquire into the religious convictions of those being caught at the border, and those interning them.
Even taking things strictly “spiritually,” the lesson bears in on those who offer up the name of the Lord. “That infant child lying in a crib was made small in order to make you with your dry, cold, and empty heart great in the kingdom that is above,” Kuyper enjoined.
May you choose, by examining and discerning your own condition, to show your love to those who are small here on earth! May you open your own heart to those who are despised and rejected! May you be merciful to those who are oppressed and humble! And may you be inclined to listen when people look to you in their lowly circumstances, crying: ‘Help me, my brother or sister, for I am so small!’
In real Christianity, and in the better strands of the American civil religion, hope and judgment come together. One fails without the other; the two, entwined, become a double helix of their own, promising steps toward redemption.
*I am indebted for an advance copy to James A. De Jong, past president of Calvin Theological Seminary and translator of Kuyper’s text.