July 4, 2021
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Independence Day, July 4, is included in the Book of Common Prayer among the “Other Major Feasts.” It keeps company, and is on par with all feasts of Apostles and Evangelists, and the feasts of Saint Joseph, Saint Mary the Virgin, Saint Mary Magdalene, and of Saint Michael and All Angels, among others. Together with Thanksgiving Day, it is one of two outliers on that list that sit, perhaps uncomfortably, with the others. What are National Days doing in the Book of Common Prayer? And how are they to be celebrated?
In the Church of England, national days appeared in the Book of Common Prayer from at least the time of the Restoration. Celebrations of Charles I, King and Martyr, Restoration Day, and a commemoration of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot were included in appendices to the Prayer Book, complete with prayers and lessons to be said at the Daily Office. In England, of course, the church is established and an integral part of the State, the Queen being the Head of the Church of England.
As we all know, when the dust of the American Revolution settled, and many of the men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, the signing of which our nation commemorates today, wrote and adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in 1789, they decided that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The new Episcopal Church was not to be the national church. It was (along with countless other Christian denominations and, even from the beginning, other faiths) not to be entangled with the State.
Our country grew-up, perhaps inevitably (perhaps not), with a firmly entrenched notion of the “separation of church and state” that has permeated American life and culture, the phrase itself coming to describe anything that must be separated by a literal or figurative fire wall. Americans, especially cosmopolitan liberals and libertarians, have been raised to believe that religion should stay clear of politics and that politicians should keep their religion to themselves.
When the first Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church was published in 1789, no national days were commemorated. Thanksgiving seems to have made its first appearance in the “Table of Rules for Movable and Immovable Feasts” sometime in the second decade of the nineteenth century. (It appears, for example, in a 1818 edition, printed in Philadelphia, long before it was an officially recognised national day.) Independence Day was nowhere to be found until 1928, and then listed only in the Calendar. There was no provision for special commemoration at the Daily Office or Holy Communion. It was only in the most recent revision of 1979, appearing in the wake of both the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Viet Nam, and Watergate, that Independence Day was elevated to the status of Major Feast.
Over the last several years, and especially since the murder last year of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the United States of America has experienced another time of reckoning. Our political leaders have acted irresponsibly, flouting the rule of law, undermining democracy, inciting violence, and promoting and exploiting the divisions among us. Women have come forward, often at great cost, to reveal how powerful men have, without consequence, abused their positions and acted both shamefully and criminally in their personal and professional lives. As marginalised groups seek equal rights, incidence of violence against members of the queer community, immigrants, and ethnic minorities have risen, and the most insidious version of so-called Christian nationalism has taken hold in many places. And lurking at the heart of it all is the sin of racism, which many had naively believed to be a thing of the past, settled by the Civil Rights Movement. It is clear, however, that systematic racism lurks at the heart of our institutions and instead of taking a hard look at the problem and dealing with the centuries old problem, white people are mostly arguing about whether or not we have all become too “woke.”
It is overwhelming, especially for those who are members of target groups and who are most affected by this tide that has been coming in for a generation. On the one hand, it would be easy to say that our nation is so corrupt that we should reject Independence Day, declare the nation irredeemable, as many, understandably, sought to do with Canada Day a few days ago. We could equally well hide behind the curtain of the separation of church and state and take the position that the Church has nothing to do with this sinful world, and focus on things heavenly. It is clear to me that neither of these approaches is faithful to the witness of the God of Israel and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Saint Augustine, in The City of God, famously wrote about two cities: the perfect Heavenly City and the Heavenly City wayfaring on Earth. He attributes to the former that state of life we shall all attain at the consummation of all things, when we “will no longer be haunted by death, but plainly and perpetually endowed with life.”(1) Yet the earthly city, what he calls the “Pilgrim City,” is not devoid of either God’s presence or the capacity for its inhabitants to participate in the life God for the good. He writes:
So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band. She takes no issue with that diversity of customs, laws, and traditions whereby human peace is sought and maintained. Instead of nullifying or tearing down, she preserves and appropriates whatever in the diversities of divers races is aimed at one and the same objective of human peace, provided only that they do not stand in the way of the faith and worship of the one supreme and true God.(2)
The Pilgrim City wayfares here on earth. It is constituted of all of us who follow Jesus Christ. It is not simply an idea or a concept, it is real. It includes and values our cultures and the differences among them and uses them as a force for the good, working in concert to foster the goals of peace and of love. What we do here participates in some measure in “the perfectly ordered and harmonious communion of those who find their joy in God and in one another and in God.”(3) We already possess these things by faith as we act with love and compassion for and with our neighbours.(4)
Now, the United States of America is not the same thing as the Pilgrim City, no matter how much some wish it to be. It was, however, founded by and remains constituted of the citizens of that City, flawed and sinful, limited by the ages in which we have lived. It is our duty as Christians, therefore, to be engaged with the “one and the same objective of human peace” to which Augustine refers. Flawed as they were, tainted by racism and the sin of slavery, the founders of our nation expressed something true when they wrote “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They chose that last word, “happiness,” rather than “property.” They knew that the City of God somehow sojourns on earth and that we all are sojourners, strangers seeking God’s peace which passeth all understanding. Like Abraham we have, “by faith ... sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land,” awaiting that which is to come, that which is truly eternal, all the while doing what we can to love God and to love our neighbour. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote,
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth .... But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
The framers did not by any means meet their promise. Generations have passed since 1776 and we still have not reached what was promised. Justice eludes so many Americans, especially Black Americans. The founders and their successor, along with both the people they lifted up and whom they oppressed, “died in faith, not having received what was promised.” Yet we still desire that “better country, [that] heavenly one,” and while we can not bring about salvation on our own, we can cooperate with God and with each other, in the works of justice and love that move us closer and closer to it. We look to that which is to come, while valuing and working to make better the nation and the world that we have.
We are called to engage civic life in the imperfect Pilgrim City, even as we await the coming of the Heavenly City. Independence Day is, therefore, a chance for us to reflect, not on the unquestioned greatness of our country, but to look at its founding values, its unfulfilled promise, its mistakes and sins, and, standing back with the Kingdom of God in view, hold our nation to account. Throughout scripture we see first the prophets, and then our Lord Jesus Christ, standing up to those in power and confessing in word and deed the standards of the Heavenly City which the nations of this world must aspire to meet. We hear this reminder every day at Evening Prayer when we say the Magnificat and hear how our God “hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” If all people are created equal, and our society is not presently structured so that principle is a reality, then Mary’s words about what God has done for her provide both hope for what is to come and authority for us to use all the means available to us to work towards this goal.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus teaching the crowds a lesson that our nation needs to hear this Independence Day, another lesson that gives authority to a realignment of our present values and priorities, problematic values and priorities espoused by our leaders and, sadly, assimilated by many of our fellow Americans. Jesus tells the people:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?
Our nation is experiencing a moment of hyper-partisanship, in which truth and the rule of law have, in many places and many instances, been abandoned, and those with opposing views vilify and dehumanise each other, unable to find common ground. One of the primary values of the Heavenly City that can be lived out by faith in the Pilgrim City, Jesus tells us, is that we treat our enemies, as well as strangers, sojourners, and even those with whom we simply disagree, with love and justice. This straightforward precept, which may be simple to say but difficult to execute, is perhaps a place for us to start.
Members of the Body of Christ, people like you and me with faith in the one who showed us that love has defeated death, rather than disengage that faith from life in the public square to fulfil some aspirational “separation of church and state,” must live out, show forth, preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and in deed, even if we never say Jesus’ name. Otherwise, we cede the ground to both those who would seek only their own corrupt and limited self interest, and those who would take the Gospel of Jesus Christ and twist it into an instrument focussed on personal morality rather than justice, that bolsters anti-democratic movements seeking to retain power for a shrinking number of frightened people. If we preach, teach, and live the Gospel of loving our enemies, having mercy on our persecutors, exalting the humble and meek, seeking justice for the oppressed, then including our national holiday in our common life gives us a chance to both celebrate what is good about this country in which we live as sojourners, and take a hard, yet constructive, look at where it falls short. This commemoration challenges us, so long as this City of God is wayfaring on earth, to do all we can to see that peace and love are made present in the here and now. Not only will this have a real impact upon the lives of our fellow human beings, it opens up for us the vista of the Heavenly City that is to come and of which we are already citizens.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Feria, 2 July 2021
1. Saint Augustine, The City of God: Books XVII-XXII, trans. By Gerald G. Walsh, SJ and Daniel J. Honan, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press 1954), [Book XIX, chapter 17], 288.
2. Augustine, The City of God, ed. Walsh and Honan, 1954, [XIX, 17], 288.
4. Augustine, The City of God, ed. Walsh and Honan, 1954, [XIX, 17], 289.
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume