July 5, 2015 Year B, Proper 9 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. – Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
“…for they are a rebellious house…”
When I was commander of the scout platoon of a Marine tank battalion down in the deserts of Southern California, I worked with this sergeant, and he was something else. I really appreciated him. One of the things that he did was to carry a copy of the constitution in his back pocket, always, and at the oddest times, you’d see him reading it, much as a very bible reading Christian might read the tiny New Testament they carry in their back pocket. Another thing he did was to read the Declaration of Independence every year on the 4th of July. I learned that from him and I too read the Declaration of Independence every year on the 4th of July. I sent it out on the list yesterday.
So here it is, the 4th of July (or thereabouts) in 2015. We are 239 years into the American project. That is a long time in some ways; the twitch of a tail in others. Today is a moment to pause and remember where we have been, dream of where we are going, and contemplate where we are right now.
I preach ad nauseum on the ills of this country, primarily on the complex of violence and structural sin that radiates from all empires. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Tip of the iceberg… that is actually a technical term I learned at the College for Congregational Development I began a couple of weeks ago. You all know an iceberg, right? 7/8ths of an iceberg is out of sight, below the waterline. Right. It is a useful model or metaphor for looking at organizations, groupings of people, nation states even, for it demonstrates that there is a lot more to any organization, group or nation state then meets the obvious eye.
Above the waterline are all of the visible, concrete, explicit things… laws, policies and practices, organizational structures, agreements and treaties, mission and vision statements. The Declaration of Independence is a vision statement of sorts, a public, explicit communication of intent. Above the waterline is all of the laundry out for everyone to see.
Below the waterline? That is everything else and there is a lot of it. Culture. Power and influence. Group sentiments and norms. Unspoken hopes and dreams. Assumptions. Trust issues. Dynamics. And, (gasp), emotions! I just learned at the College that emotions play into how organizations work… that knowledge should help. If the law is above the waterline, politics is below, deep in the smoke filled bowels of any organization. The whole field of congregational development is concerned with what is below the waterline.
The Constitution of the United States is above the waterline. As I said above, so is the Declaration of Independence. Out in the open, explicit, public. That both were ideologically if not in substance sourced from the Athenian model of democracy, a model that implicitly put power into the hands of the 5% of propertied, white male, slave-owners, well, that is below the waterline. But that is not where we need to dwell today. For while yes, much of the above the waterline aspects of our nation are edifying and just; civil rights, environmental protection, security of our nation internally and internationally they are provided for in theory, in law. And while yes below the waterline we know lurks in the open institutional racism, systemic violence, imperial conquest and nearly codified economic disparity, there is a whole, whole lot more going on in this nation then NPR or Fox, the lefty- or the righty- blogosphere would ever have us believe. Both are real and true, justice and injustice exist, the pride of the patriot and the scourge of the robber baron are real, but the heart of this nation beats, and it can, it does beat for good. Some of it is right here, right at the surface, someone buying a flat of blueberries to make a pie for the cousins you go to see fireworks with every year. That is America. (Though not in south Eugene this year, sorry. Feel free to join us out in Jasper to hear the gunfire). Some of it is the thousand points of light, the idea that helping those in need should be voluntary, not an entitlement. I am more or less a socialist, so I disagree with that doctrine, but there are millions of points of light across this nation that make up for so much that falls through the cracks; neighbor helping neighbor, be it with a bottle of water on a hot day, service on a charitable board of directors, or saying yes to giving $2 to Food For Lane County in the grocery check out line. And some of it is much deeper, the dream of fleeing oppression, or better, of going to a promised land, a New Canaan. That dream drew those first pilgrims to this shore, that dream inspired those first patriots to throw of the ontologically unsound baggage of monarchy; that dream drew my relatives and many of yours through Ellis Island to a new world, a land of opportunity, and that dream continues to draw millions of our Latino/a brothers and sisters from the south, though I think their eyes are a bit more open as to what they will get here then my Polish ancestors did in 1903ish Patterson, New Jersey.
Of course some of us were brought here because of other forms of opportunity, the opportunity to be exploited, so some of us suffered the horror of the middle passage as chattel, others, many more white folks than our history books remind us were brought here as indentured servants, or in steerage as a ready made underclass or from China in the holds of ships to work the railroads. The playing field is anything but level in this country, but at least here, in theory, by law, above the waterline, the fundamental structures of the land allow for anyone, anyone to succeed. The deck is stacked in innumerable ways against the poor, the African-American, the non-English speaking, the native peoples, women… but in principle we are better than that.
I struggle with this country. “Heavens to betsy” I do. As a young man I was willing to die for this country, worse yet, I was willing to fight for it, kill for it. Some of us here did. I am not willing now. Many of us here struggle with our nation, you’ve told me as much: what it does, how it is organized, how the privilege, which most here in this room have, how that privilege comes very directly at the expense of others. And then we read something like the Declaration of Independence, the document of the day and wow… That is not hidden. That is not below any sort of waterline, it is right there, hanging in town halls from Presque Isle, Maine to San Ysidro, California. It is taught to school children in the reddest district in the reddest state, probably even in Texas, just as it is taught at the Waldorf School in South Eugene. It is fantastic. A testament to a nation of rebels, rebels that rebel sometimes against tyranny and injustice, and sometimes rebels, like Israel, against the God and principles that animate, inspire, created us in the first place. Israel rebelled against God. We, as a nation we rebel against a dream.
The dream that this nation was founded upon is a dream of throwing off tyranny. It is a dream of changing how we do things because now we know better, now we know what is right and now we will risk doing what is right. That is the American dream. It is our genesis story (well, once we get past the genocidal conquest of the first nations. Abraham had children by a slave girl). But our nation was founded on the principle of doing right with the best understanding of what right was. And, that willingness to throw off oppression and to do what is right, as Thomas Jefferson notes, is slippery. We fear, above all else, change. We are in an ever emerging process of getting this will to justice to overcoming the stony inertia to remain the same, but change does come. DOMA came, we learned, and DOMA went. We can do it. On occasion we do.
When we fail, when we allow tyranny and injustice to prevail, what we are guilty of is rebellion. Rebellion against the principles embodied in our American revolution; rebellion against the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence; rebellion against the right and just dream of this nation. And this sort of rebellion isn’t so far off from rebellion against God that Ezekiel is charged to utter prophesy against. As a people, when we do what is wrong, when we are tyrants, oppressors, imperial overlords, when we begin to act along the lines of the 27 charges against King George, we rebel against the heart of this nation. The Declaration of Independence, is the ideological DNA of us as a people. And we can learn, we can include those whom from day one have been excluded. We can return to the radical orthodoxy of the American Revolution. And someday we might. And for that, thanks be to God, for there is hope.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
For, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” AMEN