November 9, 2008
On October 2, Governor Sarah Palin made a statement of genuine importance that demands analysis. She said “But even more important is that world view that I share with John McCain. That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights.”
The conception of America as the “city upon a hill” was not the handiwork of Ronald Reagan. To a small number of Puritans preparing to disembark from the ship Arabella in 1630, John Winthrop, founding governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, first voiced this conviction that God had summoned the people of the New World – or at least those settling in New England – to serve as a model for all humankind.
He announced “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Should the members of his community fail in their anointed mission, a dire fate awaited them: “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” Winthrop described the core of that mission with great specificity. As Quakers would soon learn, it had little to do with values such as tolerance and equal rights. It had everything to do with forging a covenant with God, who had summoned the Puritans to create a Christian commonwealth. Hear Winthrop’s words:
“We must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren… We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our su-per-fluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. … We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.”
“Should we neglect the observation of these articles,” Winthrop continued, “and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.”
Andrew Bacevich says of American Exceptionalism that there are three possibilities. The first is that God does not exist. In that case, the concept of American Exceptionalism is simply nonsense – a fairy tale that may once have had a certain utility, but in our own day has become simply pernicious. To persist in this nonsense is to make it impossible either to see ourselves as we really are or to see the world as it actually is. The second is that God exists, but that he has not singled out us out as his Chosen People. God has not spoken directly on the matter. And if that is the case, Winthrop, Reagan, and Palin are remarkably presumptuous in claiming to abrogate to us such a priviledged relationship to God’s purposes and will. The third possibility is that God exists and has indeed singled us out as his New Israel. In that event, John Winthrop’s charge of 1630 demands our urgent attention – not least of all his warning of what will befall us should we be seduced by self seeking, earthly concerns and carnal desires.
Today, without a doubt, the eyes of all people are indeed on the United States – what happens here affects the world. Yet many of those who observe us don’t like what they see. The question for those who embrace the concept of American exceptionalism is this: have we kept the Lord’s covenant? If not, perhaps the time has come to mend our ways before it’s too late. Is that sound you hear even now from Wall Street God’s wrath breaking out against us?
These are the warnings of Joshua! Our Old Testament reading seems quite appropriate for today, it is about the transition of political power. The book of Joshua began with the death of Moses and the transfer of power into Joshua’s hand. Moses had led Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Under Joshua the once oppressed became the new oppressors. His genocidal campaigns “left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed” (Joshua 10:40). Cities were burned, vanquished kings were publicly hanged, wealth was plundered, and peoples were enslaved. “Extermination without mercy” (11:20) was the policy. The book of Joshua ends with his deathbed plea for political sanity as Israel settles in to the new land.
Read Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
“Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!”
Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”
And they said, “We are witnesses.”
He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
His plea for national sanity fell on deaf ears and instead of the reign of Joshua was followed by catastrophe. With the death of Joshua Israel began its descent into 400 years of anarchy where, in the words of the very last sentence of the book of Judges, “every person did what was right in his own eyes”. Israel’s genocides unleashed the dark forces of its own destruction. In its religious life “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3:1), whereas idolatry was rampant. Debauchery characterized civic morality. Judges chapter 19, for example, records the murder of a nameless woman who was gang raped all night and then dismembered, a crime so heinous that it provoked a civil war within Israel. “Think about it!” exclaims the narrator, “Consider it! Tell us what to do!” (Judges 19:30). On the economic front there were famines.
One of the things accomplished by the wanderings in the wilderness was a dying off of a generation of people who had lived a life of servitude in Egypt. None were old enough to have personal connections with Egypt. Nor could any of this new generation have any personal recall of the land and the gods from which Terah had come. Yet there were those who still worshipped the ancient ancestral gods and evidently the more recent gods of Egypt. It speaks to the sheer power of our heritage. I found that fact interesting during last week’s vote counting. I have to admit that the politics of my grandfathers are still with me.
The Faith of our Fathers’ as well as their political proclivities exercise an awesome power to shape us. And every bit as strong as the connections with our predecessors is how the values present in the context of our own life shape us. Joshua referred to these as the gods of the Amorites, the gods of the land in which Israel was then living. These are the gods served by friends and neighbors, the gods of the culture, the social petri dish, in which we swim. Joshua was clear. The gods to which our ancestors paid homage and those served by the generation of which we are a part separate us, alienate us, from the God of our salvation. Can our attraction to the gods served by our ancestors and the gods served by our culture keep us from inclining our hearts to the Lord?
The people protest that they would serve the Lord. Joshua tells them flatly that they can’t. God is holy. God is jealous. Joshua goes so far as saying that God is unforgiving, unforgiving of transgressions, and will do them harm and consume them if after embracing them as his people they reject him. Even with this warning about the dire consequences of possible, likely, maybe even certain, disloyalty the people proclaimed: “No, we will serve the Lord!”
The idols of the Old Testament and Paul’s Epistles are pretty easy to spot. What I wondered was what idolatry looks like in today’s world? We trivialize the problem with our New Year’s Resolution approach of giving up our personal gods of procrastination, perfectionism and the pursuit of consumables.
I think that in his newest book called The Limits of Power; The End of American Exceptionalism Andrew Bacevich helps us see our real idols. The country is overwhelmingly united in its discouragement and cynicism, but bitterly divided down the middle by partisan ideologies of the left and right. The root of America’s crisis rests in our notion of freedom. For most it means our sacred right to consume. But this misguided, unexamined and sacred tenet has led to “three interlocking crises” — economic and cultural, political, and military. The cultural-economic crisis expresses itself in wholesale profligacy, “a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.” Our profound addiction to cheap oil, easy personal credit, massive trade imbalances between what we export and import, and the runaway federal debt characterize this profound profligacy. Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton, after studying stewardship in the church says that preachers do a pretty good job of promoting stewardship. They study it, think about it, explain it well. But, he says, folks don’t get it. Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with “more” — and we will never have enough. Consumerism has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it.
In a previous book, released in 2005 Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and West Point graduate, who calls himself as a cultural conservative, describes how America’s normalization and even romanticization of war “pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies.” The end of the Cold War was to have ushered in a long peace with the United States as sole superpower arrogating to itself the task of reshaping the world in its own image. In reality, in the aftermath of 9/11, our government initiated a long war against global terrorism that Bacevich calls a “permanent condition.” This is a war, he says, with “no exits and no deadlines.” This long war in general, and the Iraq War in particular, have laid bare deep contradictions and dysfunctions in America. In his analysis of our military crisis, Bacevich details our illusions about war mongering and the lessons, real and imagined, that we ought to learn from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In politics he points to the concentration of power in the executive branch, the deterioration of meaningful checks and balances, an ineffectual congress, and appalling bureaucratic incompetence. Aggravating our political crisis is a “national security ideology” which specializes in disinformation and marginalizing dissent.
With true cynicism Bacevich dismisses as “the grandest delusion of all, that we can wipe the slate clean and get our nation back on track ” for that turns a blind eye to decades of national dysfunction. He says such an expectation is like the battered wife who expects that this time her husband will actually keep his oft-repeated vow never again to raise his hand against her. The American people are co-dependent.
I’m not quite so cynical, but I still can’t shake the similarity between the passage we read in Joshua, what we heard from Governor Winthrop and what awaits us in our own presidential transition. In the face of the people’s naïve commitment, as dubious as Joshua was of it, he gave them a covenant with ordinances to follow, a legal document which spelled out the rules for compliance. That didn’t work. Judges documents that fact. If it is not in putting away statues, carved by hand to represent deities thought to reside all around us; if not in statutes, covenants crafted by minds to proscribe aberrant human behavior, where do we turn? That was the question of the narrator of Judges. What do we do when “everyone does what is right in their own eyes”?
What does the Lord expect of us? Many commentators suggest that the call is to serve a living God who demands justice, mercy and righteousness first and foremost. I don’t find that in this text. We avoid the matter when we focus on rules and regulations that even with the best intentions we won’t follow. We compound the problem by constructing new theologies for people to add to their already burdensome box of beliefs. Joshua’s answer was that the people were to put away those things that distract their minds and then consciously incline their hearts to the Lord.
Inclining our hearts to the Lord isn’t symbolic. It isn’t liturgical. It isn’t creedal. But it is a choice, a decision, a commitment on our part as individuals and as a community of faith. Two verses in the Psalms speak of inclining our heart toward God. “Incline my heart to your testimonies…” (Psalm 119:36). “I have inclined my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the very end” (Psalm 119:112). To incline our heart is to cause it to long for (deeply desire) something. His grace, along with our own willingness and cooperation, guides and inclines our hearts toward God. This presumes a relationship of the heart – the seat of our affections. As the Prophets warned, iIt isn’t is practicing the sacrifices of ancient religious beliefs and it isn’t is about trying to abiding by the rules and ordinances designed to keep us from breaking our vows and covenants. This is all external. What ultimately rules our lives is what is within us, the result of having inclined our hearts to the Lord.