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4 FEBRUARY 2018 – 5th Sunday in Epiphany
When I began thinking about this sermon, two voices sounded in my mind’s ear. One was the voice of my late friend and comrade, Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani scholar and anti-war activist with whom I worked in Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s. “I hear a lot from my students about ‘walking the talk,’ Eqbal said. But I tell them that you can’t walk the talk without first having the talk. First, you decide what’s real and what’s right; then you act on the basis of that understanding. Finally, the results of your action can force you to re-define what’s real and what’s right. That is what we call praxis.”
A more recent sage, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, puts it even more briefly. His lecture that has been viewed by 800,000 people on YouTube is entitled, “Don’t Act; Just Think.” Zizek wants us to resist the urge to act politically before we have decided what is really wrong with the current system and what a better system would look like.
So, to follow Eqbal’s and Zizek’s advice, let’s have the talk before we walk the walk. What acts of authority do our ethical and religious traditions require us to resist, and what forms should that resistance take? In today’s America, there are more than a few possible answers to these questions! Fortunately, the readings in our service this morning help us to answer it. President Trump’s recent State of the Union speech is also of great relevance.
Let’s begin with the passage from Isaiah that starts by giving us a Gods-eye view of the earth:
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in
What an imagination! But this is not just one of those “I’m God and you’re not” speeches of the sort one finds in the Book of Job because the speaker immediately singles out a particular species of grasshopper that he particularly disdains: the earth’s great rulers. The passage continues,
[God] brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
The great contrast drawn here is not between God and people in general, but between the true creator and ruler of the universe and the princes and emperors who claim legitimacy and authority over the nations. These rulers claim to be divinely appointed. They say that their power is a sign of their and their people’s special virtue, and they create a cult of toughness and implacability. You might call the sort of thing Isaiah most detested “Assyrian Exceptionalism.” But Yahwe, by contrast, favors the weak, not the strong.
[God] gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
This is the God of Justice, not of Power, and, Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that he is the God of all the globe’s peoples, not those of any particular nation – not even the nation chosen to receive the Law. Isaiah’s God tells the Hebrews that he is not interested in their prayers because their hands are “covered with blood.” “Cease to do evil,” he commands them, “learn to do good, search for justice, and help the oppressed.” And he does not suggest for a moment that Hebrew lives are worth a shekel more than any other people’s lives.
In fact, Isaiah predicts, a time is coming when people will “hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles” and stop preparing for war. All the nations will be connected, and, recognizing that none of them is legitimized to rule the earth, each one will serve the others. The prophet summarizes this equality of peoples in one of his most visionary and moving statements: “In that day,” he proclaims, “Yahwe of the Hosts will give his blessing in the words, ‘Blessed be my people Egypt, Assyria my creation, and Israel my heritage.’“
Now, with these words ringing in your ears, take another look at the State of the Union message that we heard last Tuesday night, a well crafted and well-delivered speech whose central vision was what the President called the “new American moment.” From beginning to end, the speech’s ruling assumption was that Americans are superior to other peoples – more heroic, harder-working, cleverer, more determined, and more spiritually developed – and that American lives, prosperity, security, and happiness are worth securing even if that means leaving other people’s basic needs unsatisfied.
Trump filled the visitor’s gallery with examples of self-sacrificing heroism. He glorified the armed forces and the police, praising the values of toughness, determination, and refusal to “make concessions,” and promising to keep open the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay. Finally, he lauded the American people, whom he labeled a family, and preached love and equality between them – but not between them and groups or individuals outside the “family.” The message was America First, not Humanity First.
One would think that Americans, who consider themselves a religious people, would recognize a false gospel when they heard it, and that religious leaders would be the loudest in denouncing it. The worship of a nation and the justification of its right to dominate others is precisely the idolatry that Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus of Nazareth and St. Paul, denounced most vehemently. Yet the President’s critics were strangely silent about “America First.” They accused him of being deceitful and manipulative, and of making inaccurate statements of fact. But we heard very few criticisms of his core doctrines of American superiority, the need for military force, and the primary moral duty that we owe other members of the national family. The New York Times even commented in a front-page story that the speech had “avoided nationalist rhetoric.” I have been trying ever since reading this to figure out what the reporter meant!
We can end this silence here and now. Not only does nationalist patriotism erect an idol in place of the God of all peoples, it denies the existence of the broader human community that constitutes our true family and the planet that constitutes our true home. Of course, the State of the Union speech avoided the topic of climate change. This is a logical result of the assumption that America’s problems can be solved within national borders – that we can be strong, free, and prosperous whatever happens to the rest of the world. If I could recommend another reading on this subject, it would be Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” a story that tells what happens when a few wealthy people try to isolate themselves from the plague by holding a party exclusively for the benefit of their gated community. You may keep some immigrants from crashing your party, but the Red Death will inevitably join the dance, whether you like it or not.
This is because globalization is not just the globalization of capital, it is also cultural, ecological, and biological. Painfully, but inevitably, a human community is coming into existence. Therefore, when nationalists assert that our primary moral duty is to the people in our American “family” – that is, our tribe – they prevent us from growing up and playing an adult role in the creation of a genuine world community. This sort of patriotism fixates us in the stage of infantile tribalism. It prevents us from filling our destiny to become truly human by transforming strangers into neighbors.
This is why we must resist “America First.” But what does this sort of resistance mean? There are many possible answers, but this morning’s reading from the Apostle Paul gives us two useful ideas to think about:
First, Paul tells us in I Corinthians, resistance means preaching the true gospel. We need to make the Good News of a genuine world community as concrete and appealing as Paul did when he spoke of a coming world in which the differences between Jews and Greeks, masters and slaves, and men and women would become subordinated to their one-ness under God. The vision offered by the President’s State of the Union speech may be horribly flawed, but at least it is a vision. Simply accusing Trump of dishonesty and other character defects does not reveal the flaws of ultra-nationalism or offer a convincing counter-vision.
Furthermore, Paul recognizes that preaching the true gospel it is a difficult and risky undertaking because talking seriously about our global obligations in a world still governed by armed empires like Rome or the United States violates longstanding taboos. We know that, despite the risks, Paul never stopped breaking taboos. The quarterback Colin Kaepernick did something similar when he took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem at National Football League games to protest the glorification of police brutality and military force. He paid a price, too; he is still unemployed.
But Kaepernick’s act suggests another lesson as well: We must, as Paul said, speak as Jews to the Jews, as Greeks to the Greeks . . . and as Americans to other Americans. Just because the form of patriotism preached by the nationalists is idolatrous does not mean that it is wrong to cherish the national and sub-national groups that provide us with comfort, security, opportunity, and examples of right behavior.
I love my family, my Capitol Hill neighbors, my fellow-Washingtonians, fellow Jews, fellow Workers, and fellow Americans (to name just a few of these groups). And because of this multiplicity of group memberships and loyalties, the road to broader affiliations – the road toward the human universality proclaimed by the prophets – is neither smooth nor simple.
In fact, we wrestle with the angel of universality all the time. I remember arguing bitterly if lovingly, with my father when he proclaimed once too often (in my view) that “Blood is thicker than water.” “No, it isn’t,” I replied with the total certainty of a radical humanist-in-training. But, at some times and under some circumstances, the family does come first! So let’s not pretend that there are easy answers to questions involving a clash of loyalties.
This leads to a final conclusion that may seem paradoxical. Clearly, there are many possible ways to express active resistance to a doctrine like “America First.” Resistance may mean taking a knee at a ball game or sitting down in the halls of Congress. In the sixties, it meant publishing the Pentagon Papers and pouring home-made napalm on draft board files. But it can also mean dialoguing with people whose views you detest!
I believe that Colin Kaepernick was right to kneel at the NFL games. He bore witness against violence and provoked a national debate that continues to this day. One televised picture, you might say, is worth a thousand words. Even better, however, if Kaepernick’s heroism would lead us toward a national dialogue, not just another name-calling argument. Sometimes, a thousand words are worth at least as much as one picture.
Those dedicated to transcending a narrow nationalist perspective badly need to talk face to face, and equal to equal, with people who feel a strong need for the protection, opportunities, sense of identity, and personal pride that they think nationalist patriotism provides them. A facilitated dialogue can help us answer hard, necessary questions. If the nation is the wrong satisfier for people’s real needs, what would the right satisfier look like? If there are situations in which the nation is the right satisfier, what are those situations? And, how can we make it to the next rung on the ladder of human identity and community without betraying those who have helped us climb this far?
Please, God, help us to resist the false idol of the Nation and the retrogressive ideology of “America First.” But help us, too, to preach the Good News of the human community to Americans as Americans, recognizing that we share much in common and that none of us is in exclusive possession of the truth.