Message 25,”American Pride?”, 7-4-10

Download program: Service Program, 7-4-10

© Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

If some of you recall my message to us on the Sunday just before Christmas last year, I focused on the unique aspects of the Jesus birth story which make it so compelling.  Here was delivered into the world, according to the Bible, the savior of all mankind.  He was to be the King of Kings, Son of God, Redeemer, God in flesh.  And yet he was born in such lowly circumstances – in an unknown barn, surrounded by farm animals, to a mother of doubtful purity and celebrated by local sheep herders.  The King of all the universe came into this world next to an ass and a few pigs.  The humble circumstances of such a birth cry out from the very beginning that Jesus was to be a very different kind of prophet.  Humility, simplicity, lack of pretension and modest means are hallmarks of his life and, even without all other stories about him, the Christmas story stands out as a radical proclamation that we are called to a similar mindset – humility in all that we do, say and live.

And now, six months later, we celebrate a different kind of holiday – a secular one that recognizes the founding of our nation.  In Cincinnati today, we also celebrate the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community as persons of dignity and worth.  This July 4th stands for us as a day to mark dual forms of pride – pride in who and what we are as a nation and pride in the many persons of the GLBT community.  We recognize and applaud the many principles upon which this nation was founded, how it has tried to live out many of those ideals and how, two-hundred and thirty-four years later, we remain a nation of laws protecting minorities like the GLBT community.  This is a day to be proud.  It is a day to engage in a just a bit of chest thumping – that we as a nation AND as a community of straight and gay people – we can claim and celebrate our unique identity.

But that pride impulse, so natural in all of us, is what I want to explore with you today.  And it is also the beginning of the theme for this month which I have entitled, as a question, “America the Beautiful?”  This will not be a political series or even a bash America series.  It will be, I hope, a time to re-focus our thinking and our search for what is true and good about this nation and, more importantly, about us.  As a spiritual value, we hold dear the notion of humility.  But how does humility intersect with national pride and our July 4th celebration?  The same can be asked of gay pride – how can we have pride and yet also be humble?  Next week, we’ll explore the spiritual value of sisterhood and brotherhood.  We all believe it and we all proclaim it but how does it really get carried out in our daily lives especially in this time of polarized politics and deep divisions in how so many see our government and our world?  Do people act as if they are one humanity or do many often assume they are right, they are superior in thinking and all others are not only wrong but they cannot be sisters and brothers?  How do we, therefore, truly live out the ideal of one humanity, no matter politics, religion or other differences?  Finally, on the third Sunday, we’ll examine the notion that God is somehow also a nationalist and she or he has uniquely chosen and blessed America.  Is the Divine force for good in this universe American or simply a champion of ALL people and ALL creation?

Pride is Biblically seen as the original sin.  In the Biblical myth, as an angel, Satan was certain that he was at least equal with God if not superior.  He was banished from the heavenly realm for his pride and he then sought revenge on God by encouraging his own flaw in human beings.  And so, as the Bible says, man has struggled against unwarranted pride ever since Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptations of Satan.  And this flaw has found unique expression in nationalism.  Likely originating with the earliest tribes or clans, humans have expressed arrogance and pride in not only their individual identity but also in their identity as a group and nation.  We find it in the ancient rivalries between the Greek city states of Sparta and Athens, in the Roman empire, in the British colonial empire and, currently in our own nation.

American nationalism was given force and a beginning, many believe, by a foreigner – Alexis de Toqueville, a French writer and aristocrat who toured the U.S. during the early years of the nineteenth century.  In his famous work, Democracy in America, de Toqueville claimed that America’s unique place in history, as the first true representative democracy, makes it great and a force with which to be reckoned.  His book, along with Frederick Jackson Turner’s monumental work The Significance of the Frontier in American History, put forth the notion that combined with America’s ideals, its geographic location in the new world and its predominant European ancestry, the United States is destined to be a great power and a world leader.  These views – as they became embedded in our national psyche – gave rise to principles in this country of manifest destiny, the Monroe Doctrine and American exceptionalism.   The U.S. is destined –because of our innate goodness – to dominate not just our continent but the entire Western Hemisphere.  Because of our innate values promoting freedom and the dignity of the individual, the U.S. also need not obey universal standards and laws.  We are excepted from the means to being good because our ends – our goals – are good.

Please watch a brief video which vividly portrays run-away nationalism of the pre-war German people.  I am not showing this to in any way compare such hyper nationalism – such championing of Nazi ideology – to our own form of American pride or even American exceptionalism.  We must all be very, very careful in calling anyone a fascist or Nazi.  This clip, however, shows the degree to which national pride can become dangerous to the nation itself and to the world at large.   View Clip.

My goal today is not to attack or diminish our nation – especially on this day of all days, July 4th.  Nor is it my goal to diminish pride in our country.  I believe, however, that just as humility was a spiritual value for Jesus and many of the other great prophets, so too should it be an ethic for us and for this nation.  Reconciling pride in one’s country and national humility are not competing ideals.  Indeed, Jesus did not run away from his calling as a skilled teacher and as one who discouraged hypocrisy and injustice.  He has gone down in history as the perhaps the greatest moral thinker of all time – he was not god but he was a truly historic man.  He was aware of his great abilities and, I think, he was also aware of his several flaws.  He experienced fear and doubt.  He attacked the judgment of god.  He got angry and he was not above calling others – particularly his enemies – names that were not gentle or kind.

And it is in his holistic recognition of his strengths AND his weaknesses that lies a lesson for our nation and for us.  As Americans, we have much to celebrate in our ideas and our ethics.  We believe freedom and personal choice are human rights and we have codified such beliefs in our constitution.  We allow individuals the rights that billions of people in other nations do not have – the right of free speech, of freedom to worship, of property rights, of free assembly, of due process, of fair trials, of habeas corpus and many others.  Our system allows those who wish to work hard and dream big, to succeed in life.  The Horatio Alger story of one who rises from rags to riches is not a myth and we see it lived out daily.  My own partner – not to embarrass him, was the first of his farming and blue collar family to attend and graduate from college, let alone achieve a master’s and law degree.  He has lived on his own and supported himself since the age of 16 and his hard work has paid off in the modest material success he has achieved.  Others in this room and in this church can tell similar stories about their lives – like one who was orphaned at an early age, raised by struggling grandparents, nurtured by the larger community, joined the army and later succeeded in the business world.  There are few places in the world where one can rise out of one’s station of birth and yet achieve great things.  We have never been a rigid class based culture in which the circumstances of one’s heritage determines one’s place in life.  The American ideals of individual liberty and hard work are still alive and we are right to celebrate and encourage them.

My appeal is for a balanced and reasoned national pride. As much as we can justly be proud, an ethical form of nationalism is willing to acknowledge past mistakes and remaining flaws.  And, balanced nationalism understands that one’s nation is not the only one in the world to practice great ideals.  Indeed, American national pride can celebrate our own achievements without believing that we are unique or better.  Just as the rags to riches ability to rise in the U.S. still remains, many parts of Europe currently have rates of upward mobility greater than that of the U.S.  Statistics show that men and women born within the lowest quintile economic class in our nation are presently more likely to remain in that status into adulthood then similar people in the Nordic countries and Great Britain.  As much as we celebrate individual rights, there are still some to whom we do not grant such rights of due process and habeas corpus.  As a matter of principle and not politics, I believe that holding men and women in detention at Guantanamo Bay for nearly ten years without a trial and without legal representation is against the ideals of our constitution.  Yes, these persons are not U.S. citizens nor are they recognized soldiers for another army – and thus subject to prisoner of war protections.  They hide in civilian clothing and they cowardly kill innocent people.  And they could turn their criminal trials into a public relations platform for their murderous and fundamentalist ideology.  But American ideals mean nothing if they only apply to us.  If we champion the rights of all persons, we must champion and protect their rights too.  Even as they try to use our ethics and ideals against us, we must not shrink, I believe, from our civic moral beliefs.  Indeed, I believe our constitution and Bill of Rights were motivated by a Divine moral imagination to extend individual liberties and rights to ALL persons.  If that is so, such ideals do not stop at our nation’s borders.  They are universal in their intent.

Our history is littered with national mistakes that, I believe can enhance our national pride if we openly confess them and work to not repeat them.   Indeed, it was Jesus who called people to confess their sins, to go and do them no longer and, as a result, have truth set them free.  Native Americans were killed on a whole-scale manner while land on which they had lived for centuries was taken from them, African-Americans were held in slavery even as Thomas Jefferson wrote that all people have the right to life and liberty, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War even as he fought to uphold our national ideals, Woodrow Wilson signed into law the alien and sedition act which caused widespread discrimination against foreign born, Franklin Roosevelt authorized the detention of Japanese Americans during World War Two while we fought against just such racist ideologies, the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950’s ruined thousands of reputations solely through innuendo and rumor – without due process – and, most recently, the Patriot Act and the anti-immigrant law in Arizona have come to pass even while we have just elected the first man of color as our President.

Balanced pride in America compels us to be proud of our constitution, our traditions, the ideals of Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Lincoln and the Bill of Rights which protects each American.  Those are great hallmarks in the history of humanity.  There IS greatness in the American experience, culture and form of government.  But we also have deep flaws and deep divisions and deep wounds both in our past and in our present.  And, we do not possess all of the answers in terms of how to best address the problems of the world.  Many other nations have greatness in them too and have worked to elevate the rights of humanity to standards in some cases that are greater than in the U.S.

We argue here at the Gathering that we do not profess to know absolute answers to spiritual questions.  Is there a God and does she or he offer us a divine afterlife?  What is the source of universal truth and how do we find it?  We have our ideas on these questions – some of us believe things in different ways – but we adamantly refuse to assert that our way is the right way and the only way.  We profess a form of religious and spiritual humility that asserts that we have beliefs but we continue to explore them and we are open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  A religious fundamentalist of any stripe will, as long as I am Pastor, be welcome here, he or she will be listened to and treated with respect and some of their beliefs may even sound valid to us.  Even as I say that, we will also not run away from pride in our own beliefs and our right to equally profess them.

The same standard of ethical pride or humble confidence in who we are, also extends to other areas of our lives and our culture.  Gays and lesbians must rightfully be proud of who we are.  We are, quite simply, gifts from the Divine One just as any other person is too.  But pride in ourselves as a community must also recognize our own limitations, our own frailties and our own similarities to all people.  We are prone to division, arrogance, and prejudices.  There are some gay men who devalue lesbians and the same is often true in reverse.  Many homosexuals cannot understand and thus discriminate against those who are transgender.  We frequently stereotype ourselves and belittle gays who are too feminine, too flamboyant, too masculine or simply too gay.  Many of us prize the idea of being “straight acting”, thus diminishing the very pride we say we have.  Can we simply just celebrate the unique portion of humanity that we represent – without diminishing others?

My appeal in this matter, as in our national pride, is that we check our egos and our motivations in all things we do and say.  This is not false humility or meek self-denigration.  It is confidence in who we are combined with a healthy recognition of our flaws and needs for personal or national growth.

And that is exactly how we must, I believe, begin to celebrate national or gay pride.  Yes, as the song goes, we can be proud to be Americans – where at least we know we are free – but, more importantly, we must be proud to be caring, generous, compassionate and just human beings.

Let us have within ourselves – and then let us promote it to others – the balanced pride in our nation and ourselves that is humble, that recognizes our mistakes and that acknowledges we alone do not have all the answers to human government and ways of life.  May we, later today, joyfully sing “America the Beautiful”, may we thrill to the fireworks and the celebrations that mark our national birthday and may we – straight and gay alike – walk proudly and in unity through the streets of this town asserting our rights and our identity as people of God.  May we also do so with full awareness that we are not perfect and that we have many, many miles to go before we live up to all of our ideals.  I wish you all