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Why our American Revolution was Different

Expanded remarks from The Church of Our Saviour, July 7, A.D.2013 – Rev'd Elijah White
First please see The Book of Common Prayer pages 36 and 263-264

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Freedom… is not only a challenge, but a problem and a danger. We may not think of it as such – as Americans and indeed as humans we think of the absence of freedom as a problem – but I suggest that freedom is a problem of a different sort, a moral problem, if only because of the responsibilities freedom entails. If we ignore or forget the responsibilities of freedom, we will degrade liberty into license, and corrupt independence into anarchy.

Inspired and taught by America’s shining example – it’s appropriate that the Statue of Liberty holds high a torch – peoples around the world have long flocked here, yearned for, and been willing to die for, freedom, liberty, independence – good! I wish them well, but my primary concern is our country, and for us, I’m worried.

Is it un-patriotic to worry about our country? I don’t think so… I think it’s a civic duty. Think of the husband who was traffic-jammed in a series of snarls and got home from work two hours late. His wife let him know she’d been really worried about him, and apologized for losing her cool – the husband took her in his arms and said “Honey, if you ever stop worrying about me, then I’ll be worried!” We worry, about what we love.

So, I worry about America because I love America… as do many others. People ask me, “Lige, what’s wrong? With our country, people, courts, kids, media, society, whatever?” They know I don’t do politics, so I think they ask me because deep down they intuit that our basic human problems are not political but pastoral, even theological.

So I answer that we can learn a lot from the Bible. Just last Tuesday our Bible Study class invested serious time discussing chapter 26 of often-slighted Leviticus: in this long chapter God speaks directly to His people [and therefore to us who aspire to be His people] giving them the theological framework within which God’s people are to live.

The ‘Holiness Code’ of Leviticus 26, like the Ten Commandments to which the Hebrews at Sinai and we in our Holy Baptism swore to abide, is prefaced by God’s flat declaration: “I am the Lord” – everything that follows is predicated on that eternal fact. Verse three begins with the cautionary word “If…” followed by 11 verses detailing the manifold blessings God wants to, will shower upon His faithful people -- got that? upon His faithful people -- because in verse 14 the Lord declares “But if you will not hearken to me, and will not do all these commandments; if you spurn my statutes and if your soul abhors my ordinances, so that you will not do all my commandments, but you break my covenant, then I will do this to you” and there follow 41! verses of troubles and punishment… forewarned, deserved punishments.

In the context of today’s observance of our national Independence Day we must remember and be clear that all these blessings and punishments are national, the Hebrew translated “you” being in the second-person plural, “you-all,” the nation and people as a whole.

God is always very fair: He offers us a glorious relationship with Him on His terms, the only terms available to us, not a negotiation between equals but an offer from a greater power to a lesser – we’re free to choose, we can take it or leave it: if we accept Him and therefore His terms, He specifies for us in advance what the good results will be – but if we accept and then later reject Him and His terms, He specifies for us in advance what the bad results will be. Can’t be fairer than that: if your beloved child spends his allowance on heroin, you cut his allowance.

These choices are even more succinctly stated in Deuteronomy 30:19 where Moses, speaking for the Lord Almighty, declares that “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life!”

Are our nationwide problems in fact theological? I suggest that many come from ignoring Holy Scripture in order to mis-use our freedom to choose Self-with-a-capital-S instead of God as our guide, a problem as old as the primal sin in the Garden of Eden when Eve and Adam decided for themselves that what they wanted was more important than what God commanded: into eager ears the Serpent whispered, “Ye shall be as gods, determining good and evil…” And we’re still doing that, wandering deeper and deeper into a wilderness in which we’re losing our way with no moral compass to point us out, sinking ever-deeper into a spiritual morass in which (as George Orwell warned) words have lost clear meaning, and therefore we are losing the basic building blocks with which to think.

Galatians 5:3 warns us that “For you were called to freedom, brethren – only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, to gratify the lusts thereof.” How are we using our freedom? What used to be condemned as Sin is now exalted as ‘Individualism’ when fulfilling one’s own desires. Like Lucifer, like Adam and Eve, we really enjoy usurping God’s place: first, of course, we have to get Him out of the way, but some perverse applications of “science” are eager to help with that: a Washington Post article entitled “Tracing the Synapses of Our Spirituality” cites claims that religious experience comes not from faith but from neural networks, neurotransmitters, and chemical changes in the frontal lobe of the brain.

Having disposed of God as an imaging of impersonal neural chemistry, humans think that they’re now in full charge, exhilarated by “freedom” to “do our own thing…” but some among us are increasingly fearful that we don’t know what we’re doing – afraid that the materialism of mere science has given us capabilities we don’t know how to use wisely – as suggested by another Post article about couples selecting, from among a dozen in a Petri dish, the most perfect available embryo to be surgically implanted into the woman’s womb and flushing away the others – of this even the Post admitted “This biological capability is outstripping the ethical vocabulary that has guided modern scientific decision-making. The dilemmas it creates often do not involve familiar questions of right and wrong, but wholly new problems.”

What can we simple folk do? I gratefully quote Tom Simmons, Rector of St. Peter’s Purcellville, from his Independence Day newsletter: “What makes this Declaration different from all the others is that in declaring independence from Great Britain the Continental Congress declared its dependence on the Creator, before Whom all people are equal in status before the law. How striking! These colonial leaders considered it a ‘self-evident’ truth that God made us for liberty and to Him we can seek justice over the heads of rulers when they turn to tyranny. That is the foundation of the liberty we enjoy.”

How can we re-acquire “the ethical vocabulary” necessary to deal with such problems? One hundred years ago Theodore Roosevelt understood this when he told the Long Island Bible Society that the Bible is so necessary to civil civic life that it would be, quote, “impossible for us to figure to ourselves what life would be if these teachings are removed. We would lose almost all the standards by which we now judge both public and private morals.”

The more sincerely I love our country, the more seriously I worry about our present society. When ‘freedom of speech’ protects the vilest pornography, are we proving worthy of the godly freedom we’ve been given, inherited, and think we still possess? Has the term ‘freedom’ become so mis-used that liberty has degenerated into license, and individualism sunk into anarchy, because too many have embraced freedom but rejected responsibility?

What can you and I do? Start by first reading the Bible as words to us from God, and then practicing it: live right and encourage those who do, pray fervently for guidance and mercy. Only God can bless America, but you and I can contribute by helping our beloved country live up to her founding ideas and ideals,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Footnote: the following observations are somewhat pertinent to this discussion, were in an early draft, but including them in the sermon would have made it too long.

Watching a DVD lecture series on 18th-Century Europe reminds me that the most destructive of its revolutions, the French, began and continued with a sincerely noble intention: the construction of a society and state devoted to individual, civil and civic virtue. Finding both the monarchy and the church – not just Roman Catholicism but Christianity itself – so corrupt as to stifle and oppose their vision of civil virtue, the reformers from 1789 onward did all in their power to destroy both so that thinking men could be free to know and to practice virtue in every aspect of life.

Given the premise and goal they shared with such other perfectionist movements as the Spanish Inquisition, English Protestants under Cromwell’s Parliament who banned The Book of Common Prayer, the Russian Marxists, Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution – namely, the creation of an ideal state and as its prerequisite the homogeneous society needed for it -- like them the French secularists inevitably determined that any individual who disagreed with their goal even in words or thought was subversive of virtue, thus ‘an enemy of the people’ and therefore an enemy of the state who must be silenced lest he subvert the common welfare. The guillotine had a finality more conclusive than the gulag. Perfectionist movements that attain political power are very dangerous, because they must eliminate all that is imperfect.

Because creation of a virtuous state composed of virtuous individuals is an attractive goal it easily becomes a battle-cry constantly reaching toward ever-higher definitions of virtue, thereby discovering more and more individuals who fall short of the new higher standards – hence the increasing numbers of early revolutionary leaders who were executed by their ever-more-virtuous followers just as if they had been Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette.

Executing individuals for the thought-crime of incorrect opinions was perfectly logical to prevent infection but was only a side-bar of the reformers’ goal of establishing human Reason as the sole basis for a just and virtuous society. Reason with-a-capital-R was to replace inequalitarian aristocracy and superstitious religion by being made the sole criterion for virtuous human/humane life, symbolized by enthroning a naked prostitute on the high Altar of Nôtre Dame de Paris as the Goddess of Reason, bacchanal to follow in the nave.

The soon-demonstrated flaw in such perfectionist programs is their advocates’ denial of Original Sin, the arrogant egoism that abuses God-given free will to make mankind so very susceptible to the Serpent’s whisper “Ye [plural, you-all] shall be as gods, determining good and evil.” Eating the forbidden fruit was but the secondary symbol of the primary seduction of Pride, ʼυβρισ, supērbia, to usurp the place of God in governing our lives and this world, to exalt human reason above divine revelation. Even that rigorously-intellectual romantic D. H. Lewis saw the fallacy of such pretension: “The perfectibility of Man, dear God! The perfectibility of the Ford motor car!”

To create an enduring structure one must understand the building material available, so to build a society composed of human beings one must have an accurate understanding of human nature: those who do not understand and accept the Christian doctrine of Sin, its pervasive universal nature including Original Sin, might as well try to build a hundred-story skyscraper out of balsa wood.

So in 1794 utterly-sincere but impossibly-liberal Robespierre followed king and queen and so many of his not-idealistic-enough followers to the guillotine, condemned by some of his surviving supporters who feared he might deem them insufficiently reformist and kill them too. Our American Revolution we honor this week is rare in that it did not devour its begetters, perhaps because they founded our nation with absolute trust in God and much less trust in Man: our Constitution is written to restrain government, not to empower it.

In 1989 the French made much to-do of the 200th anniversary of their revolution, inviting heads of state from around the world to their celebration. Responding to a reporter’s question, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher correctly pointed out that the results of the French Revolution were not Liberté, Egualité, Fraternité, but piles of headless corpses and a Corsican dictator from an Italian family named Buonaparte.

Incensed by this historical accuracy, the French Prime Minister ordered her seated not in the front row of dignitaries in the reviewing stand but in the third row. Mrs. Thatcher graciously sat where her host dictated, but as a thank-you present sent him an elegantly leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities.