Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the day we commemorate those who made America possible. As I've said before, America to me is the idea that each individual is equal to every other in value and individuals have rights that no one can take away. From that we infer that the individual is more important than the collective; that is, his life, property, and freedom cannot be justly taken away by majority vote any more than they can be justly taken away directly or by fraud. As a result, Americans treat their neighbors as they would want to be treated and even go the extra mile to be generous and compassionate.

Americans are thus the opposite of politicians. Where politicians say, "Do what I say or I'll kill you," Americans say, "What's yours is yours and what's mine is mine. Let's make a deal. How can I help you?"

By this definition America is wherever Americans live. While America is not the Kingdom of God, Americans make good neighbors. So I would like to join today's Americans in celebrating biblical heroes we have in common.

The first of those heroes is Abraham, the father of the faithful. He left the politics of Ur for the life of a nomad. No rabble rouser, when he was oppressed by Pharaoh and Abimelek, he lived peaceably, told the truth, and watched God deliver him mightily. When his nephew Lot was kidnapped as collateral damage in an imperialist war, Abraham limited his participation in the conflict to securing justice for Lot. When the king of Sodom tried to enlist him as an ally, he refused to take so much as a shoelace. Like any true American, he wanted nothing to do with politics.

The next American heroes on my list are the Hebrew midwives in Egypt before the Exodus. Rather than enforce Pharaoh's genocidal laws, they resisted quietly and were rewarded for it. It was their example that Moses' parents' followed, earning a place in the Hebrews Hall of Faith.

Moses not only resisted Pharaoh, he carried his resistance into palace. At a time when the Pharaoh's whim was sufficient to consign subjects to torture and death, walking into the throne room and demanding his people's release was an act of true courage. Such acts are not to be undertaken lightly or ill advisedly, but only by those secure in the knowledge that God will back up their words.

Next are the warriors of Israel who took over the Promised Land. The giants their parents had feared were still in the land, as were the sheer numbers of enemy soldiers. But after forty years of fire, cloud, and manna they knew God was with them and so obeyed his command to take that land.

Rahab, the first shopkeeping entrepreneur named in the Bible, acted on what little she knew of the God of Israel and his people and so played a crucial role in the destruction of what was likely an immoral city ruled over by a tyrant and his gang of thugs.

Gideon's band was an elite group of volunteers that faced certain death as they took on a vastly superior army. Yet they proved that God will indeed conquer all his foes "not by might, nor by power, but by [his] Spirit."

Jotham, Gideon's youngest son, was my kind of hero, an orator rather than a fighter. When Abimelek, an Israelite judge with a Philistine name and world view, declared himself king, Jotham proclaimed the moral superiority of commerce over politics and lived to see Abimelek's end.

David's companions stood with Israel's true king against the impostor's army. When their families were kidnaped by raiders, they didn't appeal to a sitting king; instead, even though they felt like stoning David, they trusted in David and David's God and were rewarded. They were God's tools for bringing David to power.

Uriah the Hittite is a fallen hero appropriately remembered today. A better man drunk than his king was sober, he refused legitimate comforts when his fellow soldiers were in danger. He also exemplifies the blind obedience that can snare the most honorable soldiers: by the time of Uriah's last battle, the David who had been a spiritual giant as a nameless shepherd and a fugitive from injustice was now worse than a dirty old man. "A wise man sees danger coming and turns aside, but a simpleton keeps going and suffers for it." Where David's degeneration shows that the perverse incentives inherent in politics are more than even a man after God's own heart can resist, Uriah's naïveté serves as a warning to those who judge their authority structure by its heritage rather than by its current spiritual condition.

The people of Israel did not repeat Uriah's mistake after Solomon died. When Rehoboam spurned his godly advisors, the Israelites, perhaps mindful of God's promise to Jeroboam, refused to submit to his tyranny and declared their independence. Their subsequent preference for Jeroboam over the God who had freed them from Rehoboam warns us how easy it is to worship the creature, the agent or mediator of God's blessings, instead of the creator, and so squander the benefits of liberty.

Jehoiada the priest of Judah and Obadiah of Israel, like Moses' parents, hid fugitives from injustice at the risk of their lives and helped bring down tyrants.

And finally, of course, the King of Kings himself eschewed earthly power and personified servanthood, leading his people into a new relationship to injustice and its agents: speaking truth to power though it cost him his life. He was soon followed by the martyrs Stephen and James and the writings of the apostle John, and, after the closing of the canon, Peter and Paul. In subsequent centuries dozens, if not thousands, of Christian warriors proved with their lives that while their persecutors were indeed powerful, that power was being used for nothing more noble than murder, theft, lies, and hypocrisy.

It was from this soil that the idea of America sprouted. I'm not convinced that many of the Founding Fathers could have qualified for membership in Bible-believing churches—as Aslan would say, their stories are not mine to know—but by God's common grace the truth is the truth, and they made much of the truth that all men are created equal and no one can justly take men's lives, liberty, or property from them: not monarchs, not legislators, not presidents, and not judges. Their solution to the problem of human evil was not to grant power, authority, and privilege to corruptible human beings; it was rather to preserve the rights of individuals to act in their own legitimate interests. And the world is a better place for all people because they did.

Thank you, God, for America, and for those who have kept the idea alive and made it in some sense a reality. May your people remember their examples, far exceed the American vision, and live as worthy subjects of your kingdom.

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