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Bonds of Nation and Baptism: A July 4 Sermon

Photo by Brad Dodson on Unsplash

Editor’s note: The following was delivered by the author as a sermon in 2020 and was provided to Spectrum with permission by Adventist Peace Fellowship for publication near the US Independence Day holiday.


I’m going to be speaking today as a Seventh-day Adventist and US citizen. I call on the long heritage of people in both those traditions to help us think of what it means in this moment at this time, to be in a country celebrating liberty, on the Fourth of July, a commemoration of a time when citizenship was re-invented, but also a time whose promises fell short. It was also a time when national identity was beginning to trump religious identity and new ethnicities were invented in the wake of new nations being born out of multi-ethnic empires. Strange as that time would have been to the Christians of the early church, I imagine they would have recognized what was going on in the glorification of the state. Today, I would like us to think about them in the light of our nation’s grappling with justice for black residents of the US.

Philippians 3:20 provides a potent challenge for us: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Most of the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’s day were not citizens of Rome. Probably most of those Paul was writing to were also not citizens. That was reserved for a very few subjects of the empire. Those who were citizens had rights that others didn’t. This is why Jesus talked in terms of neighborliness even as he called people to the Kingdom of God. This is why he was crucified for calling himself King—his people were not privileged by the powers of the day.

The early church did not consort with the powers of the world, except to try to get permission to spread the gospel and call its members to be generally law abiding. However, when those political powers fell apart, as they did in the Roman empire by the fourth century, it was the church and its subversive care and organization which remained. Many missionaries were also deciding that converting leaders in the societies they were trying to evangelize was the best way to get the message out. In places where monarchs became Christians, it became easy to equate membership in the political community with membership within the church. In places where leaders weren’t Christians, church leaders tried to play nice with political power in order to have freedom to practice. Still, what mattered for Christians and their primary identity was the Church.

Until, that is, the seventeenth century in Europe.

For a lot of reasons, in the 1600s and 1700s more Christians in Western Europe began to think it might be better to focus on this world and rationally making things better here than to concentrate on the supernatural or the magical or theological ideas that no one could “prove” using the new scientific methods of the day. These movements led to what we call the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Even though people still considered themselves Christian and associated Christianity with what it meant to be strong, industrialized empires ruling the world, they also were relegating Christian identity to a slightly less important status in society. Modern thinkers began to assume that “real” knowledge isn’t the religious stuff, it’s the economic and political stuff—that “real science” and “real” knowledge are done in math and biology, and not in philosophy, history, languages, or sociology.

But, as it turns out, people still wanted to feel a part of something and be emotionally connected to it. Historians have traced a process that gradually resulted in societies investing sacred elements into the nation rather than the supernatural. Scholars call this “civil religion,” and it reached its high point in the nineteenth and twentieth century. During this time, elites thought things were becoming more secular and that religion was counting for less, but humans in industrializing and modernizing states had actually just done a switcheroo—they still had a sacred, but it was in their political community.

New nations and national identities were invented—mostly around languages. And these new nations developed ceremonies, flags, oaths of loyalty, and military cultures that were invested with the idea that the nation one belongs to is sacred, that blood spilled for it is sacred. In fact, the state claimed it should be loved enough to tell us who our enemies are. We moderns erected images to humans that we see as immutable that are connected with the nation—people and documents that are sacred and cannot be critiqued. And most of all, we developed something that one scholar calls “Imagined Community”—the mystical idea that there is an entity with boundaries that we have in common with other people we’ve never met and that we owe them something. 

And so, the bonds of citizenship trumped the bonds of baptism. One Christian historian has pointed out that what you are willing to kill for is a really high test for what matters in your life. In the premodern states, people killed because they saw someone coming around the bend, or because they wanted the land or resources someone had—and mostly they went to war because they were paid to or because it would yield them loot. It was only in the modern period with the development of the sacred state that governments said that you’re not allowed to kill for any reason other than when government says to kill—and that if the government tells you to do it, you’re not allowed to refuse. And also, you should be proud to do it, even if you don’t know why you’re doing it. Blood shed for the state became the most sacred thing of all. And so French Christians killed Italian Christians during World War II and Baptists killed Baptists in the Civil War because citizenship papers trumped baptism in a way that the New Testament said should never happen.

There have always been Christians who resisted this. Some of them were in the tradition of the Anabaptists—those who saw the state as an idolatrous power. Early Adventists were among them. They didn’t abstain from engagement in their communities; they often participated by voting or petitioning or demonstrating. But, they did not invest holiness in the government that ruled them, and they did not see their own citizenship as more valuable than those of others who they were sharing the gospel with or who were part of the Body of Christ.

Christians, whose community is the Body of Christ that transcends national and racial and ethnic boundaries, can and should be shaped by members who have been excluded from the broader political and economic communities. In fact, it is precisely the voices of those who don’t have the material and power privileges that can remind of dominant and privileged Christians of the idolatry of lifting up our national belongings and identity above all else. Black Americans, some of whose citizenship was in question, have always asked the United States to try and do better, especially its Christians. Maria Stewart, the first documented woman in US history to speak before a public audience of both men and women (Boston in 1833) was also one of the first to work for the rights of both women and Black Americans. She was a Black woman herself and spoke uncomfortable truths to the powerful around her. And she did so as a preacher, calling on their common commitment to biblical truths as they are embodied in Jesus. 

Sometimes we look back and say that people didn’t know any better, but that’s because we aren’t paying attention to the people who actually were speaking prophetically. Maria Stewart called out the men, both white and Black in front of her, to allow for the full flourishing of all. She insisted that history showed that the Greeks came to Africa for education—and this demonstrated that the current situation of Black people having so much less prosperity and flourishing than whites wasn’t the result of biological inferiority. She boldly called out her audience, saying, “A God of infinite purity will not regard the prayers of those who hold religion in one hand, and prejudice, sin and pollution in the other; he will not regard the prayers of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.” She called out the Black and white men in front of her in a way that only someone two- or three-times marginalized could do. And she did it with grace and faithfulness. 

Many Black Americans across the centuries have been the most eloquent on what the promise of this particular young nation could and should be. Frederick Douglas’s powerful “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” speech from 1852 develops its eloquent critique alongside, and even from, beautiful affirmations of the ideals of this youthful country. The speech is a call for those ideals be extended to all.

Later, in 1935, the nation was in the midst of the Depression, in the midst of xenophobia after 40 years of immigration that brought new languages and new food and new businesses, and in the midst of labor conflict and veterans of World War I angry about betrayed promises. In the midst of this, Langston Hughes, one of the most eminent poets in our nation’s history, also wrote a love poem to the idea of the United States. As a Black man who did not actually embrace a faith tradition, the nation was where he could put some of his hope. The words of his poem “Let America Be America Again” remind us of how important citizenship rights are to human flourishing in the modern world. They remind those of us who are flourishing that we would do well to listen to those who have not always done so in a material way. They speak to me on this Fourth of July, as I seek to invest the Kingdom of God with more emotional engagement than I do my earthly citizenship.

As Christians, we shouldn’t be surprised that our nation falls short, but we also can work to be better neighbors and to shape our communities through policy and practice. When we are part of the majority, that means listening to the newcomers, the immigrants, those excluded in other ways. When I’m part of the group that, in a worldly sense, has all the things that count as “success”—education, home, job, representation, laws that benefit me—I might not notice that my community has left out others. Early Adventists saw the United States as the Beast of Revelation because of its oppressive racial injustice, and they petitioned and resisted and wrote against it, even as they saw the soon coming of Jesus as the rescue from it all. They wanted to be good neighbors and lovers of justice even as they lived into and preached the imminence of the New Heaven and the New Earth.

On this Fourth of July, as we think about how to be citizens of a different Kingdom, we are reminded by another nineteenth century woman preacher and prophet, Ellen White, that we are to speak truth to powers that oppress. Even though Adventists were preaching the second coming and working to spread the gospel, they did not interpret this as leaving behind the obligations of being good neighbors and working for just communities. In 1899, as the last vestiges of the Reconstruction ideals of Black participation in civil society were being completely eroded and a new era of racial terrorism was beginning, White wrote:

 The desire to show their masterly authority over the blacks is still burning in the hearts of many who claim to be Christians but whose lives declare that they are standing under the black banner of the great apostate. When the whites commit crimes, they are often allowed to go uncondemned, while for the same transgressions the blacks . . . are treated worse than the brutes. The demon of passion is let loose and all the suffering that can be devised is instituted against them. Will not God Judge for these things?” (Letter to Kellogg, 1899) 

This Black Lives Matter statement from Ellen White also demonstrates how much she saw racial disparity as part of the apostacy and false religion that Adventists focused on in their study of prophecy and end time events. It was one that too many of us forgot in the era after World War I when US Adventists frequently joined mainstream fundamentalists and evangelicals in their racial, economic, gender and nationalist assumptions.

We need reminders of the roots of our faith in being strangers and living gently with others, both citizens and noncitizens. We need reminders that while our home is not this world, we are called to love others as ourselves and bear each other’s burdens. And how do we know those burdens unless we listen? Today, we have Maria Stewarts in our midst, people who sit at the intersections of our communities and have perspectives on where we are not being loving neighbors. Maybe we should read and follow and watch and listen to those like Osheta Moore and Claudia AllenLisa Sharon Harper and Tiffany Llewellyn, Black women who speak into and out of the peacemaking religious traditions of the Mennonites and Seventh-day Adventists and remind us of our belonging to God’s Kingdom and its vision of justice and love for all. As the apostle Paul would say, “I commend these women to you as fellow workers in the gospel of Christ.”

 


Lisa Clark Diller teaches early modern world history at Southern Adventist University.

Title image: Photo by Brad Dodson on Unsplash.

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