There stands on the west side of the University Oregon campus on 13th
Street a bronze figure, larger than life. The inscription on the base reads
simply "Pioneer". He strides forward confidently, his gaze straight ahead,
his bearded face strong and sure. In his right hand is a whip at his side,
his left rests on the strap of his rifle slung over his shoulder. His ruggedness
and sense of purpose stand as a tribute to the white men who first came
across the Oregon Trail to settle this valley 150 years ago.
A block or so south of the Pioneer is another figure dedicated to those
first settlers which portrays a completely different image. Sitting quietly
in the less-visible courtyard behind Collier House is an older woman in
repose. Stately and serene, her head tilted downward, she gazes past the
heavy book in her hands into the distant, yet painfully recent, past as
portrayed in the two plaques on either side of the marble base which commemorate
the Oregon trail. One depicts a team of oxen pulling a covered wagon up
a steep trail, urged onward by the whip of the pioneer walking alongside.
The other shows a makeshift camp of wagons and a mourning woman, comforted
by friends, standing over an open grave as the parson reads from the Bible.
These and the other memories of joy and sorrow, hardship and victory, are
forever etched into her bronzed, weather-worn face. The dedication on the
base reads in part,
...after the hardships and the battles and the sorrows of pioneering
were past, she sat in the afterglow of her twilight days resting from her
labors. ... her rugged endurance has mellowed with her fading memories:
but to us there lives that spirit of conquering peace which I wish posterity
The inscription on the front of the base reads, "The Pioneer Mother,
Pax." She shares both title and face with another sculpture located in
Kansas City created by the same artist. This Pioneer Mother, however, sits
atop a wearied horse, holding an infant, "the hope for the future of the
West," her pioneer husband walking at her side, leading a tired pack horse.
In contrast to the horses, this confident looking mother leans forward,
looking expectantly straight ahead. Alexander Phimister Proctor, the artist,
said of his creation,
"It seemed to me that most people, in thinking of pioneers, thought
solely of the men. I considered the heroism of the women equal to, and
perhaps greater than the men's. As Mark Twain said, 'The women had to endure
everything the pioneers did, and then they also had to endure the pioneers!'"
Taken together, these glimpses into our past reveal much of the mythos
at the basis of our identity as western Americans. They represent much
of what we admire and cherish most in our nation: the strong sense of destiny
and purpose, individuality and identity, freedom and courage. Archibald
Willard, a cartoonist and artist, captured that same spirit in his painting
"The Spirit of '76", commissioned for our first centennial. You know it:
the ragged, battle-torn trio, carrying the flag of their newly declared
independent country in victory. Leading the procession is the white-haired
soldier, beating the drum of liberty. The image is one that stirs a sense
of pride and patriotism. "God Bless America, land that I love, stand beside
her and guide her through the night with light from above." It is a powerful
image, and in its own way, a beautiful one, which our ancestors carried
from "the New York islands to the redwood forests," over "purple mountain
majesties, above the fruited plain," "from the mountain to the prairies
to the ocean white with foam." Its inspiration has not only been "from
sea to shining sea," but from pole to pole, from Cape Cod to Capetown,
from Tiananmen Square to even the Red Square. There is much in that image
to celebrate and appreciate.
However, that image of the destined settler, of the rugged individual,
of the victorious soldier, of the godly eagle, strong and free, also represents
our greatest peril. For in it is the implicit and sometimes explicit inference
that somehow, this nation, under God, is divinely guided. That the American
way is God's way, that this is the Promised Land and we are God's people,
chosen to save the world.
Jonathan Edwards, the fiery preacher of the early 18th century credited
with starting the Great Awakening which evangelized the northern colonies,
echoed this sentiment well, proclaiming America has received the true religion
of the old continent; ... (but) inasmuch as that continent has crucified
Christ, they shall not have the honor of communicating religion in its
most glorious state to us, but we to them. When God is about to turn the
earth into a Paradise, he does not begin his work where there is some
good growth already, but in a wilderness, where nothing grows, ...
that the light may shine out of darkness, and the world be replenished
From the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to the Pioneers in the Willamette
Valley, the early settlers often had such a notion of populating, and in
many cases, conquering the promised land. In the historical context, such
divine destiny made sense and hardly warrants modern criticism. I hope
that I do not upset anyone, however, if I suggest that to continue propagating
such a viewpoint, is more than misguided and short-sighted. It is also
wrong. And that, I believe, is a cautious understatement. It is more than
wrong, it is dangerously wrong and plainly unbiblical. For the combination
of patriotism, which I think can be good and healthy, with religious fervor,
has throughout the course of human history led to enormous tragedy over
and over and over again.
Case in point: prayer was once commonplace in schools. Here is a prayer
recited throughout the 1930s:
Almighty God, dear heavenly father, in thy name let us now ... begin
our instruction. Enlighten us, teach us all truth, strengthen us in all
that is good, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from all evil in
order that, as good human beings, we may faithfully perform our duties
and thereby, in time and eternity, be made truly happy. Amen.
That prayer was required by law not in Tennessee, Iowa or Georgia, but
Among the great tragedies of Nazism was its success in co-opting a great
portion of the German church to support its nationalistic ambitions as
the will of God. It is this combination, you see, that is so dangerous.
My favorite Old Testament professor in seminary, Rolf Knierim, is a German
who immigrated to the U.S. in the 50s. Whenever we would study a passage
such as this one in Jeremiah, he would preach to us, sometimes for an hour
or more, on the sin of religious nationalism. He would walk up to the front
row, and to emphasize his point, he would literally drill it into the forehead
of any unfortunate student sitting there who either did not know better
or arrived late and that was the only seat left. [Heavy German accent]
"And that is why," he would say, "we must never, ever worship the flag
in this country the way we did in my country."
The first time I sat in the front row I came away with an indention
in my forehead that lasted a week and an impression that will last a lifetime.
Which is why, when Francis asked me if I would like to lead us in reciting
the Pledge of Allegiance in worship I said no. I can say it anywhere else,
but in worship the only allegiance I can pledge is to God.
As David Philippart writes in an article reprinted in a recent Disciple
publication, "To associate a national flag with the things of God is nothing
short of idolatry, mistaking the human for the divine." Sixty-five years
ago an Episcopal bishop protested that "protestantism, in America, seems
to be degenerating into a sort of Babsonian cult, which cannot distinguish
between what is offered to God and what is accomplished for the glory of
America and the furtherance of business enterprise." If that was the case
then, I believe it is even more so today.
As a symbol of freedom, justice and community, the American flag can
in fact, I believe, be a powerful symbol next to Christian symbols of new
life, freedom from sin and reconciliation. Yet we must also recognize that
national flags by their very nature divide people into us and them, citizens
and foreigners, Jews and Gentiles--a notion that goes against the very
essence of the Gospel. I can only hope that my professor would understand
that on this one Sunday which only occurs once every seven years, such
use of the flag as presented by the Boy Scouts and patriotic anthems as
the children sang this morning can help us focus on both the true meaning
of our national identity and the relationship of our faith to our citizenship.
The beauty of the Hebrew faith as witnessed in the Bible is that it
not only tolerated freedom of speech, but it published its greatest dissenters.
Had a "love it or leave it" attitude prevailed in Jerusalem, names like
Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Micah and the rest of the prophets would be unknown
to us. For they were the voices of dissent, the ones who dared to shout
what no one else would think to whisper. Jeremiah dares to challenge the
sacred cow, or more precisely, the sacred bull by condemning the idolatrous
worship of national deities which were gods in name only. From the earliest
prophets on down to the Revelation to John, national rule and the will
of God are presented as separate and often opposing forces. So I will insist
that equating our country with the promised land or our history with God's
will is unbiblical, and yet I can still affirm the presence of God in our
heritage which provide us glimpses of the realm God would have us build.
Our nation was founded on the notion that there are times when the dictates
of conscience as provided through the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God",
according to the Declaration of Independence, take precedence over the
rules of law. I would argue that the true greatness of our country, which
we should rightfully celebrate as Christians. this day is not found in
our military strength, our natural or technological wonders, our agricultural
or industrial production, our system of government or courts of justice,
but in our commitment to an idea, namely that there are certain truths
which are self-evident, that all people are created equal and "endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
We might argue the source of this truth, as is often debated in letters
to the editor, whether based in the Christian faith or natural law of reason
as developed in the Enlightenment or both, regardless, I hope that we can
agree that the notions of equality and liberty are central to our faith
as well as our nation. Indeed Ronald E. Osborn effectively demonstrated
in our bicentennial year in a series of lectures for the Disciples Historical
Society that the twin principles of unity and restoration of the New Testament
Christianity on which our church was founded must also include the principle
of freedom and in fact, this leg of the triad has now become the dominating
principle of the church. "You shall know the truth", proclaimed Jesus,
"and the truth shall make you free." Thomas Campbell wrote in one of our
"Resume that precious, that dear bought liberty, wherewith Christ has
made his people free; ... For the vindication of this precious liberty
have we declared ourselves hearty and willing advocates."
And his son, Alexander, the more influential of our founders, proclaimed
it is not possible, ... to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech
and of action, in the state, and to hate it in the church; or to love it
in the church and to hate it in the state.
Likewise our commitment to equality has been paramount, as witnessed
in the ordination of women in Disciple churches as early as 1874, in the
role given to laity as equal to or even above clergy as symbolized at the
communion table through lay elders elected by the congregation from its
membership, in our commitment to Civil Rights and affirmative action, and
in our ecclesiastical structures where congregations are considered not
over or under but equal to the regional and general manifestation of the
I submit to you, that when our patriotism is centered on these founding
principles of our country, it is appropriately celebrated within the church
as consistent with the proclamation of the gospel. This is the true greatness,
the shining beauty of our nation, a light which even the darkest periods
of our history cannot extinguish.
One final postscript: When Archibald Willard painted the Spirit of 76,
and sought to portray the face of liberty on that white-haired drummer,
the face he chose was that of his recently deceased father, Samuel Willard,
a Disciples of Christ preacher. Likewise when the young Pioneer Mother
was dedicated in Kansas City in 1927, Alexander Proctor, hunting companion
of a Disciple preacher in Colorado and member of the Christian Church in
New York, chose Burris Jenkins, a Disciple preacher of note, as the speaker.
In a sermon entitled "The Pioneer Mother" delivered a month later, Jenkins,
citing the examples of Ruth and the mother of Jesus, strongly endorsed
the "pioneering" role of women of that day in "politics, economics and
even international affairs." The result, predicted Jenkins, would be more
decent municipal government, the abolition of child labor, decreased infant
mortality, justice between the classes and even the abolition of war. "If
this is a chaotic time in religious and moral matters, and it is," said
Jenkins, "our pioneer women will bear their share of enduring the long
journey and of finding their way to the new home and the new peace."
Perhaps it is the sheer fantasy of a wishful preacher, but I would like
to believe that it was such preaching of the gospel that inspired not only
the likes of Archibald Willard and Alexander Proctor, but also the poets
and song writers, the philosophers and politicians, the artists and the
artisans who crafted this nation from the vision of "a new nation, conceived
in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all [people] are created