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The Beauty and the Peril

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
July 4, 1993

Jeremiah 2:4-13

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 to remember.

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 emptiness.

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 Germany.

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 founding documents,

"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 church.

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 equal."

 


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