We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)
The land in which we live has been blessed by this supernatural claim about reality, humanity and government.
The Founders hold that reality has a Creator (capital “C”).
They hold that human beings are creatures with special blessings from the Creator.
They hold that government exists to protect these blessings and has no right to take them away from human beings.
Our nation has flourished under this supernatural claim. We have been enriched by it and protected by it in the past. And when we from time to time degrade human value and freedom, it calls us to account and to efforts at national correction. There is a Creator who stands above all human authorities.
Less than fifteen years after the Declaration, the Constitution would restrict the government from tinkering with the day-to-day details of our relationship with the Creator. These precious details would be left to churches and their voluntary members, and to individual conscience. The First Amendment prohibits a sectarian religious government, but also lists the “free exercise of religion” as one of those “inalienable Rights” that the government cannot justly take away.
All people, of any religion or no religion, will suffer if we surrender that claim of supernatural blessings – “inalienable Rights” – over which government has no claim. We are on a dangerous trend today as too many of us speak a distorted language of “rights” in which the government is the source of blessings and can take and dispense what it wants.
This is not something new. We read about it in St. Augustine’s The City of God, in the early 5th century. The great Bishop and teacher describes how the “worldly city,” which in his time was Rome, rejected the blessings of Christianity’s appeal to the one Creator and attempted to redefine values on the Empire’s pagan terms:
(Many) now complain of this Christian era, and hold Christ responsible for the disasters which their city endured. But they do not make Christ responsible for the benefits they received… they attribute their deliverance to their own destiny… (I.1)
What is our response, as Christ’s people, when God’s authority is not just doubted, but despised?
I. We are to pray for those in public authority. I Timothy 2:1-6 says that this pleases God. New Testament teachings like this are amazing, given that rulers of that time were frequently hostile to the church. We show the presence of Christ when we pray for the authorities, and The Book of Common Prayer includes intercession for them in our Prayers of the People and in Morning and Evening Prayer.
II. We are to be good citizens of both earthly and heavenly realms. Romans 13:5-7 tells us that legal authorities have God’s blessing to do their work. Sometimes, this calls us to endure some pretty bad government. I Peter 1 goes so far as to say that we imitate Christ by suffering under injustice – but offers hope that such suffering can convert the unjust. This was demonstrated in the under reported Christian character of our 20th century Civil Rights movement, which quoted the Bible, used prayer and non-violent resistance, embraced suffering and transformed the nation. Now, I have to admit that The Declaration of Independence is less patient – it calls for the overthrow of unjust government. The question of the just use of force is always with us and always uncomfortable. This was the agonizing question faced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other Christians who opposed Hitler. But most of the time, followers of Christ are called to obey the law even while criticizing it, and to accept punishment if we choose to break it. We act as good citizens on earth to demonstrate the values of our citizenship in heaven.
III. Most of all, we are to find our identity in Christ, putting him first and seeing all other earthly identities as secondary. In today’s Gospel (Mark 6:1-13), Jesus says that common understandings of nationality, community and even family can get in the way of God’s authority. Jesus himself is “amazed” by the unbelief in Nazareth, and many people there are unable to receive his blessings. But we see a great and hopeful contrast in our Epistle (II Corinthians 12:2-10). Paul finds all of his value in the grace and power of Christ, flowing through Paul’s weaknesses. The early Christians and many churches throughout history have been at their best when they are outsiders to earthly power – reliant upon the love and power of Christ alone. The famous saying of Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” is one of the more dramatic statements of this truth. The Province of Uganda, one of the largest and most thriving Anglican churches today, cites its history of martyrs, from missionary days up to our own time, as a foundation of its identity in Christ.
So, friends in Christ, let’s pray for those in public authority, be good citizens on earth without compromising the values of our heavenly homeland, and help one another put Jesus first in the church.
May Christ’s people in the United States, as we are moved from the center to the fringe of the national value system, from cultural comfort and influence to public ridicule and social exclusion, continue to be voices for the supernatural value and freedom of human beings, and may our witness rely on the love and power above all earthly authority, Jesus Christ himself.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.