God, country and original sin
By Delmer Chilton
For many people, Independence Day is simply an excuse for a long weekend in the middle of summer – a chance to take a little trip, to get into a summertime sort of mood. Go to the beach or the mountains or the lake, grill out and chill out. A few years ago, a writer in the Nashville paper complained that churches don’t celebrate patriotic holidays anymore, by which he meant, I presume, the playing of patriotic music, etc. A pastor wrote back saying that the church has a higher agenda than a secular holiday, that the church is obligated to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ above all else.
I found myself agreeing with each of them. As the son of a man who served and suffered in Europe in World War II and as the nephew of a man who died in the Pacific at the age of 19, I too lament our turning a “Holy-Day” intended to show respect for the sacrifices of many that have secured and protected our freedom, our independence, into an excuse for a long weekend. On the other hand, the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot take second place to any other agenda in the life of the church. And, I keep thinking about all of Jesus’ words about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek and forgiving our enemies.
We have drawn the lines of discussion about this in such a way that it is difficult to keep God and country in right relationship. We have trouble talking about this subject in the church without either dishonoring the dead or glorifying war. We have an ambiguous attitude toward the wars our country has fought. On the one hand, we lament the loss of life; we honestly mourn those of our families and communities who died. We carry a deep sorrow for their pain and suffering. We mean it. We are not hypocrites. But, on the other hand, we sometimes get carried away with our pride in America’s military might, with its “win-loss” record if you will.
As Christians, we must always shy away from the glorification of war. War is mean, nasty and ugly. It is the result of the failure of humanity to settle issues of economics and ethnic tensions peacefully. War occurs when pride and materialism and greed and “hatred of the other” overcome the divine call to peace with justice. For Christians, war comes when we forget that we are not of this world but are sent into this world by the Prince of Peace to spread the gospel of peace. War is the eruption of humanity’s inherent sinfulness on a national and global scale.
As Paul says in our text from Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). This is what is usually referred to as “original sin.” One of my childhood pastors explained it this way: “Original sin means that there is something in us that just can’t wait to mess up a good thing.”
The longer I live, the more right he seems. At the beginning of the 20th century, much was written about how the world was on the cusp of its greatest golden age. Science, technology and learning were leaping ahead at a record pace. The end of war and disease and poverty were practically in sight, or so it was thought. A look back at the last 100 years shows a much different picture. We have seen two world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the use of weapons of mass destruction, new diseases and behavior-related health problems. We are trying to destroy the earth and sea and all that is in them. What happened? Well, we did. We, the human race. We, all of us. Original sin erupted and continues to erupt in our persistent proclivity for messing up a good thing.
What we do on Independence Day is weep for those who lost their innocence and perhaps their lives in the service of their country. Independence Day is an opportunity to prayerfully remember those who have suffered and died because of the world’s inability to live love and justice on an international scale.
Freedom is a gift and a responsibility and a burden. We are called to what one of my teachers at Duke called “responsible freedom.” With the gift of freedom comes the responsibility of respecting and protecting the freedom of others. As Christians we must always celebrate our country’s efforts to live out that responsibility without turning a blind eye to our failures and imperfections. Only God is perfect and only Jesus was sinless and all the rest of us, as individuals and as countries, do our best and pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness. And the good news is: God’s mercy is great, Jesus’ love is wide and our sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.