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Independence Day and the Church

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor's Note: The following is lightly adapted from a sermon delivered on July 4, 2023 at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida. Careful readers might note that portions were borrowed from a previous homily delivered on a different but related occasion.

The Fourth of July is not a Feast of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. You can trace most of our lectionary back to the early Church, but you won’t find Independence Day in the ancient Church Calendar. Our Christian brothers and sisters across the globe share in our great celebrations throughout the year — Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Ascension… but not this one. Nor is this Independence Day Mass even a venerable American tradition. There was a July 4th service in the proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1786, but it did not make the final cut for the first official American BCP in 1789, and our present service only dates back to the 1928 BCP. According to the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, William White, that older short-lived July 4th service was only ever popular in the city of Philadelphia. Though a staunch patriot throughout the War for Independence, Bishop White himself opposed the service as “an unwarranted intrusion of a political test into the Prayer Book” (Shepherd 263).

Indeed, on this day of all days, we ought to be wary of what’s called civic religion — “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God” and the like — because civic religion, while appearing to pay respect to God, often domesticates and manipulates religion in service of political ends. Caesar always wants to usurp the authority of God. Caesar only ever pays lip service to God, even when Caesar calls himself “We the People.” The truth is that the United States is not the Church. It is not a new Israel. Scripture’s promises and commands are for God’s people, not for this nation we call America.

Now before you start warming up the tar and grabbing your feather pillows, know that I love this country and am enormously grateful for the blessings of being an American. I retain a respect bordering on awe for the generation that founded these United States through the War for Independence and that eventually framed our Constitution, despite their human flaws and failings. I taught American history for nine years, and I will happily revert back to being a history nerd if any of you want to talk about the Founding Era after Mass.

And for all of my strenuous objections to blurring the lines between America and God’s chosen people, here we are, celebrating an Independence Day Mass. We just read Moses’ prophetic words to Israel in the text appointed for the Epistle and Jesus’ commands to his nascent Church in the Gospel. What are we to make of this? Well, two things, at least.

The first is that gratitude is an obligation! God is the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty — and there is much that is good, true, and beautiful in the American experiment in self-government. We must appreciate the blessings of being an American. I’m thinking not so much about wealth or power, though of course we should be grateful for, if perhaps also fearful of, all the “comforts and conveniences of this life,” as the prayer book puts it I’m thinking more about how the founders designed institutions to uphold the rule of law and to balance order and liberty. Although most of the preeminent founders were not orthodox Christians, their understanding of human nature — both our capacities and frailties — was deeply realistic and profoundly Christian.

Nearly 250 years later, many of these blessings endure. The state of our union today may be grim, but in many ways things have been worse at times in the past than they are today. Things may well be worse in the future, near or distant. At the moment, despite the many evils of our contemporary culture, we have much to be grateful for, and only a failure of historical and theological imagination could make us believe that we are living in the worst of all worlds. Those who fail to appreciate the blessings of being an American are guilty not only of a failure of imagination; they are also guilty of ingratitude, which is a sin. And so, while we recognize that Independence Day is not part of salvation history in the way that the great feasts of the Church are, we should nevertheless be unabashedly grateful on this day.

The second thing to say about this Independence Day Mass is that, even though America and the Church are separate, they are nevertheless united in me and in you and in all American Christians. We are Christians and we are Americans. We are American Christians.

Ancestry is an interesting concept. I am quite proud to be the thirteenth generation of my family in America, dating back to Henry Perkins, who came to Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in the 1630s. Ebenezer Perkins, his descendent and my ancestor, fought in the War for Independence. Biologically speaking, though, I’m not carrying around a lot of old Henry and Ebenezer’s DNA. Think about it: you’ve got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents… then 32, 64… and so on. It turns out that Henry is just one of my 4,096 great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. Chances are I share as much DNA with any random Native American contemporary of Henry’s as with Henry himself (In light of which, I’m thinking if this whole St. Dunstan’s gig doesn’t work out, I might move to Massachusetts and run for Senator…) The point is, once you’re a few generations back, your biological inheritance from any one ancestor becomes minimal. Biologically speaking, Ebenezer’s participation in the War for Independence has almost nothing to do with me.

My paternal grandmother, meanwhile, was the son of an Irish immigrant. As far as she knew, she had no biological ancestry on this continent before the 20th century. And yet she had no problem claiming the American story as her own, and I have no grounds to assert a greater connection to the American story than she did. That’s because, when it comes to history and heritage, ancestry is not really about biological inheritance. We imbibe our American heritage not through our DNA sequencing but primarily through storytelling, narrative and culture. Our heritage is a gift we were given and a gift we can give — by transmitting the same American stories to posterity. That’s what it means to have a family and a name and a history and a heritage. That — and not a reductionist view of genetics — is how virtually all human cultures have thought about their ancestry.

As it turns out, this is also the biblical way of thinking about ancestry. The New Testament begins not with the Christmas story but with Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew chapter 1. According to St. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus through the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great King David was 42 generations back from Jesus and therefore one of literally trillions of Christ’s ancestors. Of course, after about ten or twenty generations, everyone is marrying a cousin of some remove, so you shouldn’t imagine trillions of unique ancestors, but the basic point is that Jesus’ biological inheritance from King David was not likely to be much more significant than that of any other Israelite at the time. And actually, St. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus runs through Joseph — who, St. Matthew goes on to clarify, is not even Jesus’ biological father in the first place! Nevertheless, through his biological mother Mary and his stepfather Joseph, Jesus’ story runs right back through to David and to Abraham and to Adam, in a way that transcends genetics.

Likewise, our story is the story of Jesus and David and Abraham and Adam, not because of biological birth but rather baptismal rebirth. Baptism has made us children of God (Jn 1:12) and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17). We who have been baptized into Jesus Christ share his lineage, even if we have no Jewish ancestry. The story of Israel has become our story — not by DNA and biology but by adoption, by being grafted into the family of God, as wild olive branches are grafted into a cultivated vine.

The lineage and family that is ours in Jesus Christ transcends all other ties of kinship and loyalty. The baptismal waters are thicker than blood. In Matthew 10:37, Jesus somewhat shockingly declares, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This does not mean that, when you become a Christian, you cease to be an American. Henry Perkins did not cease to be part of my story upon my baptism. Meanwhile, the book of Revelation tells us that the people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will be present in eternity (7:9). We will somehow carry our earthly histories and kinships into the kingdom of heaven with us. Whatever is good in the story of America will be caught up and honored in the story of Jesus Christ. So teach these stories and celebrate them. Pass them on to your children and your children’s children. But remember that the virtues of the kingdom of heaven come first. The nationality on your passport and your ancestral heritage must take a far-distant second to your heritage as children of God and joint-heirs with Christ Jesus.

The response to this is not to suppress your Americanness — quite the opposite! My old rector used to say that God loves us in all of our oddness — in everything that makes us inescapably ourselves. Your job is to extol and to honor and to love your heritage in such a way as to honor God.

Our forebears who arranged our lectionary chose today’s texts brilliantly. Love of country is a natural good — it is an extension of love of family, of home, and of neighbor. Love of country is healthy patriotism. But healthy patriotism must guard against what C. S. Lewis termed “patriotism in its demoniac form” (The Four Loves, 27) — when love of country curdles into hatred of the Other. This hatred has two typical manifestations: hatred of the foreign, and hatred of the enemy. Hence today’s texts: “Love the stranger… Love your enemies…”

At the end of the day, we cannot compartmentalize our identities as Americans and Christians. We cannot love the stranger as Christians while simultaneously, as Americans, hating foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. We cannot love our enemies as Christians while simultaneously hating our enemies, foreign and domestic, as Americans.

Now, contrary to what some of our progressive brethren might claim, love of stranger and love of enemy do not automatically translate into this or that political platform or governmental policy. This is simply the same mistake of conflating America with Israel and the Church, only made from the opposite direction. But these divine injunctions to love the stranger and to love our enemies do apply — first and foremost in our own lives, as American Christians, and then in our parish life together, and indeed in the polis — the political communities in which we are resident.

For instance, our opposition to abortion stems from our love for and duty towards “the least of these” — the unseen, the unheard, the unborn. It must be animated by love, not only for the unborn stranger but also for those whom you might view as enemies or who might set themselves up as your enemies.

And so as you celebrate Independence Day, and as you reflect upon the blessings of living in this country, consider also what it looks like to live as a Christian in America in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty-Three. Because, at the end of all things, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob — the God made flesh in Jesus Christ — that God will judge you, and America, and the whole world. And the measure by which God will judge is the role you played in the story he is telling, the great story of Jesus Christ.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


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