Who is the “We”?

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Psalm 78:23-29

Ephesians 4:1-16

John 6:24-35

Prayer of the Day: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:1-5.

I recently took part with a group of Christian friends in a discussion about the politicization of Covid-19 vaccination and its negative effects on public efforts to promote the vaccine and other measures designed to stop the spread of the disease. The discussion soon turned to questions about what exactly is “broken” in our system and how we, presumably as Christians, should be addressing it. I have been reflecting on this and other similar discussions for years now. I always come back to another question of my own: who is the “we” in these deliberations?

To illustrate that point, an old joke is often told about the Lone Ranger and his faithful native American companion, Tonto. While riding out on the Badlands in pursuit of outlaws, the two suddenly find themselves surrounded by a large and well armed band of Sioux. The Lone Ranger turns to his partner and says, “This looks like a pretty dangerous situation, Tonto. What do you think we should do about it?” Tonto replies, “What situation? And who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about white man?” Clearly, how you define a problem and, indeed, whether there even is a problem depends on who is asking.

My take? The problem is that our collective belief in America is dying. The “we” who believe in America no longer form the critical mass required to sustain it. It is getting harder and harder to believe in our essential goodness, in our conviction that we are somehow “exceptional,” that we can do whatever we put our minds to as long as we act in concert. Of course, there have always been many folks who never believed in American that way, who didn’t experience it that way and never felt included in the “we” that privileged white folk use as a prefix for “the people.” Their voices are getting stronger, becoming more articulate and finding their way into public discourse as never before. All of that further undermines belief in the old American mythology and makes those of us who desperately want to believe frantic with existential terror. Witness the near hysteria on the part of Republican legislators over including the history of slavery, segregation and systemic racism in school curriculum. They and their constituents view such educational material as “an attack on America.” They are not altogether wrong about that. These hard truths do represent an attack on the American myths in which so many of us would like to believe.

As the America in which we once believed becomes increasingly difficult for more people to accept, the “we” who believe becomes smaller, more isolated, more threatened and more hostile toward unbelievers. America is no longer the grand promise, the idea to which others must be won over. It is the walled fortress needing protection from infiltration by outsiders and pollution by impure influences. The “city on a hill” resembles more a besieged bunker. For the last of the true believers, America is a dying faith that fewer and fewer find credible, a fading ember that must be kept alive by the dwindling faithful, an outdated belief system that needs fabricated history, junk science, bizarre religion and outlandish conspiracy theories to prop it up. The American faith no longer has a critical mass of adherents to make it function. That is a problem for “we” who still hold this faith. For those who no longer do or never did, maybe not so much. For the “we” living at the margins of American society, this loss of faith on our part means only that more people are beginning to recognize the truth about their American experience, a truth they have lived and known for generations.

I would hasten to add that I am not hostile toward this country. Nor am I indifferent to the fate of the United States of America. There is much about this nation that is noble, beautiful and worth preserving. I believe that if the United States found the courage to face the truth about itself so long suppressed, it could emerge a wiser, more just and compassionate nation. I believe that the United States of America might yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” I am just not sure there are enough of us left who are even interested in doing that. If we trust each other so little that we need machine guns to protect ourselves from our own elected government and our neighbors; if we cannot even settle on what constitutes matters of simple fact; if our elected leaders are invoking the second amendment against their political opponents; I have to wonder whether a civil, democratic society is even possible.  I am not sure it makes sense anymore to speak of “we” Americans anymore.   

But now I would like to focus on a different “we,” the one about which Paul speaks in his Letter to the Ephesians. This is the “we” who are of one body animated by one Spirit sharing one calling, one faith, one baptism and one God who is “above all and through all and in all.” Our belief system is not grounded in any nation or idea of a nation. Neither are “we” defined principally by national, ethnic or tribal identity. “We” know that “the nations are like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as dust on the scales.” Isaiah 40:15. Our own is no exception and no different from all of the other great empires that have had their day and now live only in the annuls of history. “We” believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church which is not a kingdom of this world bent on imposing its sovereignty, but a community witnessing to the just and gentle reign of God. “We” do not see ourselves as separate or antagonistic to any outside our number. “We” do not understand ourselves to be singled out for special privilege, but consecrated as a kind of “first fruits” of everything God is determined to share with all creation. 

I am not convinced that “we” church can or should try to solve America’s existential dilemma, though God knows we have tried. Whether under the banner of the social gospel or through the legislative agenda of the religious right, we protestants have seemed obsessed at times with making America something no nation ever has been or can be. In the process, I fear we have become a good deal more American than we are Christian. Thus, when the foundations of the American empire are shaken, our response is very much like that of the Lone Ranger: What are we going to do about this dangerous situation? Tonto’s response seems just as apropos: “What problem? And who is this “we?” That might well be Saint Paul’s response as also. It seems to me that Saint Paul would urge us, as he does the church at Ephesus, to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He would challenge us to become communities able to thrive in a post American world.

None of this is to say that the church should abandon America or American society. As long as we live in the United States, the health and wellbeing of its people, communities and institutions are key to our wellbeing also. Being “in” America and, insofar as it functions as an ordering power for justice, peace and equity, being “for” America is all well and good. But it seems to me that the church can never be “of” America-or any other nation state. To the contrary, it is precisely by our being exclusively the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that God exposes the temporality and frailty of the nations and the foolishness deifying them. This crucial witness, ever less than perfect in our faith and practice, has been muddled further in American Christianity by our confusion of piety with patriotism, our conflation of the American dream and the reign of God, our mixing of enlightenment metaphors and biblical imagery. Our love for America is surely right, but our faith in American mythology has been tragically misplaced. The sooner we learn that lesson down to the depths of our ecclesiastical souls, the sooner we will become capable of being light to the United States of America-and to the world.

Here is a poem by Claude McKay, a poet whose participation in the “we” of American life was fraught to say the least. It challenges Americans to expand their understanding of who “we” are. It convicts the church on the smallness of its own “we.”   

America

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Source:  Liberator (The Library of America, 1921). This poem is in the public domain. Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born Festus Claudius McKay in Nairne Castle, Jamaica. He came to the United States in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the racism he encountered in this country and that experience of culture shock shaped his career as a writer and poet. McKay became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a Black American intellectual, social, and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York spanning the 1920s. His poetry celebrates peasant life in Jamaica, challenges white supremacy in America and lifts up the struggles of black men and women striving to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.

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