Over the past few years, and especially in the past week, I have read and listened to clergy and commentators, politicians and publications bemoaning the polarization of our country. “How did we become so divided?” they ask. Maybe you have asked yourself the same question.
My answer to that question is that it should come as no surprise that America is a divided country. America is inherently a contradiction: an unstable, volatile solution of lofty, liberal ideals and cruel, oppressive governance. This weekend many will celebrate the anniversary of the publication of the famous words:
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.
What these words conceal is that the man who wrote them kept hundreds of human beings as hostages on his labor camp (often euphemized as “Monticello”), that the human beings who he claimed to own were granted none of the rights he claimed were God-given to humanity, that his governance of them, as the governance of all European immigrants on the already-inhabited lands they called America, was imposed without any manner of consent of the governed.
Of course, America is divided, because it has always been engaged in an internal struggle between dominion and liberty. The political divisions we see today are in continuity with the legacy of our veneration of “freedom” alongside our practice of subjugation. The recent dismantling of reproductive rights, the assault on transgender self-determination, the repression of literature that tells the truth about America, all these are connected by a desire to perpetuate the myth of “the Land of the Free.”
As Disciples, unity is one of our core values. We take seriously Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that all his disciples would be one even as he and God were one. But as Christians we are never called to a unity that sacrifices truth and justice and mercy. In the years after the Civil War, it was the pursuit of unity over justice that led to former enslavers being paid reparations for lost “property,” and eventually to an era of racial terror in the former Confederacy, brought on by a neglectful federal government that allowed Southern states to strip Black citizens of their recently-attained rights, force them back into virtual slavery through sharecropping, and murder them with impunity for any and every reason.
So what are we, as Christians living in the midst of such a precarious and volatile empire, called to do?
The same thing we have always been called to:
Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins
and so that you do not share in her plagues,
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
The word that the New Testament uses for church is ekklesia, which literally means “called out.” Christians are “called out” from the nations that lay claim to us because we are not citizens of Empire but of Kin(g)dom. Our allegiance is not to a flag or a republic but to Christ, who is found in the face of the hungry, incarcerated, impoverished, and oppressed.
By all means go to the parades and eat the hamburgers. Watch fireworks and gather with loved ones. But consider your commitment to true freedom. Donate time and money to organizations working for justice. Have hard conversations with good-hearted loved ones perpetuating harm against those who are hurting. Educate yourself about the intersecting threads of violence and injustice that run through our country and work to unravel them, starting within your own heart.
And always remember, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”