Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fourth of July, 2013

Was this nation founded on Christian principles?

Given what I've said in "about this blog," it may seem odd that my first post begins with such a question. I beg for your patience with my sometimes slowed-down and round-about ways. Let me invoke the big book of Lessons Learned from Sailing – You cannot sail directly upwind. Accept limitations. Set your course and trim your sails in accordance with the actual conditions you face.

I have never heard anyone in these parts actually, seriously ask that question, Was the United States founded on Christian principles? Everyone seems to think they know the answer. What I hear is usually some variation on "Can you believe he doesn't know or has forgotten that this nation was founded on Christian principles?" The common assumption is that the United States was, is and always should be a nation founded on, acting out of and in accordance with "Christian principles."

I ask, which Christian principles? How interpreted? And how acted on?

Without pretending that this is all there is to say on this subject it, I want to point to two groups of "founders" of our nation, both coming across the seas (we're sailing again, here), but one coming from Europe and bringing Christian principles with them and the other coming from Africa and adopting those Christian principles after they get to the new world (but with a difference, as we'll see). These are not founders in the sense of writing a declaration of independence or drafting a constitution; but their influence on American history has been massive (again, in different ways). 


Representing the first group there is one person and one text I would single out as having extraordinary influence over the whole course of American history: John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," delivered (probably) on the good ship Arbella as his group of Puritans embarked on their journey to "New England."

The sermon is a remarkable intellectual achievement, worth reading in its entirety – while imagining Winthrop's Puritans aboard the Arbella at sea listening intently as their leader "set the course" for them, explaining what they must do to carry out their intent to establish a new society in a perilous new world. Parts of the sermon have been quoted by almost every American president. It was for many years required reading in schools. Here's a key passage, toward the end of the sermon, outlining the rewards to come – if the group is successful in adhering to Winthrop's "model” of Christianity:

The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

It has been the “city upon a hill” metaphor that has been found especially useful by presidential speechwriters and all bloviators expounding on Our Great Country. The metaphor comes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. But note that nothing else in this passage echoes Jesus’s sermon. Instead of love for enemies, we have victory in war over enemies (with God on our side, commanding blessings on us).

The theme is one of victorious domination by force. Is this a Christian principle?

In Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon we see perhaps the first formulation of what has come to be known as American Exceptionalism (you could google it). The idea that the U.S. is a God-blessed exceptional “city upon a hill” unfolds across a spectrum that includes some positives, birthplace of democracy and all men created equal (or progress toward all people equal), for examples; and extends to our being exempt from being judged by international law, justified in throwing our military weight across the globe in thousands of bases in foreign countries, and having the right to assassinate anyone we judge to be an enemy anywhere in the world.


If we have any consciousness of those other “founders” of our nation, hearing Winthrop use the word “plantations” has to ring with some significance. The Puritan founders did not have slaves (only indentured servants), but they certainly came to the new world (already “occupied” by native peoples) intending to be Owners and Masters. The last paragraph of Winthrop’s sermon emphasizes possession: If the Puritan founders are faithful to their God, “the Lord God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it.” If unfaithful, “we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”

Our African founders sailed across that vast sea in somewhat different circumstances. They did not come to "possess" the land. They were possessions.  Slaves. Of course I call them “founders” not in the usual sense but in recognition that their labor made it possible for all those plantations to survive and flourish and created a large part of the wealth of the country. 

They largely adopted Christianity, but with a difference, seeing salvation as liberation, deliverance from slavery. They identified with the Judaeo part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, with the people of Israel escaping their Egyptian bondage. You could say that they invented the first version of “liberation theology.” So their theme was freedom, not domination. But they also took the message of the New Testament seriously. Here’s Frederick Douglass: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land.”

Adopting that “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity” and making it the foundation of a mass movement for liberation had to wait until Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived on the national scene. King enlisted Gandhi, Thoreau, and Tolstoy in the civil rights campaign, but his theme of nonviolence was rooted first of all in the Sermon on the Mount, on the commandment of love even for enemies: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

King’s influence is now diminished, but he brought to the forefront of national political consciousness and put into practice on a mass basis for the first time in American history the Christian principle of love for enemies, of nonviolence.


I want to be fair to John Winthrop. I do think his sermon has on balance had negative effects on American history, but that’s a matter of what people over generations chose to make of his “model,” and not necessarily what John Winthrop himself would have liked to see happen. It’s not that Winthrop didn’t subscribe to the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s a beautiful passage from his sermon showing (to me) his good side:

“The only way to avoid this shipwreck [of the wrath of God on an unfaithful people], and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”


Nevertheless. Although John Winthrop earnestly promoted the Christian principle of love among his own people, the Puritans he led, he saw them as being entitled and justified to take possession of land that was not theirs and to dominate and exploit that land and its native peoples for their own purposes. And that idea, taking off and taking over, the refusal to accept limitations, always wanting – and deserving – more and more, is what has had too strong influence on American history.

Which is why I think all this is relevant for a blog titled “The Slowdown Dirty Truth.” True? Well, your call.

1 comment:

Judy Collins said...

My dear Zeke--I read your first post after having read Jim and Shelley Douglass's reflection on interdependence and the importance of recognizing that each of us is part of the problem, each part of the solution.
We have just returned from a neighborhood dinner after which I shared with a couple one of my mea culpas; I, who once wrote a song, "Conspicuous UNconsumption," have developed the dread disease of stuffication. Instead of sharing from Winthrop's "superfluities," one ideally shares from one's enoughness. I have miles to go.
I'm thankful we went less than a mile tonight, joining with good folk who do do care about, "delight in" each other, not to the extent Winthrop calls and you, Jim and Shelley beckon pilgrim souls, but in the words of "Woyaya" (We Will Get There): "We are going/Heaven knows where we are going/We'll know we're there/We will get there/ Heaven knows how we will get there/We know we will/ It will be hard we know/And the road will be muddy and roughy/ But we'll get there. . . ."