Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord: and the people he has chosen for his own inheritance. - Psalm 33:12
A little over a week ago, I attended a four-day conference on the renewal of Russian spiritual life. Listening to the various speakers, talking with some of them during breaks, I could not help thinking how much we both have to gain from sharing our perspectives. The Americans, for example, found themselves warning the Russians against some of the serious flaws we see in our own country. Harvey Cox, for example, referred to a writer who characterized the dominant American religion as ¡°transcendental egoism,¡± and others spoke about our problems with materialism, crime, and the pursuit of pleasure.
One Russian finally responded very tellingly. ¡°How is it then that you, with your materialism and egoism, have built such a prosperous country, while we, with our deep sense of spirituality and of community, have brought such disaster on the world?¡±
No one really came up with a convincing answer, and in a way there may not be one. It was not an academic question, not a question to be researched in political science textbooks. It was a question from the heart. It certainly is not true that our country has been an unmixed blessing in the world. There are many third-world countries that deeply resent what they see as our profiteering at their expense. We do have serious internal economic and social problems, and it often seems that we would rather bury our heads in the sand than face them.
But our Russian guests reminded me that awareness of our national faults should not blind us to a great deal that is good, and this in turn led me to reflect on one of the most pervasive themes of Scripture--the insistence that national welfare depends on religious integrity. Time and time again, Israel was told that obedience to the law was the condition that must be fulfilled if she was to remain secure in the land. Time and time again, successes are interpreted as rewards for obedience and failures as punishments for disobedience.
Actually, if we read the stories of the divided kingdom a little more carefully, it turns out that it was not that simple. Jeroboam the second, for example, is characterized as one of the evil kings, and yet it is mentioned that he restored the boundaries of Israel virtually to the range they had under David. Josiah is described as one of the most faithful of all kings, as the one who instituted the most thorough reforms of Judah¡¯s religious life, and yet he was killed in battle.
What is the role of religion, or of spirituality in general, in relation to national security? Our coins bear the legend, ¡°In God we trust,¡± our pledge of allegiance describes us as ¡°one nation under God,¡± and yet by reason of our insistence on the separation of church and state, it often looks as though the state were more hostile to religion than appreciative of it.
Yet what we are dealing with in these church-state debates is not the essence of religion but the outward observance. It is not, for example, the attitude of prayer that is under discussion, but the form which that attitude may take. It is perfectly acceptable for teachers in public schools to be profoundly religious individuals, and their treatment of their students will certainly reflect their values.
I find myself pushed back to the familiar verse from the first letter of John--¡±If someone says, ¡®I love God,¡¯ and hates his brother, he is a liar. If he does not love the brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?¡± Jesus himself linked love of God and love of the neighbor together as the two greatest commandments, as the basis of all the others. What John does is perhaps a little different, in that he suggests that we cannot have one of these loves without the other.
He says, of course, that we cannot have love of God if we do not love each other. This, to me, is where we come into direct contact with issues of national security. If we do not care for each other, there is not coherence, no strength, to our social fabric. If everyone is out to take advantage of everyone else, then there can only be a rising tide of injustice, with an upwelling of anger and violence that will ultimately tear the nation apart.
But this is not the way things are. Of course there is exploitation and of course there is injustice and of course there are anger and violence. But there is also a great deal of caring. Statistics bore me, so I cannot tell you how many billions of dollars are given to charitable causes each year in this country. I cannot tell you how many people volunteer how many hours of service, how many tons of clothing or food are donated, how many meals are served. I can tell you that just one day shelter for the homeless in Boston, St. Francis House, has a paid staff of fifty, raises an annual budget of about five million dollars, serves some four hundred lunches a day, and involves the efforts of some three hundred volunteers. It has been running for eight or ten years, and there is simply no way of calculating how much it has done for the city--how many people have not resorted to violence or crime, how many have actually been helped to find employment and housing, how many people have been delivered from cynicism.
St. Francis House, as its name suggests, was started by Franciscan brothers. It is non-denominational enough to have a Jewish program director and a Protestant chaplain, and there is simply no proselytization whatever. This raises the side of the question that John¡¯s letter does not address, namely, is the necessity mutual? If love of the neighbor is necessary for love of God, is love of God necessary for love of the neighbor? There have, after all, been some wonderfully constructive ¡°secular humanists.¡± There are non-religious systems of ethics which have strong appeal.
At this point, I find myself looking for the absolute essentials, trying not to get trapped in some particular definition of God; and as I move in this direction, I find love of God absolutely necessary. That is, I find myself insisting that love is an absolute necessity. It is not something we humans have invented, not some option we have come up with. It is a given. It is inherent in the nature of things. The underlying source of the inhumanity of Russian communism was not, I believe, simply the result of flaws in Marx¡¯s theory. It rested rather in the denial that there was a source of ethical principles beyond our own intelligence. Perhaps the easiest way to say this is that if we dethrone God, we enthrone ourselves, and we are nowhere near adequate to that kind of responsibility.
Polls keep telling us that the vast majority of our citizens do believe in God, and do believe that this faith is important to them. I would suggest that both of these assertions are true, and that there is a third--namely, that the general prevalence of this attitude is a major reason our country has not collapsed, in spite of all its flaws. There are a great many people who are, by and large, living responsible lives. There are a great many people who are, by and large, doing their jobs. There are a great many people who are, by and large, caring for their spouses and their children, trying to be fair-minded, pitching in when friends need help.
I am not talking about some ¡°moral majority¡± as it was paraded for political purposes. I am not talking about people who think they can demonstrate their superior morality by the number of things and people they disapprove of. I am talking about ordinary folk who find satisfaction in lives of basic integrity, who pretty much tend to take it for granted that if they do their part, they¡¯ll get by.
The huge difference between our country and the U.S.S.R. was that in our country, one could honestly believe this. Most of the time--not all the time--it would work. A couple of years ago, I saw a translation of part of an article by a Russian journalist. He was talking to people in his country who had seen pictures of American stores with their full shelves, and his point was simple. ¡°Do you realize how much work it takes to keep those shelves full? Do you realize that if that if you want to have those full shelves, you won¡¯t be able simply to lean on your shovel or push paper any more? Do you realize that you¡¯ll have to produce or be out of a job?¡±
Again, I can¡¯t see this as simply representing a flaw in the economic system. I see it as coming quite directly from atheism, atheism taking the form of deifying the economic system. There was no sense of an authority higher than the state. There were no principles higher than those of Marx and Lenin. There was no sense that the need for loving and understanding relationships was built into our world by a loving and understanding creator. There was the illusion that we were the designers of our own nature and destiny.
The parable in our New Testament reading could have been spoken by any of our Russian visitors. They were aware that they had been given a vineyard, and that they had not only abused the gift but had claimed ownership of it for themselves. I think that if I now had the chance to answer that question about why our nation had done so much better than theirs, I would answer that we have not entirely lost a sense of stewardship that is deeply rooted in our heritage. For all the arrogance, for all the materialism, for all the superficiality of our culture, there remains an undercurrent of faith.
We might recall one story about Elijah. In mid-career, he got so discouraged about Israel that he went off to the wilderness. When God asked him what the matter was, he described himself as the only faithful one left in the country. God corrected him--no, there were seven thousand others.
We do have problems as a nation, and they are serious indeed. I would insist that they have not submerged us because there is a reality behind the motto on our coins. It must be a significant reality to have kept us afloat in the face of everything that is awry. It is a pervasive sense that we are not the inventors of goodness or the creators of our world. We are stewards only, subject to laws, or principles if you prefer, that are inherent in the very nature of creation. Somewhere down inside, we know that God is love, and that we can be blessed only of we accept that love and reflect it to each other.