The Meaning of America
January 19, 2020 | Sarah Stewart
Passage: Isaiah 58:3-11
Israel was a great nation. It had a just and wise king, a beautiful temple, prosperity and independence, and a loving relationship with its God. That was its memory of itself, how it knew who it was as a people. On their holy days, they said to themselves, “We are the people who came out of Egypt. We are the people who met God in the desert and received the law. We are God’s people, and the one God is our God.”
Then disaster struck: the Babylonians invaded, and Israel’s leaders, engineers and artists were carried off to Babylon. There they wept for Zion. Two generations later, when they returned home, they rejoiced. They rebuilt the temple. But were they still Israel? What story could they tell now?
One voice rose up to speak a hard truth: Israel is a just nation under God, and if we are not just, then we are not living up to what it means to be Israel. The prophet did not shrink from the injustice he saw. People were going hungry and homeless on Jerusalem’s streets. Some had rich robes and some had rags. Widows and orphans were ignored. The new prosperity was not shared among all. God longs for justice for all of God’s people. The prophet said to Israel, “To love God is to love your neighbor.”
It’s never easy to face hard truths about the country we love. In this election year, the citizens of the United States of America are wrestling with what America stands for. What makes our country great? What are the sins of our founding, and what are our triumphs? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew what America could be. He preached peace, tolerance, justice for the poor and the oppressed, an end to racism, solidarity among working communities. To achieve this dream, we must face up to where we have gone wrong as a nation. We must understand what it means to be America.
Every nation has many stories within it. Every nation is many nations, as many nations as there are memories and dreams.
Imagine the exiles coming home from Babylon. Imagine those waiting for them, who had not known exile. Imagine those who had adopted Israel as their home for generations. They carried many different nations within them.
Some hundreds of people had been carried off to Babylon: the wealthy, the educated, artisans and engineers and leaders who the Babylonian government wanted for themselves. They had wept by the rivers of Babylon remembering Zion in their hearts. They remembered the dream of what it meant to be Israel.
But they weren't the only people. There were some who had never left Israel and Judea, who stayed in their homeland and were living under Babylonian rule. They did not know freedom, they did not know privilege, they did not know their own self determination. Their beloved temple was destroyed, their way of life was disrupted. They carried the nations of Israel and Judea within them.
And then there were the people in the north, the people who came to be known as Samaritans, people whose ancestors weren't the same ethnicity as the people living in the south. Yet they had adopted the love of YHWH and accepted the law and come to walk in His ways. These were people who the ethnic Jews wouldn’t mix with. They knew a story of what it meant to be Israel.
All these are true stories of the people Israel. Today, we tell many stories of America, and all of them are true, too.
“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, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We learned that in our school classrooms. We learned that as the dream of America, that what it meant to be American is that we were all free. And that's one story of America as a nation.
Yet Thomas Jefferson owned enslaved African Americans, including his own children, and they knew a very different story of America. They knew a story of forcible capture and movement, a story where their children could be separated from them, where they couldn't count on staying with their spouses, where they were treated as though they were land or an animal to be traded. This is also a story of who we are as a nation.
These are both true stories of America. There are other stories as well. Immigrants have a story, both those of us from immigrant families and those of us who immigrated ourselves. So would those seeking asylum, and so would those in our federal and state prisons, and those in custody at the border. All of these stories and experiences of America, all of these stories that tell us who we are as a country, and they are all true. We cannot know who we are unless we hear them all.
Nations are tempted to define themselves by who they’re not. The Israelites might have said, “At least we’re not heathens!” America might say, “We are the heroes who defeated the Nazis.” But we cannot say only who we are not. Last week we heard that we can’t define peace as the opposite of war. We can’t define America only as the opposite of tyranny.
The Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. worked to define what America could be, to give it a dream founded on freedom, to point it toward justice. 51 years since his death, and so much of what he worked for is still ours to do. Yet his vision of America, of a better America, sings through the years and rings in our ears today.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” while imprisoned for exercising his civil liberties, King wrote:
“I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
In one of his last sermons, preaching against the war in Vietnam, King said:
“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”
In his most famous speech, given the night before he was assassinated, King said:
“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
This is an America I can believe in. It’s not an incomplete truth about freedom and liberty. It’s not allowing our sins to define us, either. It is a dream of an America with universal values that work for all our people. We live in a time of unprecedented wealth and achievement. It is not beyond our reach to imagine a country of plenty, a country of peace, a country of tolerance, a country of true opportunity for all.
Martin Luther King was an American prophet. The prophet stands with the people and points them toward God. Like Israel’s prophets, King pointed out the ways in which America failed to live up to the values it proclaimed.
King points us to this hard truth: We are too eager to put the civil rights struggle in the past.
We know we were once a country that enslaved people and sold them like chattel—that is in the past now, but the legacy of slavery is still with us.
We were once a country that used violence to keep people with dark skin from exercising their rights—and this is not only in the past, but is still happening through mass incarceration, purging of voter rolls, and racially unequal policing. The legacy of Jim Crow is still with us.
We were once a country where violent racists banded together to oppress Black people, Jews and Catholics—and this is not only in the past, but is still happening through attacks on synagogues and kosher markets, shootings in Black churches, and unrestricted sale and ownership of assault weapons. The KKK is still with us.
We were once a country of separate but equal—and this is not only in the past, but is still with us in unequal educational outcomes, unequal wealth distribution by race, unequal housing, even right here in Worcester, unequal school discipline based on race and disability.
These are hard truths, but this, too, is America. Our prophets say to us, “How can we be just in the face of this injustice?” The call of God is the same today as it was to Israel: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into our houses, to satisfy the needs of the afflicted so our light shall rise in the darkness and our gloom be like the noonday. The charge has not changed from that day to this.
The way to this promised land is to realize that racism hurts us all. Racism divides neighborhoods. It divides people from their economic self-interest. It keeps us apart from our brothers and sisters. It makes us dream small, so that when we think of America, we can think only of our kitchen table, instead of our neighborhood, or our city, or our nation as a whole. Racism is bad for business, bad for employers who can’t get the biggest pool of employees, bad for owners who can’t sell to the largest group of people, bad for workers who allow race to keep them from organizing. Racism is bad for America. We need to keep our eyes on the prize: freedom, liberty and justice for all. We’re not the best America we could be until we get there.
Undoing racism is about building community and solidarity in multiracial groups, and working together to change racist policies in business, education and government. It is about changing our own minds, seeking out art and reporting by people of color, listening to our prophets and understanding that our point of view is not the only one. It is opening our hearts to the pain experienced by our fellow Americans and not dismissing it. We can’t move beyond identity politics until no one is treated unfairly because of their identity. The American dream is waiting for us to work together to achieve it.
So what is America? It is liberty and the freedom to participate in civic life. It is solidarity and organizing. It is the legacy of slavery, and Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. It is possibility and hope. It is the power of freedom at work, and the limits of individualism on display. It is Dr. King’s dream and efforts every day to ensure equality for all. It is humanity at the border and in the ballot box. It is all of us, all our stories, working together to build one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that America could live in the Beloved Community of racial reconciliation. Mahatma Gandhi had a dream that India could be free. Both of them believed in nonviolence. We have work to do to carry on their efforts and live into their dreams for humanity.