America is Great. And it’s not.

American history is often dark but surprises us with our ability at times to do the right thing in spite of ourselves.

Based on a Sermon of November 6, 2016

I’ve been rereading Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life”.  I read it before I had read his book on Alexander Hamilton.

One question I have when reading about our early history is, ‘When did we get so accepting of war?’  My other question is ‘how do we extricate our racism from our national identity?’

These two go together in a combination that is beyond tragic and they go back to the very arrival of Europeans in America.  The unrestrained violence against people of color was in Washington’s genes.  His great grandfather John Washington arrived in Virginia in 1656 and become a colonel in the militia that fought bloody battles with Native Americans.  The Iroquois give him a nickname: “Conotocarious” which means “Destroyer of Villages.”  One hundred years later George Washington would seek an alliance with the same people in the French and Indian War also known as the Seven Years War.  When they learned of his family connection, they gave him the same name.  Indeed, Washington would use the name in correspondence with Native Americans.

Something else was in Washington’s genes.  His great-great grandfather, Lawrence Washington, was an Anglican minister.   His son John would leave his ancestral home because an ecclesiastical position of privilege was now suffering reversal at the hands of the Puritans during the English Civil War.  This may explain Washington’s circumspect comments on religion and his bold advocacy of religious freedom.

To this day the British have a raucous holiday called Guy Fawke’s Day. In 1605, Guy Fawkes wanted to restore Catholic rule and very nearly lit a fuse that would have left the House of Lords in rubble.  The British celebrate that plot being foiled with bonfires and burning Guy effigies on November 5th.  Verses of a children’s song tell of the day’s anti-Catholic hatred:
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot…
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive…
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
…    The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penny worth of cheese to choke him….”

In America the revelry had continued as “Pope’s Day.”  When Washington learns during the war about plans for a celebration, he officially banned the practice among continental soldiers.  Washington fostered an American principle of acceptance that was, however, rivaled by strong, American religious intolerance. On his election as President, George Washington received and responded to over a dozen letters from various religious congregations.  This included Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations. He states his views beautifully in a letter to a Jewish Congregation in Rhode Island:

“…It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens….”

For all of his great, formative contributions to American liberty, Washington’s hypocrisy with regard to enslaving Africans and pursuing Native Americans leaves a great stain.   Such is the central scandal of America.  Our pride in our defense of liberty is undermined by our failure to share it broadly.  Washington would be one of twelve Presidents, and another by association through his wife (Mary Todd Lincoln), who owned slaves.  Most of these men owned slaves while in the White House.  Washington believed he treated his slaves humanely, as if such a thing is possible, and was baffled by forty-seven who ran away.  Washington would pursue runaways intently.

The record of the third branch of government is arguably worse.  The Supreme Court heard a number of cases involving slavery in the late 1840s and 1850s. With one exception, slave owners won all of these cases and the Court overwhelmingly supported the power of Congress to assist them in recovering fugitive slaves who escaped to the north.  The legal argument was phrased as state’s rights but the decisions regarding slavery where hypocritical on this point.  The final pre-secession decision on slavery was Ableman v. Booth, arguably the most ANTI-states’ rights decision.  The difference between the cases is in how they robustly oppose attacks on the sovereignty of southern states, whereas Ableman was directed at northern states and denied their ability to outlaw slavery in their own jurisdiction.

And yet, American history continually surprises us with our ability at times to do the right thing in spite of ourselves.  Amistad is a Spanish word meaning “friendship” and the name of a ship that transported slaves.  It was the focus of an 1841 Supreme Court decision which has been said to be the most important case involving slavery until Dred Scott.  It affirmed a ruling in favor of kidnapped Africans who rebelled. The captives were ruled to have acted as free men when they fought to escape their illegal confinement on a slave ship. The Court ruled the Africans were entitled to take whatever legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force. This was because the Atlantic slave trade was illegal even if slavery itself was not yet ended.  (A park in Greenwich is named for the lawyer for the 39 Africans, Roger Sherman Baldwin, who later served a term as governor of Connecticut.)  Appearing before the highest court, the Africans were facing five among the nine Justices who were slave owners.  Only one Justice dissented in the case and he was not a slave owner.

The role of the church in all of this is one of complicity at least and sponsorship at worst.  As part of observing our 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, these sad events make up a majority of that time and cannot be ignored.  As Lutherans gathered in their highest legislative gathering at the Churchwide Assembly this Summer, we reviewed this part of our story and joined many other denominations in repenting and repudiating our role in the denial of human rights and the conquest of lands and peoples.

In this year when two halves of our nation are each attacking the patriotism and wondering about the sanity of the other, we should be cautioned by the central contradictions in America’s core character and commit ourselves to being more involved and informed and, above all, more connected.  Citizenship does not end with anonymously casting a vote once every four years.  We must engage in discussions to fully understand the issues and to be able to seek common ground.  Our history needs to remind us of our all too horrible mistakes and show us a way of more faithful adherence to our core values and beliefs.

Lutherans have committed themselves to “recognizing that “We are called to conversation and prayer around our role as U.S. residents and as people of faith in ensuring our election systems promote dignity and respect for all.
We are called to act by speaking out as advocates and engaging in local efforts to guarantee the right to vote to all citizens.”

“Lord, we pray that our nation will exercise civility, wisdom and mindfulness of the diverse needs of our communities and neighbors as we choose a new president and leaders. We pray that we will move forward—together—in constructive ways, with our visions, plans and actions guided by God’s Spirit.” Amen.

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