There is a white marble statue near Trafalgar Square in London. It is the statue of Nurse Edith Cavell. She was tied to a stake in German-occupied Belgium in 1915 and shot as a traitor. The daughter of a pastor, she had for many years headed a nursing home in Belgium, and she remained there even after the war had begun. Along with her staff, she cared for injured soldiers regardless of nationality, whether German, French, or English. She had been arrested by the Germans for the crime of assisting soldiers in their flight to neutral Holland. Determined to make an example of her, the Germans tried her under a military tribunal. She was pronounced guilty, sentenced to death, and executed within ten hours of sentencing. Her last moments are described by an eyewitness: After receiving the sacrament, and within minutes of being led out to her death, she said, “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must not have hatred or bitterness toward anyone.” Those words are inscribed at the base of her statue in London: “Patriotism is not enough.”
Nurse Cavell was executed 25 years after an anonymous preacher in Baltimore preached a sermon that was recorded, in part, in the New York Times in 1895 where he proclaimed that it was amazing, given our nation’s pre-occupation with expansion and bringing civilization to the natives, that we had the creative energy to write some great hymns, the literature of which is on par with Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson.
And while this preacher has every right to tout American hymnody as great, he also ignored (as was the privilege of the Anglo- Saxon American male at the time) the plight of women, who still did not have the right to vote, or even to take part in the leadership of the very service of worship in which that sermon was given, to say nothing of the mass executions and deportations to reservations of Native Americans that was ongoing at the time.
Patriotism is not enough. It is easily becomes a one-sided coin — with Ceasar’s head dictating against impartial regard for people of other countries, other races, other religions. To the question of whose coin, and thus whose loyalty, Jesus refuses the dualist trap — either country or God — and commends a way of love through community giving that serves the divine purpose through the political order.
The hymns we sing today are not so philosophical. They nevertheless express some understanding about Ceasar’s coin, and thus something about patriotism. Some, like our gathering hymn, “The Morning Light is Breaking,” see God’s purpose only as it can be said to equal our aims of wisdom and riches and power. There is no public debate about what constitutes reasonable democratic goals for a whole country. Instead, we are single-handedly, and alone of all religious people, preparing for “Zion’s war.” But others of our hymns display a spiritual vitality that could serve us well. These hymns refuse to say that our ways equal God’s ways, but see instead in the task of the citizen, the task of the church — to love justice and to preach love in word and deed. These hymns envision a Manifest Destiny which the late historian Clinton Rossiter called “The True American Mission,”
He writes that this mission
assumes that God, at the proper stage in the march of history, called forth certain hardy souls from the old and privilege-ridden nations; that He carried the previous few to a new world and presented them and their descendants with an environment ideally suited to the development of a free society; and that in bestowing His grace He also bestowed a peculiar responsibility for the success of popular institutions. Were the Americans in their experiment in self-government, they would fail not only themselves, but all men wanting or deserving to be free.
Our previous two hymns, “Lord of All Being, Throned Afar,” and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” witness to a faith that would not take us to war, but would instead, when life’s darkness settles in and griefs around me spread, counsel a wider sense, a balm gained by love and not by force.
“While life’s dark maze I tread, And griefs around me spread, Be thou my Guide;
Bid darkness turn today, Wipe sorrow’s tears away, Nor let me ever stray from Thee aside.”
The article in the New York Times that I mentioned earlier continues at this point in our hymn sing by saying, “Another popular hymn on the Church, setting forth its stability, is the one whose first stanza is,
Oh, where are kings and empires now, of old that went and came?
But, Lord, Thy Church is praying yet,
A thousand years the same.
This hymn is by the Right Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe, a Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Western New York. He notes that Rev. Coxe is the son of a Presbyterian minister and says, to the delight of our Presbyterian friends, “Having had Presbyterian training and having lived in Baltimore, it might be expected that he would write good hymns; but, whether we would expect it or not, he can.”
The manifest destiny is no historic relic of our country – sure all of the land has been discovered and claimed. But it’s impulse remains – it’s impulse to worldly wisdom, power and might and riches. The history of our country is one of such non-Christian impulses combined with the the more Christian sounds of love, justice and righteousness.
It is these softer values that we seek to express in our music and in our lives – and not the harder ones expressed through the language of war and conquest.
Nurse Cavell was, and is right: “Patriotism is not enough. . . “ If we wish our manifest destiny to be a destination of justice, righteousness and love, then we would do well to remember the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others who proclaimed
Lord of all life, below, above, Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
Before Thy ever-blazing throne We ask no luster of our own.
Grant us Thy truth to make us free, And kindling hearts that burn for Thee,
Till all Thy living altars claim One holy light, one heav’nly flame.
We walk a fine line, as citizens of one democratic country and one kingdom of love — for we are called to be completely dependent on God, through whom alone it is possible to love so lovingly that even our enemies deserve to be dealt with in accordance with truth, and we are called to independence, of country and mind and to reason together to make this democratic destination of ours always fresh, always seeking more than wisdom and riches and power, but justice and righteousness.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” May we discern well the later so that we may know how to do the former with sincerity and honesty. Amen.