July 3, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
A REPUBLIC: HOW WE CAN KEEP IT
This is the weekend to celebrate our country. There is much to celebrate, but first it’s a good thing to be able to laugh at ourselves. I hope nobody is offended at the concept of laughing at America. I guess we’ll find out by whether you laugh at these.
Only in America — can a pizza get to your door faster than an ambulance.
Only in America — are there handicap parking places in front of a skating rink.
Only in America — do drugstores make sick people walk all the way to the back to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy their cigarettes conveniently at the front of the store.
Only in America — do people order triple cheese burgers, super-sized fries, and a diet Coke.
Only in America — do banks leave both doors to the vault wide open and then chain the pens to the counter.
Only in America — do we leave our cars worth tens of thousands of dollars parked outside in our driveways and we protect our useless junk inside our locked garages.
Only in America — do we buy hot dogs in packages of ten and buns in packages of eight.
And only in America — do we have drive-up ATM’s with Braille lettering.
That’s my last joke for this morning, by the way. I thought I’d frontload the humor today.
Even people who should know better sometimes get the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution confused. One of our two candidates for president, I won’t tell you which one, earlier this year talked about our “constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Anyone know what’s wrong with that? Those words are not in the Constitution. It’s the Declaration of Independence that tells us we have an unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
July 4 is the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It happened 240 years ago. 1776. It was twelve years later, in 1788, that the Constitution was ratified. It had been written in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 over a span of four months. The work of this Constitutional Convention was kept carefully under wraps. Nobody knew for sure what was going on. Anxious Americans were gathering outside Independence Hall each day, eager to find out. There were even rumors that the new government would end up a carbon copy of Great Britain, king and all.
The story goes that a woman, identified only as Mrs. Powell, managed to get the attention of Benjamin Franklin. She said, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin famously answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Those words have added meaning in these days. Our government isn’t working very well and hasn’t for some time. There are some who are openly wondering how many more of these Fourth of July celebrations we have left.
So I thought this morning I’d take my cue from what Benjamin Franklin told Mrs. Powell and talk about how we can keep our republic. Four thoughts.
First, we’re going to have to value and trust people. That
was the genius of our founding. The Declaration of Independence says we are all created equal. The Constitution begins, “We the people . . . ” It was a daring experiment to put that much faith in ordinary people.
It always used to be that people were controlled and exploited to further the interests of the state. But only in America the state exists for the people. To guarantee our rights. To protect our interests. People power. That’s not a slogan left over from the 1960’s. It goes back to 1776.
Or maybe it goes back further than that. Jesus had a high opinion of people. And an especially high opinion of people who were commonly regarded as nobodies. Nobody was a nobody to Jesus. Everybody was a somebody because everybody was a child of God and therefore a person of infinite worth and value.
Where do you think we got the idea that the state exists for people, not the other way around? It sure sounds like Jesus when he said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus was not just laying the foundation for a new religion. His irrepressible optimism about people was laying the foundation for a new nation.
I love what William F. Buckley said. “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Because people, average, ordinary people, can be trusted.
Second, we’re going to have to realize that our trust of people cannot be absolute. There is a higher loyalty than the state. There is a higher loyalty even than “we the people”.
For one thing, we are not a democracy. In a democracy, the people make all the decisions directly. In a republic, the people elect representatives to do that work. And sometimes the work of these representatives is to tell the people they are wrong. The will of the majority can sometimes be as arbitrary, as tyrannical, and as evil as the will of an out of control king. So our Constitution was carefully written with checks and balances that limit our direct power.
For example, the only way our Constitution could get the votes needed for ratification was by adding to the original document ten amendments. We call them the Bill of Rights. The idea behind the Bill of Rights was that certain values are so important they need to be placed on a shelf so high they are beyond the reach of you and me as we exercise our right to vote. Or as our elected representatives make laws. Or as our elected president leads. A majority might think it’s fine, but we have a Supreme Court that gets the final say on whether it’s fine or not according to what is written in our Constitution, Bill of Rights included.
God does not run our government. The Bill of Rights guarantees that. But the scripture we read today has an interesting take on God’s role in government.
The Roman emperor was the government when Paul wrote Romans. And Paul tells us pretty clearly that God really is calling the shots. “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God”. In other words, even the Roman emperor, who thinks he is God, is really God’s puppet. God is pulling the strings. So, that being the case, Paul tells us that we should give government our unquestioning loyalty. If we obey the emperor, we are obeying God.
Most of us don’t see it that way. There’s another Bible verse that might say it better for us. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). So why didn’t Paul see it that way? Apparently the Roman government had treated him pretty well up to that point and he kind of was hoping that might continue.
Most Christians since have had less faith in the wisdom and goodness of government. Sometimes unjust laws must be disobeyed. And changed. And replaced with just laws. Why? Because there is a higher loyalty than the state and there is a higher loyalty than “we the people”.
Third, we’re going to have to do something about income inequality. We’ve been hearing a lot about this. How the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the gap between the two is getting wider. I heard an interesting statistic the other day. Under the Obama administration, 95% of the economic gains have gone to the wealthiest 1%. And I know that has not been his intent.
World-wide the problem is worse. A champagne glass can be used to illustrate this.
20% of the world’s population has 82.7% of the world’s wealth. The next 20% has 11.7%. (So that means 40% of the world’s population has 94.4% of the world’s wealth.) The middle 20% has 2.2%, the 20% below that has 1.9%, and the bottom 20% has 1.4% of the world’s wealth. How would you like to live in the bottom 60%? You might accept it for awhile, but for how long?
Wherever we see turmoil in the world, this is part of it. A big part of it. And until this gets better, world peace will remain an elusive goal.
It’s a big deal in our own country. There are different ideas on what to do about it. Some say the rich need to pay more taxes. Some say the poor need to be given more opportunity. I think most everyone agrees that a big part of the answer is going to be education.
One great thing about this country is that it has always been possible for someone born really poor to escape poverty and climb the ladder to the middle class and beyond by working hard and taking advantage the freedom we enjoy as Americans. It’s always been called the American dream.
We have a whole lot of people today who have given up on that dream. And I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or a Vegetarian, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do something about this.
The colonies were just getting settled and they were still firmly under control of Great Britain when Oliver Cromwell spoke these prophetic words: “That which makes a few rich and many poor suits not the commonwealth.”
Fourth, we need character in our citizens. We need it in our leaders, too. We need it in our candidates for president. I’m going to get myself in trouble if I pursue that any further. We’ve been blessed in the past with great leaders and we’ve managed to get by with not so great leaders. But really it’s the greatness of our citizens that matters most.
Freedom is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, freedom can be a curse when it’s in the hands of the wrong people. There are people who should never be set free. There are people who should die in prison. Because they have shown us that they do terrible things with their freedom.
So freedom is not always a good thing. To be a good thing, freedom has to be balanced with character. Character. That’s what you do when no one is looking. That’s the real you. And if we’re going to keep this republic, we’re going to need the people of good character to way outnumber the people of questionable character. Otherwise, we’re done.
People have to be controlled. I know, that sounds bad. But it’s true. People have to be controlled in one of two ways. Either voluntarily or involuntarily. Either by self-control or by force. And the simple truth is that the more you have of one, the less you need of the other. When most everyone voluntarily chooses to do the right thing, you hardly need police. And when most people choose to live like a pack of wild animals, you can’t hire enough police.
I heard Clay Christensen say that on a video one of you sent me. He’s a professor at the Harvard School of Business. Remember Harvard’s the place William F. Buckley mentioned. He said he’d rather take his chances with the first 400 people listed in the Boston phone book than with the Harvard faculty. Here’s one member of the Harvard faculty:
(YouTube: Clay Christensen on Religious Freedom)
You don’t have to go to church and believe in God to be a person of good character. But I have to say, it helps. Strong churches, strong synagogues, and (dare I say?) strong mosques contribute in a huge way to a strong America.
Two-hundred forty years ago tomorrow the Declaration of Independence was signed. And 229 years ago this month the Constitutional Convention reached the mid-point of their four months of work.
I love that story about Benjamin Franklin and Mrs. Powell. We do have a republic. And we are so blessed to have it. But the question never goes away. Can we keep it? It’s a question you and I are going to help answer.
Thank you God for this greatest nation on earth. We celebrate once again with fireworks and with way more food than we need. Help us to remember what we are celebrating. In our celebrations, help us remember those who came before us, who wrote our founding documents, who built this nation, who fought wars to keep us free, and who took unpopular stands that time has proven were right. And God, may we accept our duty and our privilege to now do our part to make this a country that deserves to be around for many years to come. In Jesus’ name, Amen.