I grew up in a small town along the Connecticut coast, steeped in references to its colonial past, and keenly self-aware two hundred plus years later, of its role in the American Revolution.”
A Homily preached at Grace Cathedral
“I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy.”
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
- Don’t Tread on Me – An American Tradition
I grew up in a small town along the Connecticut coast, steeped in references to its colonial past, and keenly self-aware two hundred plus years later, of its role in the American Revolution. In second grade, we toured the Georgian style William Hart House on Main Street, marveling over the tiny uncomfortable beds, and the hobbit-like scale of the spaces. We learned about the settlers lives, and even how to make the candles they would have used, successively dipping the taper into a cauldron of melted wax till a candlestick began to emerge. Fourth of July was a really big deal in our town, with a grand parade in the afternoon; at night parents and children flocked to the shore waiting expectantly to watch the fireworks go off over Long Island Sound. Around this time of year, I’d see this strange flag emerge with a yellow field, and the image of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” beneath it.
I was intrigued by the flag from an early age – it was so defiant, so bold. What society would have need for such a severe warning, to enshrine it on a flag? Later I’d learn it was called the Gadsden flag, and you can see it right here in the north transept among the flags relating to our nation’s rise and development. It was named after the statesman and military officer who designed it to be a standard for the American Revolution in 1775, and especially of the Continental Marines. To this day, the oldest active vessel in the U.S. Navy has the right to fly it. Along with the stars and bars, and the bald eagle, the timber rattlesnake represented an early icon of the nascent republic.
Benjamin Franklin praised the snake as “an emblem” of America’s vigilance, “magnanimity and true courage.” He writes that though the snake appears defenseless to the unschooled, and its fangs unimpressive to the uninitiated, “their wounds however small are decisive and fatal.” If you look closely you’ll see the rattle is formed of 13 sections, standing for the 13 original colonies. Franklin notes with a tone of pride and warmth, “she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.” The flag has made a resurgence in recent years as the standard for the Tea Party, who interpret it as the ultimate symbolic expression of individual rights and protections from the government, rather than as a nationalist expression of collective defiance against the British imperial antagonist.
This serpentine image for the state was not new. You’ll recall that 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes’s supremely influential political treatise on the nation-state was titled “Leviathan.” Propounding views of material humanism, representative government, social contract theory, and individual rights, he laid the foundations for liberal political philosophy in the West. However, writing in the desolation and division of the English Civil War, he was sharply critical of any government that did not invest a single sovereign entity with absolute power.
2. Rise of the Leviathan – The Legacy of the Nation State’s Sovereignty
Human life, Hobbes surmised, was “nasty, brutish and short,” and human social order was not directed by a concern for the summum bonum – the greatest good – as the Scholastics maintained but the summum malum – the greatest evil, which he believed was “violent death.” Now, he believed this because he saw it first-hand, but his belief constituted a radical rupture with a thousand years of political theology undergirding the Christendom that came before the advent of the modern era.
Hobbes saw Christianity become a source of violent division and looked to another power to secure the human future. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom had given way to a fractious Christendom, with Catholics and Protestants at war with each other. So the ancient, tyrannical sea-serpent, the Leviathan of biblical lore, became the driving image for the nation-state that ruled with uncompromising force to keep these groups in line. (With this in mind, it’s easy to see how America’s timber rattlesnake would have been a kind of visual dig at the very image that justified the crown’s oppression of the colonies. The Leviathan would be slain by a mere rattler in a classic David and Goliath story. That’s the American Revolution in short.)
Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were the philosophical architects of a revolution in human history that would sweep aside millennia of dynastic tradition in favor of newly emerging nation states. The masses hoped that government elected by the people would be better, and by many measures it has been. Public education, social and economic mobility, personal freedom and the extensive development of the common law tradition: all of these are massive advantages to the modern age. But, Jesus warns us in the gospels that we reap what we sow. Revolutions sown in violence, eventually gave way to the most violent century the world has ever known.
Twentieth century advances in science, technology, philosophy and the arts stand under the long shadow of two world wars, mass genocides, Vietnam, nuclear weapons, global warming, and the post-colonial impoverization of the Global South. Hobbes’s philosophy, carried to its logical end gave us fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism. Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend, contended against a Leviathan that would have left even Hobbes shocked and horrified. But the human spirit springs eternal with hope. In the ashes of these tragedies, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union were born with the hope that together we could find new, creative solution to build a better world.
We live in an age when the pressures of globalization are forcing us to reevaluate our basic premises, the very foundations upon which the global political and financial orders rest: uneven benefits of a global economy; booming black markets in drugs, weapons, and human trafficking; the ever-widening technology gap; terrorism; and an ecological crisis that threatens planetary collapse. The unfettered positivism of the Enlightened West is not working. Our world is literally starving for a model of global justice that transcends the narrow self-interests of entities defined solely by their own sovereignty, and designed to perpetuate that sovereignty at all costs.
Lacking a proper telos, an end resting not only on measurable, sensory facts but also the immeasurable and immutable demands of divine justice, the world of competing nation-states seems trapped forever in a ceaseless game of thrones. And that world is becoming smaller every day. We see it the face of families evicted without a care as to where they will go; we hear it in the voices of migrant peoples pleading for a place to call home amidst dangerous politics and unimaginable economic privation; we read about it in nations electing to withdraw from international cooperation for fear of eroding privilege; and we experience it as our own nation flirts with xenophobic authoritarianism.
3. Our Work and Witness – Globalizing the Grace Revolution
Who are we in the midst of these things? “I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.” We need to hear that. The Church needs to hear that. Take it in. He’s speaking to me and you. We are the 70. Every time we approach this table we recommit to His revolution. The Kingdom of God is the closest thing to an anti-state that the world will ever know. It exists not to serve itself, but to serve others; it does not conquer through violence or coercion, but multiplies by the force of love’s invitation.
We reap what we sow. Jesus sowed a revolution not in others’ blood, but in his own, and for our sake. He sent out the 70 not with guns, tanks or swords; indeed, not even with a purse, bag or sandals. (I guess that means Luis Vuitton is not a thing in the Kingdom of God. Sorry lol.) With barely a tunic to their name, the 70 are sent out not as mercenaries to convert others at the edge of a sword, but as people totally at the mercy of those who would receive them. Even to those who would not receive them, they declared that the Kingdom had come near, leaving in peace, returning their peace to them.
The Kingdom comes near to us, too. When we approach this table, Jesus gives himself to us so that we may give ourselves to others. Have you ever noticed that Jesus chooses the path of relationship over the path of structural power to change the world around him? We have those huge banners out front that declare, “Grace is Love.” I love that. It’s such a powerful message – one that’s urgently needed for our world. If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person. Grace is our answer to the power of the enemy.
When we take Christ into our bodies, we affirm a mystery that unites heaven and earth, the material and the spiritual – that vastly exceeds the limits of mere positivism. We all know the bread and wine nourish parts of our body we cannot see. Do we also know that His Substance and Spirit nourish parts of our soul we cannot see? He’s planting seeds in dark and fallow places that may not bear fruit for years to come, and yet always and already working within us. Where is the harvest ripe in your life, and our life collectively as a church, to reap something great for God’s Kingdom? Where has God given you, and given us, grace upon grace to bless those are around us?
At the beginning of the sermon I painted an idyllic image of my childhood home in Connecticut. Beneath the patina of apparent privilege all around us, the story of my particular household was quite different. With two parents whose sole income was social security disability, with a father wrestling with the demons of narcotics abuse and domestic violence, my household was a very difficult place to grow up and mature. My life would have had a very different trajectory if it had not been for one single person, my 7th grade French teacher, Pat Perry.
Having witnessed my capacities, Pat decided she was going to do something to change my life. She personally contributed over $20,000 from her own resources to send me to a premier boarding school, paving my way to attend Haverford, then Harvard, to have a completely different life than the one I would have had apart from her generosity. Every day I think about Pat. Every day I wonder what our world would be like if more of us had her imagination. The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts, and reorients us to hope.
The thing about the Kingdom is that the establishment doesn’t see it coming. They can’t anticipate it because they can’t imagine a world where sovereignty is exercised apart from self-interest. Jesus intends for us to reign by abdicating all claim to our own honor, wealth, power and glory. That’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell for me – because in the end, the nation-state isn’t the enemy at all: I am. The Gospel confronts us with this challenge: the only way to change the world around us is first to change the world within us. The only revolution that is the true revolution – effecting true, lasting and durable change – is the revolution inside. We need to learn to slay the Leviathans of selfishness and cowardice that keep us from knowing true freedom, the liberty of the children of God. On this 4th of July, as we remember the birth of our nation, let’s also remember Jesus’ words to us:
“I have given you authority to tread on snakes,
and over all the power of the enemy.”