We live our lives in the rhythm of a variety of calendars. We have the church calendar, with its observance of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and so on – the rhythm of the life of Christ pulsing throughout the year and in this moment. And, we have our civic calendar – with national and other traditional observances – MLK Day, Mothers Day/Fathers Day, Juneteenth, Labor Day... Even though they are not explicitly religious, civic holidays do give us the chance to reflect on how our life of faith intersects with what is being observed in our national life.
The Fourth of July is not a religious holiday. It’s not a Christian holiday. It’s part of our national calendar – it is secular. It does though, once a year, give us the chance to stand at the intersection of our faith and public life, and ask, “How do we live here? On Independence Day, how do we live the life of faith in the United States? What does it mean to live in the way of Jesus in the context of this particular nation and its promises, at this particular moment in time – our moment?”
This morning’s Scriptures even more specifically invite us to stand at the intersection of freedom and power, and ask that question there. How do we live our imperfect lives faithfully, in the context of this nation, at the intersection of freedom and power?
This morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures is all about power – power-over – and it expresses some timeless truth. God has brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. They’ve wandered through the desert – trying to learn how to live free – and they’ve settled in a new land. Some tribal leaders have risen up – “judges” – and they have, for the most part, been a disaster. In this morning’s Scripture we meet the prophet Samuel. He’s a good guy, but his sons have been running the place and they’re corrupt.
And so the people say to Samuel the Prophet – Go tell God, “Give us a king.” We’re done with trying to figure this out on our own with you. We’re done with these so-called judges. We’re tired of being different. Give us a king, just like all the other nations. Samuel relays the message – furious at the people – and God says, “Don’t get angry – they’re not rejecting you – they’re rejecting me – life with me. But make sure they know what they’re asking – go tell them what kings do.”
And Samuel does just that: You say you want a king. But here’s what kings do. Kings will take you to war. Not only that, they’ll take your sons and your daughters, and conscript them into their war machinery and into all their ways for amassing wealth. Kings will “take, take, take.” They’ll take your land, and your harvest. No one will be safe – not your family, not your servants, not you. Kings will enslave you.
Are you really willing to give up your freedom?
Are you willing to give a king all that power?
This morning’s Scripture names the timeless truth that power-over, in human hands, tends toward oppression – even more so when that power is concentrated, unchecked, in the hands of one or a few. That’s true for the people in this Scripture demanding a king. And, we can look back over history and see that play out in almost every type of government. It was foremost in the thinking of the Framers of our national Constitution – first, in their break from a corrupt monarchy, and then as they tried to build a government that would have structures to try to keep that power-over in check. They called that power-over tyranny. As one historian explains, the evil they had in mind was “the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.”
Aware of the dangers of tyranny – of power-over, the Framers of the Constitution did two things. First, the Framers set forth a government with specified limited powers. We know some of this from our civics classes – they created three branches of government, with checks and balances. And importantly, the powers given those branches were constrained, most of the limited powers were vested in the legislative branch – the President and the courts given far fewer powers. And, ultimately, any power not specifically listed, was reserved to the states and the people.
But even that limited enumeration of power didn’t feel like enough to hold the threat of tyranny at bay. Before the Constitution was ratified, work began on a Bill of Rights – amending the Constitution even as it was adopted – with a list of affirmative rights protecting individual freedom, and restraining the power of government out of areas of individual life – freedom of religion and speech and protest and assembly; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; the right to a trial by jury. And, the Bill of Rights made clear that the rights it recognized weren’t limited to the rights specifically listed – our rights and freedom are broader than that one list. (That’s in the Ninth Amendment.)
But we know that those freedoms weren’t for all the people. You’ve heard me acknowledge many times that the Constitution as originally written was fundamentally flawed in all the ways that it protected the enslavement of Black Americans. We know the people excluded from the promises of the Constitution at its inception – people of color, indigenous people, women.
It would take almost a century of political action and a bloody civil war to reach the point where the Constitution was at long last amended to guarantee “equal protection of law” and due process of law to all people – abolishing slavery and giving all American males the right to vote – with another amendment nearly 60 years later giving women the right to vote. And, we know the resistance that has persisted since then to the promise of Equal Protection of law. Our primary continuing work as Americans is the dismantling and repair of the harm done by systems and structures of racism and power-over that flow from, what many have called, the Constitution’s original sin.
Both this morning’s Scriptures and the Constitution place us at the intersection of freedom and power – that space where we live out our lives within the systems and structures of the nation we inhabit. We live in the tension of freedom and power.
And we’ve felt that tension between freedom and power in our bones these past few weeks. For a number of weeks now, we have re-lived and learned more about the violent insurrection at the US Capitol that threatened the constitutional transition of power on January 6, 2021. In congressional hearings, we have witnessed again a violent insurrectionist mob storming the Capitol, attacking (and in one instance killing) Capitol police, hunting down the Vice President and the Speaker of the House with threats of violence, trying to overturn and steal an election.
This week, we watched as a courageous young woman, Cassidy Hutchinson, stepped forward and told us more. Hutchinson was with the President and in the White House that day. We now know that the President knew that the mob was armed, but then actually directed that security measures be disabled, saying, “They’re not here to harm me.” We know that the President tried to join the mob at the Capitol, stopped only by his Secret Service detail. We know that he refused a flood of entreaties from advisers to step in, call off the mob, and defend the Constitution. And we know, that when he heard the mob was threatening the life of his Vice President, he shrugged, and Tweeted support.
The Framers of the Constitution feared tyranny -- “the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.” Beware what kings will do. We are grateful our constitutional system proved resilient yet again, and at the same time, we are more acutely aware of how fragile it is, and how close we came.
And then, as we experienced again that struggle for power, we also experienced a series of Supreme Court decisions that began to redraw the landscape of our Constitutional freedoms. Perhaps the most radical among those decisions was the Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade. The disagreement over Roe v Wade has been one of the most hotly contested issues in our nation. I think one of the problems is that too often, reporting of the issue glosses over, skips over, what Roe actually held and did. Roe v Wade built on a long line of cases that recognize the constitutional liberty and freedom that individuals have to shape and live out the life of family – often called the “right to privacy.” This long line of cases, stretching back at least a century, has reiterated again and again the freedom and rights afforded under the Constitution to procreate and form families; to marry (including the right to marry persons of a different race, and more recently, persons of the same gender); to plan for family (including the right to use contraception); and to raise children and direct their upbringing. Freedoms and rights protected by the Constitution.
Roe ventured into the challenging disputes over abortion, and the government’s power to limit a woman’s constitutional freedom to reproductive choice. Roe was not a constitutional free-for-all. No, the Roe decision set out to balance the complex set of constitutional interests asserted – the constitutional right of women to reproductive choice, and the interest of government in assuring safe medical procedures and protecting emerging life. The Roe decision structured that balance along concepts of viability and trimesters. That balance held and worked for some 50 years.
But on June 24, 2022, the Court took the radical step of overruling longstanding precedent, and struck down both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In an unprecedented assertion of power, the Court eliminated a constitutional right – a woman’s constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and choice. On the day before that decision, women had that constitutional right. And on the day of the decision, women no longer had that right. The Court moved dramatically the balancing line between women’s freedom under the Constitution and the power that states have over women’s bodies.
The assaults on both our democratic processes and our constitutional rights have shaken many to our core. Now, I should recognize that within our community there likely is a range of opinion. There may be those who welcome the decision out of a deeply held commitment to emerging life. There are many of us though, myself included, who grieve deeply at the abrogation of a constitutional right; at the elimination of any balancing of constitutional interests; and at the harm that will come to women and families across the nation. We already see so-called “trigger laws” going into effect that ban abortion with virtually no exception – not for the health of the mother, not for incest or rape, not for crisis pregnancy – laws that seek to control the bodies of women no matter what the reality or the cost. The glib response is that women can travel to another state – but we know that the brunt of these laws will fall disproportionately on women without the means to travel, women who are most vulnerable, and women of color.
We are shaken – and there is a temptation to despair. Power has spoken; today, we are a little less free.
Let’s go back to our morning’s Scriptures. It may be surprising that, after Samuel warns the people of what power does, the people still say, “Give us a king.” What’s more surprising, though, to me, is that God then says, OK. In this Scripture, God warns what power-over does, and God also recognizes and gives the people agency – the agency to choose together how they will live. All through their wilderness wanderings what God desires is a partnership – the people living directly in relationship with God. Again and again, God invites them into lives of freedom – lives that respect the dignity of all persons, that stand against oppressive power, that work for the well-being of the most vulnerable in our midst (in the Hebrew Scriptures, most often the poor, widows, orphans, and migrating peoples).
And then we return to the New Testament text we’ve read for the past two weeks: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free” – the freedom to live and work for the freedom of all people. This is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “I have come to bring good news to the poor, recover of sight to the blinded, release for the captive, freedom for all who are oppressed.”
The Good News in these Scriptures lies in our agency and our freedom – the agency and freedom that God gives us to live – by the power of the Spirit – lives that work for freedom, for the common good, for the well-being of all people.
Now, I’ve been going back and forth between Scripture and the Constitution so I should say this, to be clear. Our identity and our primary citizenship is in Christ. Forever and always. We are part of God’s New Creation, set in this world to live – by the power of the Spirit alive in us – lives of healing, justice, and peace. Our citizenship in any nation – in this nation – is our context. It is the place and space we are given to live out our life of faith – to live out our identity in Christ.
In our context, in this nation, the Constitution still carves out a broad range of freedoms and rights that give us the opportunity, even in the face of power-over, to live lives that work for the freedom of all people. Those rights are ours to claim, ours to use, ours to embody. Last week, we looked at the fruits of the Spirit and asked, which of these will we ground ourselves in and embody today?
This week, let’s ask the same of our freedoms – which of these will we, individually and together, use and embody to work for freedom and the common good? All these issues we’ve been discussing – they’re now to be contested in legislatures and at the ballot box. Will we choose freely to speak, freely to assemble, freely to petition our government? Will we commit ourselves to the right to vote – not only showing up at every election, but working diligently to oppose voter suppression measures, to assure free access to the polls, and secure for all people the right to vote?
In a nation that proclaims itself to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people, it is never true that we are powerless. It is still true that we are free.
On this July 4th weekend, in our moment, in this moment, we stand at the intersection of our faith and public life. We stand in the tension of freedom and power. And we remember these things, declared long ago, just as true and alive today:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
© 2022 Scott Clark
 For background on this text, Bruce C. Birch, “The First and Secon Books of Samuel,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 1022-31; Alphonetta Wines, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-10-2/commentary-on-1-samuel-84-11-12-15-16-20-1114-15-3  See Birch, at 1029.  Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books/Crown Publishing, 2017), p.9; see also The Declaration of Independence (1776).  The Constitution did this in overt ways – for example, by granting white Americans the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, while in the same breath protecting the enslavement and trade of human beings, and by counting enslaved Americans as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of giving enslaving states greater representation in Congress. And, the Constitution did this in more subtle ways – creating disproportionate representation in the Senate and the Electoral College for low-population states, again mostly enslaving states – giving the citizens of those enslaving states more of a say – more power – in the Senate and Electoral College. See Text of the United States Constitution, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript ; Derrick Bell, Race Racism & American Law(1980), and And We Are Not Saved (1987); see also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2010), pp.22-26; Scott Clark “When ‘Wait’ Means ‘Never’: American Tolerance of Racial Injustice, National Black Law Journal, vol. 13, nos. 1 & 2 (1993).  See https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/28/us/cassidy-hutchinson-trump-jan-6.html  See Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 541-542 (1942).  See Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967); Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015).  Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 484-485 (1965).  Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 535 (1925).  See Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Docket no. 19-1392 (2022).  For a summary of state laws, including so-called “trigger laws,” see Abortion laws by state: Where abortions are illegal after Roe v. Wade overturned, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/06/24/abortion-laws-by-state-roe-v-wade-00037695
Photo credit: Partha Narasimhan, used with permission via Unsplash