July 5, 2020

America The Beautiful?

Passage: Isaiah 65:17–25

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No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
    or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
    and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
—Isaiah 65:20


The title of this sermon is America the Beautiful? The question mark is meant to be provocative. Just to reduce your stress level, my answer, personally, is “Yes.” First, last, and always. But it’s a little complicated just now, right?

Last week in The Atlantic, Tom McTague wrote, “We are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometime all at the same time). But feeling pity for America?”[1]

In April, The New York Times claimed that our European allies are looking across the Atlantic in disbelief at the richest, most powerful nation in the world.[2] And that was before George Floyd died.

Have you ever been to Minneapolis? It’s Paradise. Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed at a Minneapolis church. I can’t remember why I didn’t stay. Those lakes. Those stunning buildings in the center of the city.

Minneapolis shimmers. It is Exhibit ‘A’ of what the beloved old hymn means when it says, “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” The people are Midwest Lutheran Nice, and it doesn’t feel shallow or false or unreal. Minneapolis is Lake Wobegon writ large.

But not for everyone, right? Minneapolis is a Twin City because it is adjacent to St. Paul, but also because it has twin identities, and those twins don’t resemble each other. It is a little bit bipolar, like all American cities.

Rod Carew is a hero in Minneapolis. He played first and second base for twelve glorious years with the Twins. Ended his career with a .328 batting average. He was the AL Batting Champion seven times, including 1977 when his average was .388. Three thousand hits. One of 57 Major League Baseball players elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

To stay in shape during the offseason, Rod Carew used to love to run the streets of Minneapolis, but he quit because the Police kept stopping him. White cops think a Black man running is running away from something.[3]

Daveed Diggs played the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the musical Hamilton, on Broadway and on Disney. One of the things that makes Hamilton so powerful is that many of the actors playing our white Founders are people of color. Daveed lives in Los Angeles. He says that between the ages of 22 and 25, the police pulled him over 40 times. He never got a ticket.[4] Forty times in three years.

Stacey Dickerson lives near Denver. She is a white woman married to a Black man; her daughter is biracial, of course.

Before she was married, Stacey lived alone with her dog, and one day her dog died. Driving to Denver after that sad event, a policeman in a small town pulled her over for speeding. When she rolled down the window to talk to him, she just burst into tears, she was so sad.

It wasn’t his fault; he was very nice. He didn’t know what to do, so after he checked her license and registration, he let her off with a warning. Two weeks later, since he had all her information, he called her up and asked her on a date. She went.

Stacey says that she has been pulled over by the police three times in her life, all for speeding. She says, “One time I got a warning, another time I got a ticket, and the third time I got a date.”

She says, “When that policeman pulled me over, I was not nervous. I was sad about my dog, and I was angry with myself for speeding, but I was not nervous.”

And then she says, “You know what makes me nervous? When my Black husband and biracial daughter leave the house without me. My husband has been pulled over at gunpoint. He’s been accused of stealing his own car. He’s been asked why he’s in his own neighborhood. His white passengers have been asked, ‘Are you all right?’ These things have happened in every region of the country.”[5]

Nations are like individuals: they have to be honest; they must self-examine, celebrate the virtues, and confront and redress the flaws. If they don’t struggle with that sometimes-painful process of honest self-examination, both nations and individuals will continue to be a brew of false and true till the last of all their days.

America is very beautiful. America taught the world how to do democracy, and she taught it right. Our democracy is resilient. It has endured for 244 years despite Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and a global pandemic.

Through that sage Thomas Jefferson, America taught the world that all men are created equal. Yes, it should have been “all people are created equal,” and even the definition of ‘men’ should have included Black men, but it was a start. Nobody had ever thought that before. Well, Jesus did, but no national government has ever paid attention to Jesus. It was, philosophically and politically, revolutionary.

In that Atlantic article, Tom McTague asks, As ugly as the George Floyd protests were, among authorities and citizens alike, can you imagine them happening in Moscow or Beijing, or now in Hong Kong, come to think of it?[6] Those protests, that honest self-examination, are possible; Fox News and CNN are possible; The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are possible; because they have been enshrined in the First Amendment of the American Constitution since 1789.

America is very beautiful. We have the tallest trees—redwoods—and the biggest cave system—Mammoth. We have two spectacular coastlines—three if you count The Great Lakes; four if you count the Gulf of Mexico separately; five if you count the beaches of Hawaii in the South Pacific; six if you count the Alaskan coast on the Arctic Ocean. We have The Grand Canyon and Old Faithful. We have the Mojave Desert and a 20,000-foot mountain. We have active volcanoes and polar tundra, and grasslands and rain forests and the Everglades.

America is very beautiful, but so are other lands. Look, I think Kathy Van Dyken is the most beautiful woman in the world. Ken Harris disagrees with me. He’s not wrong.

Kathy has been given to me, and I to her. It is my job, it is my calling, it is my joy, it is my gift, to see, to appreciate, to speak, her beauty. It’s Ken’s job and joy and gift to do the same for his beloved.

America has been given to me, and I to her. It is my job, my joy, my gift to see, to appreciate, and to speak, her beauty.

But an Irishman will talk about Irish exceptionalism. It is his job, his joy, his gift, to see, to appreciate, and to speak Irish beauty. Neither of us is wrong.

America is very beautiful, but is it exceptional? Probably, but it’s exceptional in a number of ways, not all of them good. Here are things the United States leads the developed world in:

Gross Domestic Product, and Poverty

Productivity, and Inequality

Business start-ups, and national debt, and student debt

College graduates, and prisoners

Charitable giving, and obesity

Expenditure on Research and Development, and divorce

Number of police officers, and number of murders, and all crime

Technology, and prescription drug use, and illegal drug use

Infant mortality is higher in America than in Greece, Hungary, and Lithuania

Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica all have longer life expectancy than America[7]

In this whole challenging process of honest self-examination, among the most valuable Americans are her critics. The great African American writer James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”[8]

Colin Kaepernick is a super-patriot. He kneels during the national anthem because white men kneel on Black men’s necks. He wants us to self-examine.

The poet Adrienne Rich says, “A patriot is not a missile. A patriot is someone who wrestles for the soul of her country.”[9]

I love the description of the enchanting and livable land Isaiah promises. When the prophet wrote this, the Hebrews were in much worse shape than America ever has been. Jerusalem lay in ruins, their national sovereignty had been shattered, they were a landless, homeless, and disenfranchised people. But Isaiah’s promise is that God isn’t finished with them yet.

What waits for God’s people is a land where “no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime. One who dies at a hundred will be considered a youth.... Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.... They shall not labor in vain, or bear children of calamity, for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord.”

The earth has never known such an alluring land. It’s just a wistful hope, or a patriot dream. But it’s a beautiful dream, something to reach up toward.

Katherine Lee Bates’ hymn America the Beautiful is virtually a paraphrase of Isaiah’s patriot dream. Ms. Bates, who lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was attending a conference in Colorado, and she began to write her poem on an excursion to Pike’s Peak.

On her journey west, she’d traveled under spacious skies, and saw amber waves of grain, probably in Nebraska, and when she arrived at Pike’s Peak, she noticed the purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.

This was in 1893, and so on her westward way, she’d also stopped in Chicago and saw The White City at the Chicago World’s Fair, and it made her think of alabaster cities that gleam, undimmed by human tears. We haven’t realized our alabaster cities yet, but we’ll never stop trying till our dying day.

Said Langston Hughes:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

America: the land that never has been yet
And yet must be.[10]

[1] Tom McTague, “The Decline of the American World,” The Atlantic, June 24, 2020.

[2] Katrin Bennhold, “Sadness and Disbelief from a World Missing American Leadership,” The New York Times, April 23, 2020.

[3] Ira Berkow, “A Baseball Legend Wrestles With Removing His Former Boss’s Statue,” The New York Times, June 30, 2020.

[4] As told to Gayle King on CBS This Morning, July 3, 2020.

[5] Stacey Dickerson, “Racial Dialogues,” a presentation at Colorado Community Church, Aurora, CO., September 2019.  https://vimeo.com/366533008/1f5820e2f2 .

[6] Tom McTague, op. cit.

[7] Ted Halstead, “The American Paradox,” The Atlantic, Jan./Feb. 2003, & Michael Snyder, “Number One? 20 Shameful Categories in Which America Leads the World,” Business Insider, July 8, 2011


[8] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).

[9] Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 23.

[10] Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1994).