Independence Day Talks: 1997-2006

Independence Day Talks:
T. Willard Hunter Oratory Forum

I have often described Claremont as a small Ivy League University town, surrounded by LA’s suburbs instead of forests and meadows. One of the town’s hallowed traditions, with roots in the foundational culture of our national heritage, was a wonderful, old-fashioned July Fourth celebration in Memorial Park in the heart of “the Village.” Each year, the celebration boasted of a traditional “Oratory Forum,” founded by retired “old-school” American clergyman, T. Willard Hunter, whom I was privileged to call a friend.

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Finally, I’ve tracked down, collected, edited and annotated the complete set of five-minute talks and invocations he invited me to give on those occasions. Rereading them after all these years, most of the material seems as fresh as when I first delivered it, and some is perhaps even more urgently relevant in today’s stridently polarized world-culture. You can scroll down to read them continuously, or click the title below to jump to each article.

1997 U.S. Capitol Statues: Thomas Starr King and Padre Serra

I delivered this talk almost 20 years ago in a public forum, speaking of the significance of these two religious figures in California history. It’s still relevant because it tells why removing them from the US Capitol was/is a big mistake.

1998 Consistent Life Ethic

Three years after Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), many were ignoring the Holy Father’s emphasis on all situations of human life, including a strong condemnation of the death penalty as immoral in nearly every conceivable situation. Here I try to show that the Pope was truly upholding a consistent ethic of human life, no matter what the circumstances.

1999 Invocation only

This year, I was invited to give the invocation at the beginning of the Independence Day celebration. The theme of my prayer was “The only nation worthy of freedom is one that seeks justice for all.”

2000 Do We Hold These Truths . . . ?

The Declaration of Independence proclaims certain truths as “self-evident.” Do we really believe this? Or do our actions speak louder than our words?

2001 Invocation

This year I was invited both to give the Invocation and to participate in the Speaker’s Forum. The theme of my prayer was that “only in human solidarity will we find liberty.”

2001 The Cost of Religious Freedom

Delivered only two months before 9/11, this talk explores a point that has subsequently become even more relevant in the years between then and now: do we value the religious freedom of others as much as we want our own freedom to be upheld?

2002 A Humbled Church and a Humbled Nation – What Can We Learn?

Within months after 9/11, the clergy sex-abuse scandal gripped the Catholic Church. What must we learn from these events? The answer – humility – seem as distant now as it was then.

2003 “Under God” – Really?

Here I begin by exploring the history of how the phrase “under God” found its way into the Pledge of Allegiance. (It wasn’t in the text used for many years.) And I conclude with the question of its meaning. Ultimately, what does “under God” mean? And what do we mean when we say/sing “God bless America”?

2004 July 4 was on Sunday; no presentation

2005 Invocation

This year I was again asked to do both the Invocation and Speakers’ Forum. “May your peace rule our hearts, your justice guide our lives, and your gift of courage strengthen our service of your people.”

2005 Pope Benedict XVI: Beyond the Stereotypes and Sound Bites

Following the death of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as his successor on April 19, 2005. Given his reputation, speculation about what this would mean for the Church was all over the map. So, of course, I added my two-cents’ worth. I don’t know whether I’d call myself “prophetic,” but I can still stand by what I said then.

2006 Invocation

This year I was again asked to do both the Invocation and Speakers’ Forum. One of the benefits of being the only Catholic Pastor in a small town. “Help us to continue the good work begun long ago.”

2006 Humility: the Most Important Virtue for Our Health and Survival as a Nation

This may have been one of my most important talks, and least original. I quoted extensively from a wonderful essay, “Speak Softly,” by Ira Williams. Do we need a lesson in humility before it’s too late? Or is it already too late?


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U.S. Capitol Statues: Thomas Starr King and Padre Serra
July 4, 1997, Claremont, California

In 1864, Congress invited each state to contribute two statues of prominent citizens for permanent display in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol building. With the nation divided by civil war and recovery, the states were slow to respond—some haven’t to this day.

In 1927, the State of California established a commission to select the subjects and arrange for the placement of its two monuments. California’s two statues were completed, erected, and dedicated in the National Statuary Hall in 1931. It is noteworthy that both subjects from California are towering religious figures who, it could be argued, precisely because they were religious figures, made the most significant and lasting contributions in shaping the California of today. In addition, both left their mark in an amazingly brief period of time.

The two statues are of the Reverend Thomas Starr King and Padre Junipero Serra.

Thomas Starr King was a Unitarian minister who came to San Francisco from Boston in 1860. thomas_starr_king2In four short years he was credited by no less than Abraham Lincoln himself as single-handedly keeping California joined to the Union and halting the popular secessionist movement in California. This by the power of his religious conviction and his oratory—and of course the dedication and action of his life which gave power to his words.

This is an immensely significant piece of history. Lincoln received only 28 percent of the vote in California in 1860, and the Confederate flag—not the American flag—was flown over the Plaza in Los Angeles on the Fourth of July, 1861! Had California seceded, its immense gold resources would have gone exclusively to the Confederacy, and the outcome of the civil war could well have been very different.

Thomas Starr King died tragically young in 1864, just four years after he arrived in California. The cause of his death was disease brought on by exhaustion and overwork.

Father Junipero Serra, California’s other representative in the National Statuary Hall, lived a hundred years earlier, and was a contemporary of our nation’s founding Fathers. fray_junc3adpero_serraTwo of his California missions, San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano, were founded in 1776. He was also declared “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II in 1988. This is the final step to canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church. [Note: He was canonized by Pope Francis  on September 23, 2015.]

In Father Serra’s time, however, there was not yet any thought of California as a State in the Union. Spain was actively extending its colonizing power and influence through Mexico to the west coast of the Americas.

Most of us are familiar with Serra’s contribution to the shape of our state on the map, as well as the arrangement of social living patterns. The settlements that became the cities that became major population centers all had their origin in the missions founded by Father Serra and his associates. As a result, the majority of people in California today, whatever their faith, live in places that bear the names of Catholic saints.

Serra arrived in what was to become San Diego in 1769, at age 56—an age when some people I know are thinking about retirement. [Note: I was 55 when I gave this talk.] In the fifteen years until his death at 71 in 1784, he personally established nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco. He traveled over 10,000 miles, half by sea and half by land—usually on horseback rather than on foot, popular legend notwithstanding. He suffered a chronic and painful infection of his foot and leg, as well as asthma, and of course, advancing age. (There were no pain relievers or inhalers in those days.) He left a mark upon the land, and upon the spirit of the people who were to come after him, that subsequent years were unable to completely erase.

Fifteen years—that’s less time than it takes to even start building a freeway through Claremont today! [Note: When this presentation was given in 1997, construction on the segment of the 210 Freeway through Claremont was just beginning, thirty years after the route had been cleared in 1967, the year before I was ordained. It was completed five years later in 2002.]

Of course, controversy is generated by the simple fact that he—just like all of us—was a man of his time and his culture. The fact is that the Spanish crown was bent on conquering and colonizing – and exploiting – the Californias, as they had done in Mexico and much of South America. (Of course, at that time the English crown was not exactly Mr. Nice Guy in other parts of the world!) And the fact is that native peoples did not fare well under Spanish domination. (Of course the American native peoples did not fare very well under English colonization; nor French nor Russian either, for that matter!)

It is to Father Serra’s credit that many of the best elements of European civilization, and of course, Christianity, first came to California. The environment of conquest and colonization is not exactly the most conducive to the spread of culture or of Christianity, and Serra consistently challenged the interference of military and civil functionaries in religious affairs as well as their frequent brutality towards the native peoples.

The greatness of Serra in these last fifteen years of his life when he so indelibly marked the beginnings of a California that we continue to experience, lay in his unconquerable will—he would never turn his back on anything he undertook. Nicknamed “el Viejo”—the aged one—his small, burdened frame marched along, climbing over every obstacle—for the glory of God and the earthly and eternal well-being of peoples the rest of the world either ignored or exploited.

Serra’s story is a pioneer’s story—and it is our story. In these days when the First Amendment separation of church and state is marked more by ambiguity than by clarity, and when there are still many among us whom people of power would rather ignore or exploit, it is good to have a hero who is also a saint in our nation’s Capitol. May his spirit guide those whose decisions in that very building continue to shape our national destiny.

[Note: Since I wrote and delivered this presentation, the statue of Thomas Starr King was replaced in 2009 by that of a better known popular figure – hero to some – Ronald Reagan. And St. Junipero Serra is in danger of being replaced by Sally Ride. I acknowledge the merits of these individuals, but I fear we are losing an appreciation for the history and foundational values of our state, and replacing it with the appeal of the moment. I personally mourn this loss deeply.] – back to top –

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Consistent Life Ethic
July 4, 1998, Claremont, California

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the age-old question that Cain asks God when God confronts him with the murder of his brother (Genesis 4:9). Is this question still relevant today? For us it goes hand in hand with another question, the one that the scribe cynically asked Jesus, and brought forth His parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Or in this case, “Who is my brother—or sister?”

The point of my talk this morning is this: all human life is sacred—or none is. I would like to reflect for a few minutes on the archetypal story of the value of human life—the drama of Cain and Abel at the beginning of the Bible in chapter 4 of Genesis.

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The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, with Cain Fleeing, by William Blake, ca1826, Tate Gallery, Londo

The two brothers represent a conflict of values, age-old land-use disputes. The farmer versus the shepherd or the herder; the settled versus the nomad. They are incompatible, and each side poses a serious threat to the livelihood of the other. The grazing animals destroy the crops. Farming restricts the movements of the herds. This same dispute caused much conflict in the westward development of our own country as well—and provided the theme for lots of cowboy movies.

As so often the case in subsequent history, the conflict leads to violence and bloodshed. God had warned Cain about this, and His words are very interesting: “Sin is a demon lurking . . his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (verses 6-7) In other words, sin keeps after us, and once yielded to, it’s always easier the next time. The slope towards habit or compromise, once the priorities or values are relativized, is a slippery one.

This is why it is so important to uphold a consistent life ethic, the “seamless garment” of life issues, that the US Catholic bishops articulated, under the leadership of the late (and great) Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, , and Pope John Paul II has unfolded at length in his 1996 encyclical letter entitled “The Gospel of Life.”

Human life is an absolute value, and cannot be subordinated to any other value. Whenever a choice among values must be made, and one of them is human life, the choice must be made in favor of human life.

Life-issues are related to each other as the strands that together form a woven fabric. When human life is relativized in any one area, it becomes easier to do it in another. A climate favoring abortion as simply a matter of choice, in which a new human individual not yet capable of survival outside the womb is arbitrarily declared not to be human, is not far distant from a climate favoring capital punishment in which it is supposed that the intrinsic dignity of human life is subject to the judgment of personal guilt or innocence. And both are related to the climate that increasingly favors euthanasia. In all cases, human life is no longer held as an absolute value, but is subjected to other values, ultimately subjected to the unwillingness of our society to handle the problems of inconvenient (or dangerous or painful) life in a way other than by doing away with it.

I do not mean to make light of the serious problems that occasion an attitude favoring abortion or capital punishment, or even euthanasia, as a solution. There are no easy answers, but the dignity of our God-given shared humanity demands that we use our intelligence to collaborate in finding and employing solutions that respect the value of all life. This is not merely my opinion; this is the consistent teaching of the Church’s magisterium.

One final note on capital punishment. The story of Cain and Abel ends with Cain being severely and rightly punished by God for his deed—but protected from being killed for it. In this story, God is clearly denying the legitimacy of “taking a life for a life.” In some ways the real punishment is harsher. It’s the deprivation of the goals that the murderer was seeking to accomplish by his deed. The very earth on which his livelihood depended turned against him, and he had to give up the life of a settled farmer to become a wandering nomad. But, anyone who killed him because of his guilt would be avenged by God sevenfold. If that’s not a clear indication of how God feels about capital punishment, I don’t know what is!

Can we as a society recover a respect for the absolute value of human life, and put it into practice consistently? Or are we doomed to continue to make compromises—compromises of both the so-called “right” and the so-called “left”—until the value of human life is completely subjected to the relativity of greed and expediency? Or perhaps, are we already there? – back to top –

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Independence Day Invocation
July 4, 1999, Claremont, California

[Note: In 1999, I did not speak at the Oratory Forum, but was asked to give the Invocation to begin the celebration of the day.]

Theme: The only nation worthy of freedom is one that seeks justice for all. Psalms 127 and 128 together tell of God’s blessings upon those who love freedom and work for justice.

PSALM 127

Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build.
Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.
It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil
—all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.
Children too are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one’s youth.
Blessed are they whose quivers are full.
They will never be shamed contending with foes at the gate.

PSALM 128

Happy are all who fear the LORD, who walk in the ways of God.
What your hands provide, you will enjoy; you will be happy and prosper:
Like a fruitful vine your wife within your home,
like olive plants your children around your table.
Just so will they be blessed who fear the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion, all the days of your life,
that you may share Jerusalem’s joy and live to see your children’s children.
Peace upon Israel!

INVOCATION

God, our Father, we do well to proclaim your praise in all that we say and do.

You created us in your own image, and called us to be faithful stewards of your creation. Once you chose a people as your own. You gave them a destiny when you brought them out of bondage into freedom, a destiny to carry the promise that in you all would be blessed, all could be free.

In every generation you give new freedom to those who believe in you. Our own ancestors formed a vision and fashioned a nation where all people might live as one. This message of freedom continues as our task today, and our hope tomorrow.

As we celebrate the birth of our nation, let our national boundaries not set limits on our love and concern.

As we celebrate our freedom, let us not give way to the enslavement of passion, envy, greed, or selfishness.

As we gratefully acknowledge your gifts of life and sustenance, may we be careful not to deny those same gifts to those genuinely in need.

May your peace rule our hearts, your justice guide our lives, and your gift of courage strengthen our service of your people.

Amen. – back to top –

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Do We Hold These Truths . . . ?
July 4, 2000, Claremont, California

The Declaration of Independence affirms the dignity of the human person as “self evident.” I quote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

fea7c8123bbed51ea045ef08a6c884b4031222ddSelf-evident means not needing proof. Experience shows us, sadly, that different people put different limitations on what they consider “self evident.”

For example, some of the very signers of this Declaration owned slaves, and did not see – or at least acknowledge – the contradiction inherent in their very words.

Four score and seven years later, the most brutal war the world had known to that point, the American Civil War, was fought over the question of slavery, as well as its economic, social, and moral implications.

Divisive conflicts throughout our society into our own day, including, as we are so well aware, in our own city of Claremont*, amply demonstrate that the equality proclaimed by the Declaration and the rights won in the civil war victory of the Union, have not yet become fully a part of the fabric of our society.

Another example. It was a full century and a half before the laws determining participation in our society began to recognize that the equality of “all men” included women. And while that struggle for equal participation has made great strides, it is not yet complete.
And . . . the “unalienable” right to life, continues to be alienated all over the place! Perhaps more so in our day than in the past.

It is ironic that it was only in the 1970’s that science was able to prove genetically that the unborn baby is truly a distinct human being from the moment of conception—that’s not a so-called religious doctrine, that’s a scientific fact—and simultaneously in the 1970’s a woman’s choice to kill that unborn baby for any reason whatever was defined as a constitutional right by the nation’s highest court. The “unalienable” right to life of a human being was made dependent upon the criterion of whether or not it was “wanted.”

I do not want to make light of the agonizing choices and pain that lead individuals to choose to kill their unborn baby. But neither truth nor mercy is served by redefining the unborn baby as something less that human, or subjecting her or his right to life to another’s right to privacy. Alternate solutions are difficult as well as unpopular, but if we are a just society we must dedicate ourselves to finding and implementing them.

At the other end of the spectrum is the subordination of the unalienable right to life to certain qualities of behavior, specifically the death penalty as a punishment for certain types of serious and/or violent crimes. It is true that society cannot function if we are not adequately protected from the threat of violent crimes against persons and property. Both protection and deterrence are legitimate values in the penal system of a just society. But, punishment that exceeds what is necessary to protect society from further violence, particularly when that punishment is itself an act of violence—even the sanitized violence of pumping toxic chemicals into a human being’s veins—that punishment goes beyond justice, and enters into the realm of revenge.

Of course, the question of human rights and dignity, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, extends far beyond these two particular issues, even beyond the issue of life and death per se. How, for example, do our immigration and labor policies measure up to the basic human rights affirmed in the Declaration? How about our health care system? Are human rights violated when the environment in which others live is degraded by actions and policies motivated by profit? The list of similar questions can go on and on.

That having been said, our nation still serves as a beacon for much of the rest of the world in upholding human rights and dignity. In the global picture, our nation still does lead the world in successfully living as a democratic and just society.

All the more reason why we should be sure that the light truly shines bright and clear. All the more reason why we need never to take for granted that our actions are consistent with our ideals.

Then why is it that those who point out that there remain serious flaws and inconsistencies in the way we as a society uphold these values are so often branded as “un-American”?

I’m reminded that the late, great South American Archbishop Helder Camara once lamented: “If I feed the poor, I’m called a saint. If I ask why people are poor, I’m called a Communist!”

We all recognize that patriotism is more than just flag-waving. Perhaps the real patriots are those who do not let us settle for quick, easy, or obvious answers to the question: What are we waving the flag for?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” Those simple words of the Declaration of Independence, whose values we claim as the guiding principle of our nation, still serve as a disquieting reminder—two hundred and twenty four years later—of how far short of those values we fall.

* The police shooting and killing of an 18-year-old African-American man, Irvin Landrum, Jr., during a routine traffic stop was a very hot, contested issue in Claremont at that time. See http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/11/news/mn-52872 – back to top –

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Invocation
July 4, 2001, Claremont, California

[Note: in 2001, I was invited both to give the Invocation and to speak at the Oratory Forum.]

God, source of all freedom,
this day is bright with the memory
of those who declared that life and liberty
are your gift to every human being.
Help us to continue a good work begun long ago.
Make our vision clear and our will strong:
help us to realize that only in human solidarity will we find liberty,
and only in seeking justice will we honor the dignity that belongs by right
to every human person on earth.
Turn our hearts away from self-centered individualism and arrogance,
toward the family of nations:
to understand the ways of others,
to offer friendship and reconciliation,
and to find safety and fulfillment
in seeking the common good of all.
Amen.  – back to top –

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The Cost of Religious Freedom
July 4, 2001, Claremont, California

One of our deepest values as Americans is religious freedom. The American experiment in democratic self government has also caused religious freedom of citizens to be constitutionally enshrined and guaranteed in the majority of nations throughout the world. The US Department of State publishes an annual report on International Religious Freedom, which is readily available on their web site, which also details the many violations of religious freedom in too many countries throughout the world. While religious freedom is a matter of international concern, it is more fundamentally a question of individual attitude and behavior. How we look at one another as individuals is the basis of how we look at one another as communities, societies, and nations.

What is the cost of consistently upholding religious freedom in our relationships with one another? We may value our own freedom to worship as we choose, but the way that we value the freedom of another who disagrees with us may become more complex in practice than we’d like to think.

popeAny person of deep and sincere convictions is going to suffer pain when those convictions are not shared. It might be helpful to recognize that conflict over deeply held convictions is more often born of pain than power. If I am deeply convinced that my way is true, I cannot help but feel pain if those people I care about are on what I am convinced is the wrong path. I would be unfaithful to those convictions if I did not try to bring you to share my convictions.

Religious freedom means that what I say about my convictions, including the legitimacy of my desire to share the truth of my convictions with you, is equally said about your convictions and your desire to share the truth of your convictions with me. The sticky thing is that religious convictions are never solely a private, individual matter. They are always a shared belief system. Individual conviction determines how we relate to one another in society.

One of the foundations of a truly democratic society is that there are no limits or restrictions on whom we care about. If we believe that all are created equal, we have to put that belief into practice by upholding that equality. Of course, we as a nation and society continue to struggle with equality in practice. That struggle to discover the full meaning of equality, and how respect for this equality ought to be translated into action, points the direction to uncovering the cost of religious freedom. How can I be faithful to my convictions without compromise, including the public nature of those convictions, and at the same time respect your convictions as differing, perhaps radically from mine? That, I think is the challenge that faces all of us in a free society.

This affirmation of equality and dignity as a basic human right of all people without exception, is common to nearly all religious traditions. Yet how often exceptions are made in practice. We are usually conscious of those exceptions when others make them, especially in our own regard. The ways that we ourselves in practice make some “more equal” than others, is all too often hidden from our own eyes.

I believe that the basic cost of religious freedom is to bring to light our own attitudes that tend to separate us from others, to examine our own criteria for judging the worth of others in the light of the equality and dignity of the human person deeply rooted in our shared human nature, not subject to differences of behavior or culture.

Another way of looking at this is to say that the basic cost of religious freedom is to take to heart the “Golden Rule,” which in one form or other is part of nearly every religious tradition, including agnosticism and atheism: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The essence of the Golden Rule is that it is without condition or exception. It is not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, if they reciprocate.” It is not “Do unto others as they do unto you,” much less the humorous, but very real, twist we often put on it: “Do unto others before they do unto you”!

I think a problem arises when we confuse respect for one another’s religious freedom with tolerance. Mere tolerance is not yet respect. Tolerating another person is a far cry from respecting and accepting him or her, even with differing or opposing convictions.

What does religious freedom cost me, a Catholic priest, for example? Let me get personal about this. I believe it is twofold. First, I have to be faithful my convictions, which includes giving public witness to them – not to water them down or be silent about them, even in face of disagreement and diversity. But, secondly, my public witness has to respect the integrity and convictions of others, including those very diverse from my own – including even those whom I perceive as not respecting my convictions. Failure of mutual respect does not lesson my obligation of respect.

As a Catholic, I would go so far as to say that that kind of respect of persons and their human rights and dignity, even in the face of diversity and disagreement, is at the heart of what Jesus proclaimed as the “Kingdom of God.”  – back to top –

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A Humbled Church and a Humbled Nation – What Can We Learn?
July 4, 2002, Claremont, California

This past year witnessed the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and Catholic Church clergy sex-abuse scandals of last five months. Humiliation! Nothing will ever be quite the same for either nation or Church.

Humility. It’s a hard word. Can a 227-year-old nation learn from a 2000 year-old tradition, even if the Church that has kept that tradition alive has some obvious problems in practicing it?

Humility is strongly attested in Scripture as the key virtue, without which all else is valueless. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6,10)

We can’t get humility just by trying. Humility isn’t merely another accomplishment to be proud of! Experience shows: there can be no humility without humiliation. We can rise from humiliation, but not with the pride that re-inflates us, and only serves to increase our vulnerability no matter what we do to try to protect ourselves.

Rising from humiliation in humility enables us to be more sure where our ground is, more careful where we place our feet and the direction of our steps. The word “humility” comes from Latin “humus,” meaning earth, soil, ground. It means to recognize where we come from and are going, and in between where we stand, where we find our foundation. We are “humus” into which God has breathed spirit. (It is also root of “human”!)

For our nation, humility may mean an examination of our national conscience, our goals and priorities in the light of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [must be taken inclusively and without exception] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

And, as the next line says, that the government exists primarily to secure these rights – for all without exception.

The Statue of Liberty was preserved on September 11. Can we take pride in that symbol when we ignore its inscription?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

689006280-staten-island-the-narrows-new-york-city-verrazano-narrows-bridge-liberty-island

Those words greeted my grandparents when they came through Ellis Island, and, I suspect many of yours as well. Yet our public policy and our attitudes find those words embarrassing, For many who seek to follow them, those words do not ring true: they are not welcomed. Politicians, and many who support them, do not want to find ways to make these words come true in our own day. Should we perhaps shroud her in black until we examine our national conscience: How well do we welcome “the poor, the huddled masses,” etc.? It’s not easy; but can we afford not to take seriously how we welcome the immigrant today who seeks nothing other than what our own immigrant ancestors sought?

1044952_1420182902And the Church? We have to sit quietly – perhaps kneel quietly, and bow profoundly – and take to heart again the words of our Savior: “the greatest will be the one who serves the rest.” Yes the ways of worldly power and manipulation have too often found their way even into ministry. We have to rediscover the meaning of the ministry: to stand small (not as put-down or weakness, but to build the other person up).

The Church will recover its moral voice only in a posture of humility.

How can the Church live in our 21st century American society? I think we will have no trouble discovering how to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” if we can be sure that we have fully and without compromise “rendered unto God the things that are God’s.”  – back to top –

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“Under God” – Really?
July 4, 2003, Claremont, California

Today our nation celebrates its 227th birthday, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. The “stars and stripes” was adopted as our national flag the following year, June 14, 1777. The United States’ Constitution was ratified in 1788, 215 years ago.

nrl205And the Pledge of Allegiance, then more commonly known as the “Salute to the Flag,” was composed in 1892 – more than a hundred years later – and was first publicly used on Columbus Day, 1893, just one hundred years ago. During the ensuing forty years, it underwent several modifications, and came to be recited by schoolchildren in classrooms throughout the country; but during that time, the first half of the twentieth century, it received little attention outside the schools.

It was only in 1942, just over sixty years ago [in 2003], that the Salute to the Flag, already commonplace in the schools, gained enough popularity as a result of World War II patriotic fervor that it was given official recognition by an act of the U.S. Congress, incorporating it in the United States Flag Code.

The following year, in 1943, the United States Supreme Court ruled that school children could not be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a required part of their school curriculum. This ruling, entitled “West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette,” did not address the recitation of the pledge as such, but struck down a West Virginia Law imposing punishments on students who refused to salute the flag. That law required every student in every school – public, parochial or private – in the state of West Virginia, to recite the pledge, with arm upraised in a gesture of salute (which the PTA, scouting organizations, the Red Cross and the Federation of Women’s Clubs had criticized as being too much like Hitler’s Nazi salute!), or else they would be expelled, and could not return to school until compliant. Furthermore, absent from school, they were regarded as delinquents, and their parents were subject to a $50 fine and/or thirty days in jail.

Thus in West Virginia, to be a faithful Jehovah’s Witness was also to be an outlaw. War does funny things to people, doesn’t it?

The Supreme Court’s judgment makes an interesting and important observation. They affirmed the right and duty of our schools and of our citizens to teach and to learn the meaning of patriotism, and even to be informed about the flag salute and what it means. Patriotism was not the issue. But, and I quote the text of the Court’s opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson: “The issue here is whether this slow and easily neglected route to aroused loyalties constitutionally may be short-cut by substituting a compulsory salute and slogan.”

The same opinion, goes on to make the prophetic statement that needs more than ever to be heeded today: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”

Two years later, at the end of the War in 1945, the Salute to the Flag officially got the title “Pledge of Allegiance.”

In 1954, both Houses of Congress adopted the resolution to add the words “under God” to the pledge, which President Eisenhower signed into law on Flag Day of that year. This was as a result of two years of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization of which I too am a member. (I can’t resist a little plug here – over in the food area they are selling the world’s best Italian sausage sandwiches.) Beyond the work of the Knights, however, I think this addition to the Pledge was very much a product of the times—that was the height of the Cold War, and fear of the spread of “atheistic Communism” was certainly a dominant force in our country.

In a subsequent message to the Knights of Columbus, President Eisenhower put a very different emphasis on the phrase “under God”: “These words will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.”

I think now, fifty years later, a “reality check” is appropriate: do these words succeed in keeping us humble? Do they effectively focus our minds and hearts on the spiritual and moral principles of human dignity?

Having reviewed the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, which is neither deeply rooted in our national origins nor one of unchanging constancy, but which has been frequently modified in changing times, I would now like to examine very briefly each of those two words, “under God.”

For one thing, after acknowledging the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, even traditional Christians cannot really agree on how we conceive God, and we have very different images and attributes in mind when we say God. Among Christians, in the past and even today, disagreement over the concept of God, as well as the moral behavior expected by God, too often has become the occasion for us to throw stones at one another, both verbal and sometimes physical.

If Christians can’t fully agree about God, what happens when we add non-Christians and atheists, to the mix in a society whose pluralism we value? Expecting a unified agreement on this term is patently ridiculous, as well as offensive to many of our fellow citizens. Perhaps we as Christians would do better by taking more seriously the advice of Jesus, “render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God.” Jesus anticipated the First Amendment by over seventeen centuries!

I personally believe that both Church and State will be better off, the more strictly we can keep each of them in its own domain, without meddling in each other’s domain. If Christians live genuinely true to our convictions, our witness will have its own power. We don’t have to impose our beliefs or our moral principles through civil legislation.

Even more problematic than the word “God” is the word “under.” “Under” means submission. Do we really live as a nation “under” God? Is the humility that President Eisenhower spoke of in any way valued among our national virtues? Do we, even the Christians of our nation, truly seek to discover and follow God’s will in relation to affairs of national interest?

I’m not going to try to answer that question. But I will unfold that question just a little bit more by asking what do we mean when we pray, “God bless America”? Is our prayer as believers, to seek the humility and gift of discernment of higher purpose and higher power? Or does our prayer really seek to make God the servant of our national interest? And I will conclude simply leaving you with that question.

Thank you.  – back to top –


In 2004, July 4 fell on a Sunday,
and I was not part of the Oratory Forum

**


Independence Day Invocation
July 4, 2005, Claremont, California

[Note: in 2005, I was invited both to give the Invocation for the day’s celebration, and to speak a the Oratory Forum.]

The only nation worthy of freedom is one that seeks justice for all. Psalm 127, which was quoted by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961, proclaims the fundamental truth of our freedom and our dignity:

“Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build.
Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.”

In the spirit of these words, let us pray:

God, our Father, we do well to proclaim your praise in all that we say and do.
You created us in your own image, and called us to be faithful stewards of your creation. Once you chose a people as your own. You gave them a destiny when you brought them out of bondage into freedom, a destiny to carry the promise that in you all would be blessed, all could be free.

In every generation you give new freedom to those who believe in you. Our own ancestors formed a vision and fashioned a nation where all people might live as one. This message of freedom continues as our task today, and our hope tomorrow.

As we celebrate the birth of our nation, let our national boundaries not set limits on our love and concern.

As we celebrate our freedom, let us not give way to the enslavement of passion, envy, greed, or selfishness.

As we gratefully acknowledge your gifts of life and sustenance, may we be careful not to deny those same gifts to those genuinely in need.

May your peace rule our hearts, your justice guide our lives, and your gift of courage strengthen our service of your people.

Amen.  – back to top –

**


Pope Benedict XVI: Beyond the Stereotypes and Sound Bites
July 4, 2005, Claremont, California

Just a few months ago, for weeks on end, worldwide media attention was riveted on Rome, first for the events surrounding the death and funeral of one of the longest reigning and most widely known popes in history – and history’s first Polish pope at that – and then for the conclave that elected one of his right-hand men, the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as his successor, taking the new name of Benedict XVI.

index_benxviThis is an era when religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular are the subjects of controversy, conflict and disbelief, when the Catholic Church and its teachings as well as its discipline are becoming more and more relegated to the sidelines of irrelevance and even contempt in the view of people who consider themselves in touch with the modern world.

This is true even on both sides of the so-called liberal-conservative spectrum.

It’s perhaps surprising and certainly significant that, in such a time, the figure of Pope John Paul II attracted so much attention, both in life and in death, and his successor has raised so many questions about the direction his papacy will take.

The secular world was fascinated by John Paul, even if often uncomfortable with him. That’s why I thought, as we celebrate our own greatest national holiday, it might be quite appropriate to take a look at our new Pope Benedict, and see if we can get a hint what his significance might be for our world and for our country.

To begin, we have to disabuse ourselves of any notion that there will be any radical change in Catholic doctrine or discipline. Catholic teaching, including the well known “hot-button” issues, will not change . . . and would remain the same no matter who was elected pope. [Note: This is true under Pope Francis as well, although he has brought a very different approach as to how these teachings relate to real life.]

Cardinal Ratzinger was the long-time prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, often serving as the so-called “watchdog” against doctrinal deviancy in the Catholic Church. During this time, nearly 24 years, he gained a reputation as a rigid conservative. Some are very apprehensive and even discouraged by his election as pope, fearing that reform efforts in the Church will be irretrievably suppressed. Others are overjoyed, confident that dissenting voices will finally be effectively silenced.

My own opinion is that there will be very little short-term change, but that there are signs of hope for significant positive long-term change. Here are three signs in what Pope Benedict has said and done that I find very hopeful for the future. They may not seem terribly earthshaking on the surface, but I think they can in the long run be pivotal toward bringing about significant change in the Church and its relationship with the world.

First, and I believe most important, is that the very circumstances surrounding his election were the result of unprecedented communication among the Cardinals representing local Catholic churches throughout the world. Never before have they had the opportunity to get to know each other in such a close and intensive way. It’s clear that they left the new Pope Benedict with a mandate to continue and develop this kind of collegial communication, and to extend it beyond Cardinals. While I think it’s unlikely that he will call an ecumenical council as Pope John XXIII did (for one thing, in this day and age, a meeting on that scale would be tremendously expensive), I think that he will encourage and make use of wide-ranging consultation in the governance of the Church, including significant internet conferencing – something that no pope has ever been able to do before.

Second, and related to this, is his choice of an American archbishop, William Levada of San Francisco, to be his successor as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. I know Bill Levada personally. In fact, he’s originally from Los Angeles, and went to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo a few years ahead of me. He was also a very good friend of Monsignor Bill Barry, my predecessor here at OLA, who was something of a mentor to Levada in the early days of his priesthood. He’s now the number two person in the Vatican! He brings to that job not only the competence of a professional theologian and pastor, but his American identity, and lifelong experience and understanding of the American church as well as American culture that has never before been seen at the Vatican. He is fairly conservative as would be expected, but not rigidly so. In fact, one ultra-conservative Catholic website labeled him as a heretic because of his openness to ministry with homosexual Catholics, and urged its readers to write to the Pope and demand that he rescind the appointment! Fortunately, that’s quite unlikely – this pope does his homework before acting; nor does he yield to pressure from any side.

Third, what about the international scene? Pope Benedict will not be the great traveler and international superstar that so endeared the world to John Paul II. I doubt that he will have the same flair for diplomacy and international relations. John Paul’s role in the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet empire was unique, and could not be repeated. I think Benedict’s main contribution on the international scene will be in ecumenism, specifically in advancing the work towards bringing the ancient traditions of eastern and western Christianity together, Catholic and Orthodox. And it is precisely here that he realizes that changes will be needed not in doctrine but in the papacy itself, changes that John Paul II alluded to in his own writings and speeches on ecumenism, but could not bring about. [See especially his Encyclical on Ecumenism and Christian Unity, Ut Unum Sint, 94ff.]

benedictxvirowanwilliamspopeattendsdaym1zavha2ed-lBefore becoming Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger outlined a plan for continued dialogue with the Orthodox churches, in which the primacy of the pope would be seen less in authoritarian terms and more in a fraternal relationship with the ancient traditional patriarchs, the church leaders of the east. I believe that Benedict, particularly given his background as a professional theologian – the first pope with such credentials in modern history – may be able to begin to change the understanding of the papacy in ways that may make eventual union with the Orthodox churches more palatable to them.

Closer union, and eventually hoped-for full communion, between Catholic and Orthodox Churches will have significant international impact because so much of the east-west tensions in our world today have their roots in the conflicts and eventual split going back more than a millennium. It will also give a firmer foundation to relations with Islam because the first cultural and theological battleground between Islam and Christianity took place in the east on Byzantine turf, and today’s conflicts still embody the same resentments, misunderstandings and grudges that were born 1,200 years ago.

Finally, three days before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger turned 78. He’s only seven years younger than John Paul. This will not be a lengthy pontificate, but it can have the same significance as a tiny change on the rudder of a great ship which may not be easily noticed but in the long run significantly alters the direction of its course.  – back to top –

**


Independence Day Invocation
July 4, 2006

[Note: 2006 was the last year I, as Pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption, was invited to take part in the Oratory Forum. T. Willard Hunter, who died three years later, was no longer able to manage the forum, and I guess I slipped through the cracks after that. However, this year I was invited both to give the Invocation for the day and to talk at the Forum.]

God, the source of all freedom,
this day is bright with the memory
of those who declared that life and liberty
are your gift to every human being.

You created us in your own image,
and you called us to be faithful stewards of your creation.

Once you chose a people as your own.

You gave them a destiny when you brought them out of bondage into freedom,
a destiny to carry the promise
that in you all would be blessed, all could be free.

In every generation you give new freedom to those who believe in you.

Our own ancestors cherished a vision
and fashioned a nation where all people might live as one.

This message of freedom continues as our task today . . .
and our hope for tomorrow.

As we celebrate the birth of our of our beloved nation,
let not our national boundaries
set limits on our love and concern for those who hunger
for the gifts you have so freely bestowed upon us.

As we celebrate our freedom, which is your gift,
let us not give way to the enslavement of passion, envy, greed, or selfishness.

As we gratefully acknowledge your gifts of life and sustenance,
may we be careful not to deny those same gifts to those genuinely in need.

Help us to continue the good work begun long ago.
Make our vision clear and our will strong:
help us to realize that only in human solidarity will we find liberty,
and only in seeking justice will we honor the dignity
that belongs by right to every human person on earth.

May your peace rule our hearts,
your justice guide our lives,
and your gift of courage strengthen our service of all your children.

Turn our hearts away from self-centered individualism and arrogance,
toward the family of nations:
to understand the ways of others,
to offer friendship and reconciliation,
and to find safety and fulfillment
in seeking the common good of all.

Amen.  – back to top –

**


Humility: the Most Important Virtue for Our Health and Survival as a Nation
July 4, 2006, Claremont, California

The title for this presentation was born out of my discomfort at seeing bumper stickers and posters touting pride as an American virtue. In my Catholic tradition and in the tradition that most of us Americans claim to share, pride is the first of the “seven deadly sins.” These sins are called “deadly,” not because they are worst evil acts in themselves, but because they name the inner attitudes and vices that are at the root of evil and give birth to all wrongdoing. Pride, and the other so-called “deadly sins” constitute the springboard from which the violence and destruction in our world is launched. And the Book of Proverbs tells us succinctly and unsparingly, “Pride goes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

Quotefancy-14439-3840x2160The virtue that is the opposite of pride is, of course, humility. But humility is a hard word to hear, and an unpopular subject to talk about.

Having committed myself to a subject that nobody wants to hear, I set about looking for inspiration as to how to approach it. After some search, I found a website called “Speak Softly: What’s Happened to American Humility?” In fact, I found that Ira Williams, the author of the website, had already written what I wanted to say, far better than I could have. And so, from this point on what I am going to share with you are his words, not mine – with a few minor changes for better delivery, and with his permission:

* * *

First, Ira Williams says, I’m fully aware of the paradox of trying to make an impassioned exhortation about humility. How do I shout from the rooftops that it’s time for us to speak softly?

Humility is an old-fashioned word. It brings to mind images of hunched shoulders, bowed heads, whispered voices. Humility makes us think of weakness. It makes us think of individuals afraid to speak up for themselves. Humility is almost a condescending term given to people who have forsaken their own needs and desires in order to serve others. “He’s such a sweet, humble man …” or “She is so humble and unassuming …”. What goes unspoken, though, is that we would never trade places with that sweet, humble man or that humble, unassuming woman.

It’s human nature to want one’s own interests served. Altruism is a learned trait. From the time we are children, we are taught and conditioned to know this: to get along with other kids in the sandbox, we have to share. We can’t snatch things from others. …

As we get older and leave the playground behind, we reach a place where we are not nearly as selfish as we were as children. However, we still tend to be self-oriented. We often look inward to ask ourselves, “What would make me happy? What do I need? How can my life be improved?”

As Americans, we have a deeply rooted sense of individualism that is at the heart of our unprecedented rise to power in less than 250 years of existence. The unalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence have empowered Americans to approach our lives with unfettered optimism and the belief that there is little that can stand in the way of our “pursuit of happiness.”

As a result, our view of the outside world, for better or worse, tends to be informed by that world’s impact on us: “How do the policies of our government affect my day-to-day life?” “How does the performance of my company affect my paycheck?” “How well is my school district preparing my kids for college?” “Why does it cost me so much to put gas in my car?”

This is not to say that we, as a nation, are completely self-absorbed and blind to the needs of others. We have a long history of generosity that continues to this day. We send billions of dollars in aid around the world, both as a nation and as individuals, to help relieve the sufferings of others. The generosity of Americans is not in question. The humility of Americans is.

Remember, for most of us, humility is equated with weakness. Americans are repelled by weakness of any sort. We crave strength because strength facilitates success and security, and these are almost universally believed to be at the heart of our pursuit of happiness.

However, it requires tremendous strength and character to place others’ interests before our own. I want to suggest that by moving our self-orientation to the background, and truly focusing upon enhancing the lives of those around us, we can attain a more balanced perspective of the world while simultaneously finding greater personal fulfillment for ourselves.

And so, here’s the secret: in order to be humble, you have to be strong; and you have to be so comfortable with that strength that you don’t have to flaunt it or impose it, or use it as a tool for control or domination. With true power comes an obligation to wield that power with humility, and to refrain from arrogance.

In describing his vision of the ideal American foreign policy, then-presidential-candidate George W. Bush said in October, 2000:

“If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”

Admirable as that vision was, we cannot avoid the fact that, six years later, fair or not, our reputation with both friends and foes around the world is anything but humble.

* * *

51ihrk5qo3l-_sx329_bo1204203200_That concludes the introduction to a much more lengthy essay by Ira Williams, and in it he unpacks further the implications of humility as a national virtue, and gives some suggestions as to how we might, as individuals and as a people, recover the ability to “speak softly” even while carrying the “big stick” of responsibility as the world’s only remaining “superpower.”

[Note: I concluded my presentation with an invitation to visit Ira Williams’ website, which unfortunately is no longer in service. However, you can view/download a complete copy of his excellent essay here. I highly recommend that you do. It’s even more relevant today than it was ten years ago. He also expanded this essay into a full-length book, which I have not read but have ordered. You can check it out here.]  – back to top –

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

1 thought on “Independence Day Talks: 1997-2006”

  1. That’s a fine collection. It’s too bad that the state of affair in this nation – and in 91711 in particular – would preclude you giving such invocations today.

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