I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York, where the American Revolution is as much alive today as is the Civil War in Richmond. I played on the cannons of George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh. It was there that Washington learned of the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the final end of the Revolution. Not far away, in a place named New Windsor, George Washington refused to be king. There are not many times in the history of the world when a man has turned down power and wealth for the good of a country.
When I was a boy, I dreamed of going to West Point. I went there often to watch the “Long Grey Line” march on the plains of the Academy. I always hoped I would be part of that line. It was a very sad day in 1965 when I learned that my eyesight would not allow me to enter West Point. As boys, we knew the Academy well; we used to sneak onto its tennis courts, and watch maneuvers and football practice. The MP’s were forever throwing us off the Post. I remember a day in June 1962; I was only 14, but we boys knew how to beat army security and we had gotten through the guards to hear what was Douglas MacArthur’s last speech. It was one of the most brilliant speeches I have ever heard, and to this day it gives me goose bumps whenever I hear it. This is part of it:
Duty. Honor. Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean. The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every dema-gogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule. But these are some of the things they do. They build your basic character, they mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense, they make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, nor to seek the path of comfort, but to challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion for those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength. They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, an appetite for adventure over love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you to be an officer and a gentleman…
After a bit he ended his speech this way:
The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.
But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes Duty. Honor. Country. Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps. And The Corps, and The Corps.”
MacArthur was obviously talking to soldiers, but I don’t know any better words to help us on July 4th remember the courage and bravery of so many souls who have sacrificed to make this nation great when it is at its best. And if we were on the plains of West Point I would stop here and leave you in silence to feel the great honor it is to be part of the history a nation who despite its shortcomings remains a beacon of freedom and hope to the world. But we are not on the plains at West Point. We are in God’s sacred place and we, too, belong to an army, a different Corps.
General MacArthur’s words are fitting not only for West pointers but in a strange way they translate to Christians as well. At the end of this service we will sing with all our might that old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” though these days it is rarely sung because it is considered to be politically incorrect.
Sometimes we confuse our duty, honor, and country with our faith in God. History is filled with the corpses of people who have been killed because they worshipped the wrong God. There is a difference between our loyalty to our country and our loyalty to God. When these two loyalties get confused it is God that is left in the dust.
It is good to be a patriot, but it is more important to be a Christian. And this what we need to remember in our Churches. Not too long ago this nation was rent with division over a war in Viet Nam. Most of us remember such slogans as “My country—right or wrong.” Or “America” Love it or Leave it.” But looking back, it was those hippies who smoked pot and protested who were closer to the truth than most of us. We lost that war because we were on the wrong side, and we fought that war as if we never intended to win it because it was a mistake; much like the British fought the American Revolutionaries. We even killed each other. Remember the Kent State Massacre?
I bring up this era today not to blame anyone for the tragedies of the past. No war is good. But in today’s complexities, it is too easy to follow slogans and seek simple answers. I’m going to say this as plainly as I can. If you feel more fervor over your patriotism than you do over your Christian faith then you have it backwards. America is a great and proud nation, but it is not God. Like the patriarchs in the Bible, we have made terrible errors as a country just as we have done much good. On July 4th we celebrate the traditions of freedom and commonwealth that we enjoy as a diverse people. Think of it: our ancestors came from all over Europe, from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Poland, Austria, and some from other places like Turkey, China, and Africa. Even the Queen of England apparently has some African ancestry. What makes this nation great is that we are a hodgepodge of cultures and traditions forged into a commonwealth of freedom, and in that paradigm we are like unto the community that Paul envisioned and St. Augustine wrote about in the City of God.
But we are more than Americans. We are Christians, in that we ought to be closer to our Christian brothers and sisters all over the word than we are even to our nation. When we sing “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war,” know that the war in which we are engaged is a war against particularity and against the whole notion that I am better than you are because I am a American, or Englishman, or an Israeli, or Russian, white, or black, or yellow or red. The cross of Jesus makes us one people beyond any national boundary. Later it sings, “Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the Church of Jesus constant will remain”—and if you doubt that, ask the Roman Emperors, or Napoleon, or Lenin. What is permanent is Jesus Christ, and not even America will last forever.
And so we can sing with happy voices, “Glory, laud and honor, unto Christ the King; this through countless ages we with angels sing…”
Duty, Honor, and Country are powerful words of the fabric of our commonwealth, but they are not the final words. Those words are better said by Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Those are tougher orders than any General MacArthur ever gave, and he gave some tough orders.
Remember what St. Paul wrote eloquently, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Just as that great General stirred the souls of those cadets on that June morning, let your faith stir you up, because whether you know it or not, whether you believe it or not, you are in a battle that is life and death against hatred, oppression, prejudice, and the devil. And if you do not stand up and fight that battle for Jesus, then who will?