LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY
When France turned away from its deepest roots
The Gospel Reading: Luke 4:16-30
Preached at the Church of St. Thomas and St. Denis, Cainhoy, South Carolina
March 17, 2019
“The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, and we expect to train a young child by making him reason! … If children [already] understood how to reason they would not need to be educated.” Jean Jacques Rousseau in Emile.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” [Jesus in Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1,2.]
France is once again in turmoil. Eighteen straight weekends of riots, protests, strikes, denunciations, class warfare. I am not pointing a finger at France for terrorist killings, given our own record. But one has to admit: France has had more than its share of them in recent years. And once again France seems to be in political turmoil.
I want to suggest that this may have something to do with the foundation of France’s democracy. France’s democracy and our democracy were founded on very different assumptions. For France it was the thinking of men like Rousseau and Voltaire that laid the basis for their society. In America it was something different.
Take Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau had been reared in Geneva by Protestants, but he had rejected one of Calvin’s most noted beliefs: the depravity of human nature. “No,” Rousseau said, “man is not bound by an inner disposition to evil. Man is basically good. It’s human society that has put mankind in chains.”
Rousseau and his friend Voltaire saw Reason as the foundation for democracy. It was a very idealistic vision. Get rid of the king. Enthrone Reason, and all will be well.
But there was another voice in Pre-Revolutionary France that was saying something very different. A generation before Rousseau and Voltaire there was Blaise Pascal (1622-1662), another great French thinker. While not a Calvinist, Pascal believed in that evil was innate in human nature. Man was not the noble savage that Rousseau said. Pascal, a scientist, philosopher and man of letters, very famous and respected, believed that man was sinful and needed to discover — as he had — the Grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Back in the 18th Century France had a fundamental choice. Would France follow Rousseau and Voltaire, or would France follow Pascal? Would Reason be the answer to the ills of society, or would it be God’s Grace?
France, as we know, followed Rousseau and Voltaire, and the rest is history. The French Revolution that they spawned was guided by all-mighty Reason and it led the nation into revenge against the nobility, bloodshed, and a Reign of Terror.
By contrast, America was founded by people who had fled the turbulence and oppression of European society with its aristocracies and enforced religious conformity. Many of our founding fathers embraced, as Calvin did, the view of human nature that saw mankind as having a basic flaw. It harked back to Jesus who had said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19)
Consequently, when our Founding Fathers created our democracy they had a much dimmer view of human nature than prevailed in France. Therefore, they created a system of government with checks and balances to restrict elected government and limit its powers. And the American Revolution has led to nearly 250 years of internal peace (with the sad exception of the Civil War), whereas France is still trying to work out how a society can achieve its goals that are Liberty, Equality and Fraternity — if Reason is its guide.
Of course, the fundamental issue arose in France well before the French Revolution. It arose with the ascendency of French Protestantism. The Huguenots, as French Protestants were called, believed in the fallenness of human nature because their ultimate authority was the Bible, not Reason. They were people of the Book. They read and memorized much of the Bible. They sang the Bible. They cherished the Bible. They withstood incredible persecution, marginalization, and eventual expulsion. Their liberty was the gift of Christ’s redemption. Their equality was the mutual loyalty they had to God and his Word. And their fraternity was a brotherhood that bound them lovingly together in one Spirit.
As many of you know, here in the Colonies Huguenots found many commonalities with Anglicans. Both agreed that the Roman Church was wrong to put another authority, that of Tradition, alongside Scripture. But there were differences. Most notably, whereas Anglicans saw the Bible as the “supreme authority” in all matters of faith and practice, the Huguenots saw the Bible as the “exclusive authority” in all matters of faith and practice. So, no bishops, priests or deacons in the Bible? Let’s get rid of them. That difference led to some vigorous fellowship between them in the early years, but eventually it died out.
Let’s take a quick look at the biblical basis for these three watchwords of the French Revolution — which are good words, beautiful words, close to our own “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. But if the French had rooted them in Scripture they might have avoided many of the problems that they had because of their desire to root them in Reason.
So, come back with me to Nazareth where a 29-year-old Jesus, having returned from 40 days of testing in the wilderness, is preaching what appears to be his first sermon.
All Nazareth is abuzz with gossip about him. How exciting to have the preacher who grew up here back among his own kith and kin. And as they listen to this first sermon they turn to one another and “speak well of him and wonder at the gracious words which proceed out of his mouth.” (Luke 4:22)
But as they listen a bit further they became confused. And soon they are aghast, and finally they are enraged. They wouldn’t let him finish. They dragged him to a high precipice and intended to throw him off a cliff.
So, what on earth did he say in that first sermon that transformed them from admiring listeners to hate-filled antagonists?
First, he talked about LIBERTY. Listen. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has sent me to proclaim:
· release to the captives…
· to set at liberty those who are oppressed…
· to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
It all started great, until they began to realize that he was talking about a kind of liberty that was light years from the political liberty they were hoping for. Jesus was saying that they were captives. They knew that. But captives to what? They were captives to sin. Their own human natures were bent on self-worship not the worship of God.
And they were oppressed. They knew that too; but to the Romans they thought. No, Jesus was saying. They were oppressed by things much deeper: Guilt, illnesses, rejection by their Gentile neighbors, demonic visitations. Their real oppression wasn’t political. It was spiritual.
And then what about the “acceptable year of the Lord?” That made them even more offended. The “acceptable year” in Jewish tradition was the 50th year, the year of Jubilee, the year when all debts were forgiven, all slaves released, all rented property returned, and all wrongs were righted. Jesus was saying that that ancient celebration of Jubilee was a foreshadowing of the forgiveness they could now find in him. The 50th year of Jubilee was starting right there and then with him.
In essence, Jesus was saying that true liberty is found in him. In the Kingdom that he was inaugurating as the anointed Son of God: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” No wonder they began to scratch their heads. What is he really saying?
Secondly, Jesus had a very different view of EQUALITY. Jesus had not come for the rich and powerful. He had not come for his own hometown kith and kin. He had come to preach good news to the poor. He had come for those whose barns were filled with stuff, or who liked the important places in the synagogues. He had come for the poor, the desperate, the down and outs. He had come for those on the outside of society, on the perimeters, for the rejects, the nobodies, the outcasts. That’s why the lepers, the adulterers, the handicapped, the widows, the halt, the lame and the blind were drawn to him.
Jesus was a great leveler. Any who would follow him would have to let go of the social barriers that relegated these people to the bottom of the ladder. His brother James would later write, “Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:1-5)
Those listening that day in Nazareth would not only scratch their heads, they would now begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
And then thirdly, Jesus spoke of FRATERNITY. He continued his sermon by saying, “No prophet is acceptable in his own country…there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah…when there was great famine in the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarepath in the land of Sidon…to a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Namaan the Syrian. Now when the people heard that in their synagogue they were filled with wrath. And they took him to the brow of the hill and were going to throw him down.”
What he had said not only shocked them, it horrified them. As Jesus began they were saying, “Isn’t it nice that man who is ‘one of us, who is the child of Joseph whom we all know’ is back home and preaching a sermon in our synagogue. It makes us proud.
But when Jesus expanded the circle of those who are welcomed in the Kingdom to include those hated Gentiles, a widow from Sidon, and a General named Namaan from Syria, they went ballistic. Although these stories were in their Scriptures, they didn’t see these non-Jews as brothers, worthy of God’s grace. There was no Fraternity in their minds. Gentiles were untouchable. You don’t have any truck with them or their kind. But that’s not what Jesus was saying.
I was in Nigeria a few years ago, walking through the local market. I spotted a young Nigerian lad sitting behind a booth, and I noticed that he was reading his Bible. As I walked by, he lifted up his face and our eyes met. He probably could figure out why an American would be in the middle of Nigeria. Very likely, I too was a Christian. He looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back at him. Without a word we knew we were brothers despite the worlds that separated us.
What did we have in common? Age? Race? Economic status? Language? Nationality? We had none of those things. But we were brothers in Jesus Christ. Fraternity. Where can you find that kind of connection apart from Christ?
That day in the synagogue, Jesus was saying what the Huguenots knew. Until the Spirit of Jesus Christ enters our hearts, we will never discover real Liberty from captivity. We will not know equality, and we will not live in brotherhood.
Here’s the Jesus formula that Rousseau and Voltaire did not know, or rejected. Pascal did know it, though he remained a Catholic. And the Huguenots did. Oh, if France had followed them.
In closing, come back with me to Nazareth. Today Nazareth is an Arab town, a Palestinian one, a Muslim one. When I was there as a traveling student in 1959, I pulled up my scooter in front of a carpentry shop that resembled what a carpentry shop might have looked like in the days of Jesus. They were using the same old hand tools to make furniture and so on.
So, I stopped, got out my camera and asked the carpenter if I could take a picture of him and his assistant, a young Arab boy of maybe 13. The owner said “sure,” but as I was about to click the camera the young boy jumped up and shouted “No”. As a Muslim he knew exactly why I, an American and quite likely a Christian, wanted a photograph of a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. He wouldn’t have it. He began to shout, and pretty soon a crowd gathered.
There was more shouting and gesticulating, and I quickly bid them good-bye, jumped on my scooter, and was off. No Liberty. No Equality. No Fraternity there.
But then jump ahead 55 years, I was back in Nazareth, leading a tour. Surprisingly, Jesus’ message of Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood seems to have found a home there – at least among some. Ten years after my scooter incident, some Catholic Christians began to build a church in Nazareth to commemorate the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel spoke to a young Mary and said that she would have a son.
Just five years ago, 55 years after my first visit to Nazareth, I was again in Nazareth. Before my eyes stood the largest Christian church in the entire Middle East. Yes, right there in Nazareth. The Church of the Annunciation, opened in 1969, now welcomes people from all over the world. It stands as a visible symbol of the Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood that Jesus came to give us and that he gives us still when our hearts and minds are open to him.
The Rev. Dr. Peter C. Moore, Director, Anglican Leadership Institute