Psalm 14 7.2.17
From the beginning, our nation has at least given an official nod to God, acknowledging that there is a divine being greater than us. The men who signed the declaration of independence 241 years ago on Tuesday affixed their names to the document which concluded: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
They committed to working together for an independent nation, trusting in the protection of Divine Providence—understanding that God was present and active as they began their new life as a free nation.
The fourth verse of our Star Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key right here in Baltimore’s Harbor in 1812, includes the line: “And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”. Although the song did not become our official national anthem until 1931, the self-identity of being a nation which trusts in God gathered steam during the Civil War in the 1860’s.
The use of the motto, “In God we Trust” on our coins began as early as 1864, but was not made a requirement for all coins and paper money until 1956, under President Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership, when Congress made it a law. He also made sure to add that we are one nation “under God” to the pledge of allegiance. Eisenhower explained his reasons for wanting to include “under God” in the pledge in a speech on Flag Day in 1954: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.” Words of a military general turned president.
A motto does not make an entire nation trust God. Actually, for all of our talk about trusting in God, for all of the coins we handle with the words engraved on them, our nation is made up of people no different than people the world over, no different than the people the psalmist lived with in the Middle East centuries before Christ. We may not consciously think: “there is no God”, as he accuses his contemporaries of doing, but we actually practice a “practical atheism,” in the way that we live. Practical atheism is not the philosophical atheism espoused by people who have thought it through and have concluded that they can not believe there is a God at all. You may know some people like that. Practical atheism is the belief that we can do what we want, that we are in control, that we owe nothing to God or to our fellow humans, and that we can use the earth and its contents as we please. Practical atheism can be practiced by people who do say they trust in God, who do sit in pews week in and week out, who do claim to be Christian. You hear it in phrases like: “I do it because I can”, meaning I have no concern for how my action will impact someone else and no concern for how God sees my action. You hear it in phrases like: “it’s my property,” “it’s my business,” “it’s my choice,” “it’s my gun,” “it’s our country”, without any concern for those around me or for the community I live in or for the world as a whole. It’s all about me, all about us.
This is the attitude the psalmist is railing against. People who live in denial of the truth that their very life comes from God. The word translated “fool” in English doesn’t mean stupid or dumb. It is more descriptive of a person who decides and acts on the basis of a wrong assumption. Someone who operates on the assumption that there is no God who holds us accountable for our actions is a nabal in Hebrew, a fool. There is a story in 1 Samuel about a rich, evil man named Nabal (what mother would name her son Nabal?) who was having a big community event to shear his many sheep. While they were in the wilderness, the sheep and the shepherds were protected by David’s men, and David sent word to Nabal, asking him to include his men in the food and drink of the celebration. Nabal claimed to know nothing of who David was, and refused to be a good neighbor. David was incensed, and planned to retaliate by killing Nabal and his men (an extreme response to an insult, in my mind). Nabal’s intelligent and attractive wife, Abigail, saw the problem and intervened. She met David and his men en route with lots of food and drink, convincing him not to follow through with his plan to kill Nabal and his workers. David turned around in peace, and Abigail went home to tell Nabal all about it. When he learned his great mistake, he keeled over and died soon after. Abigail ends up as one of David’s wives. Nabal was rich in sheep and in employees, but not in understanding who David was as God’s anointed one. He made a mistake about reality.
The nabal, or the fool, is the kind of person who mistakenly assumes he or she answers to no one. She lacks real focus, he has no moral compass, and the nabal ends up really doing nothing good. The psalmist pictures God on a hunt for people who are wise, for people who are seeking God, as if God is using a pair of binoculars to comb the globe for people who are doing good. God sees no one! The prevailing attitude and the visible actions are corrupt. And what does God see on a similar hunt today, looking with God sized binoculars from heaven? A doctor with a gun turned on a patient and then himself. A mother killed because she spoke up and complained that her child was a victim of bullying. Lawmakers who can not find the way to provide adequate healthcare for citizens of this nation. Viral tweets which publicly slam others in a malicious way. Re-closing the doors on our relationship with Cuba. Losing our place of respect among other nations for self-centered actions like pulling out of a shared global commitment to protect the environment. We do not have to look very far down the road to see behavior or hear words that illustrate the “it’s all about me” attitude which leaves out any acknowledgement that God even exists, much less a proclamation of trust in God. Practical atheism.
We can’t simply bemoan the current state of affairs, pointing our finger at the nabal around us. We must recognize what we see in the mirror as well. What actions have we taken which indicate our lack of concern for what God has done in our lives, for what God promises to do in our lives, or for the people God has placed around us? The psalmist wants more than a nod to God, more than sitting in a pew, more than money in the offering plate. The psalmist calls the people of Israel and the people of Judah to acknowledge who it is who will change things for the better—not themselves, but God. It is God who changes their circumstances.
The psalmist calls people of the US and the people of every nation to acknowledge God’s power, to find a way to really trust in God. God wants more than a nod. Pretending we trust in God and then making decisions or taking actions which deny any kind of trust in our Creator is not what God is looking for. God wants us to recognize who we are in the total picture of God’s creation. We are not completely autonomous. Instead, we belong to God, and are connected to one another. No one can make a nation trust in God. But we each can make a conscious decision for ourselves. Can we live out our nation’s motto: In God I Trust?