July 4, 1976, will fall on a Sunday!

This gives Christians a natural edge for their part in bringing off a meaningful and memorable American bicentennial. It offers a built-in platform upon which to recall and emphasize the spiritual dimension in America’s founding and development, as distinguished from purely political, ethnic, and cultural aspects. Since the country will be undergoing its first post-Watergate presidential election campaign in 1976, the religious community will need all the help it can get to wrest public attention from pure politics.

Now the question is: What will Christians do with the possibilities? How can the potential best be realized?

Already a lot of thought has gone into the matter of religion’s role in the 1976 observance, and some results are visible. Last month, the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D. C., premiered Cavalcade ’76, a presentation by Dr. Caspar Nannes that blends education and entertainment in its treatment of religionists who figured prominently in the independence movement. In Boston, historic Park Street Church, where “America” was first sung, has prepared a multi-media feature to put on for visitors (in the past Park Street has had as many as 25,000 persons a month touring the church).

An inter-religious group headed by Dr. R. H. Edwin Espy, retired general secretary of the National Council of Churches, is planning cooperative ventures focusing upon the bicentennial. The National Association of Evangelicals has been similarly active for the last two years and hopes soon to announce its goals. Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, a noted evangelical congregation located not far from Independence Hall, is likewise making preparations.

Unfortunately, the ideas and their execution are not coming easy, and the prospects for cooperative undertakings are dim. Many fear that Key 73 showed the virtual impossibility of Christians’ working together on any grand scale. Ecumenical fervor apparently has passed its peak. And the bicentennial itself seems to be the subject of a great deal of dispute among Americans, religious and otherwise. The main coordinating group created by the government has been so embattled that little has been accomplished. A rival “People’s Bicentennial Commission” is working on its own in Washington.

We cannot even agree on what should be celebrated. Nearly every “achievement” of America now has its detractors, who build a cause on the thesis that there is too much of this or not enough of that. There are Americans who wonder whether the colonists should have revolted and declared their independence from the British in the first place. For them, the only cause for celebration in 1976 is that the nation has survived its mistake!

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But enough negativism. Surely every American can find something about this country that he likes and appreciates and wants to preserve and celebrate. And can we not take it from there?

Maybe it will be better for the country in the long haul if we celebrate in a low-key fashion. The fathers of the republic were sinful in the sight of God as are all other human beings. If there were saints among them it was not of their own doing but because of the grace of God manifest on Calvary. Perhaps it will be good if we do not get carried away with extolling their genius.

America has been a land of individualists to such an extent that people really do get together on that one point about as well as on any. That is, they close ranks reluctantly, and one of the few things that motivates them to do so is a threat to their individualism.

From the Christian perspective, that’s not so bad. God sent his Son to die not for neighborhoods or cities or nations but for separate human beings. So whatever else is or is not done in connection with the bicentennial, should not each one of us set up a personal commemoration, one that is appropriate to the gifts entrusted to us? Can we not celebrate the occasion at least by setting some special individual goal to be realized between now and 1976? Beyond that, we might try to think creatively of what might be done together and then share our aspirations. Perhaps someone, somewhere, will come up with a bicentennial proposal that will rouse the imaginations of a great number of Americans.

Church curriculum planners can give us a good start by designing materials to facilitate the study of American religious heritage and its meaning and importance for today. The responsibility for this kind of study ought to be shared by church and family.

The origin of this nation dates back a lot longer than 200 years. It goes back to the great Puritans, who like many later settlers were great individualists. In recent years, capable historians have been doing much to rescue the term “Puritan” from the narrow, unfavorable connotation it had come to have. The rediscovery of the real Puritan would in itself be a great event for 1976. The revival of their magnificent ideals would be even greater.

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What Is ‘Billy Jack’ Saying?

Billy Jack, a low-budget film first released in 1971, finally started producing money its third time around thanks to an advertising campaign designed to make the half-breed’s name a household word. The film reportedly grossed $800,000 its first week back in the metropolitan Washington area. Among young teen-agers a cult is developing around Billy, who is a strange mix of violence and tenderness. The film presents him as a Christ-figure, and one high school sophomore commented, “Well, if Billy Jack really existed, he could be Christ come back again.”

A thin layer of morality coats the celluloid, making the film makers’ confused perceptions of Christ more difficult for young people to detect. Unfortunately, most viewers know little more than the film makers about who Christ is. Billy Jack perpetuates a popular illusion of Christ as merely an anti-authoritarian rebel.

Kennedy’S Contributions

When President Nixon’s tax returns were publicized, the question of the deductibility of his gift of presidential papers, whether the transfer was made in time to comply with the law, or whether it was a common-law gift prior to the actual signing date of the pre-dated deed, was complex enough to preclude an easy moral verdict on that aspect of his personal financial management. It was shocking, however, to notice that a person who has consistently posed as a Christian and expressed the highest regard for Christian work and for voluntary benevolences contributed so tiny a portion of his personal income to charities of any kind, religious or otherwise.

Now one of the most frequently mentioned possibilities to succeed Mr. Nixon in the highest office, Senator Edward Kennedy, has made his own tax returns public. It is gratifying to note that he, like most other Americans, paid a substantial portion of his personal income in federal and state taxes. What is surprising, though, is that the Senator’s charitable contributions equaled only 1.0137 per cent of his total income (discounting the outside possibility that Kennedy, for one reason or another, made contributions for which he did not claim a deduction). The across-the-board average for all Americans, at all income levels, is 3 per cent. From a biblical perspective, 3 per cent is inadequate; 1.0137 per cent is deplorable.

A Promising Start In The Mideast

Many Christians have been praying for the peace of Jerusalem. They are now rejoicing in the efforts of Henry Kissinger that led to a disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel. It is a promising start toward defusing the explosive Middle East. We can only hope that there are no secret agreements detrimental to the free world.

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There is reason to believe that the Soviet Union, Red China, and Egypt were helpful to Kissinger in attaining the agreement. For this we all should be thankful without assuming that the basic antagonism between the free world and China and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

Amid the rejoicing we must not forget the unresolved Palestinian question. Until this has been settled reasonably, no one can realistically hope for a long period of peace in that troubled part of the world. The sympathy that we have previously expressed for the Israelis we feel for the displaced Palestinians also. Justice and compassion require a resolution of this problem. We hope that the United States will lead the way to a settlement so that Jerusalem may experience an extended time of peace.

Overcoming The Impasse

The deplorable conflict in Ulster, which is a disgrace to the Christian faith, can hardly be moved toward solution unless there is some softening of self-interest on both sides. Some principal in that situation has to express some sacrificial love if the situation is to be turned around.

We had that kind of memorable act in the guilty plea of Charles Colson (see the news story on page 40), and we hope that his example will have the effect of sparking spiritual renewal in the United States and establishing a new moral direction.

Duke Ellington

Last month a life-long affair with music came to an end with the death of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington at the age of seventy-five. Not until late in his versatile career of composing, arranging, choreographing, directing, and performing did Ellington express in public, or through his music, his ties with the Christian faith. He astonished many when he did, because jazz was long regarded (and still is in many quarters) as antithetical to sacred sounds. Yet Ellington did compose some Christian music, calling it “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Ellington’s father was a Methodist, his mother a Baptist, and as a boy he attended both churches each Sunday. Regrettably, he rarely attended services during his adult life. But he was an avid Bible reader, and found it difficult to understand scholarly assertions that the Bible contradicted itself. In 1965 he and his orchestra performed their first church concert, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (see January 21, 1966, issue, p. 41), all the music composed by him. He also played at New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and in London at Westminster Abbey. In 1969 the Ellington orchestra played a special concert in Detroit in connection with a meeting of the National Council of Churches.

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The text for his second concert, “Praise God and Dance,” was Psalm 150, and “Praise him with trumpet sound … praise him with loud clashing cymbals” (150:3, 5b) appropriately describes Ellington’s public admission of faith. As he said about his first concert, “Now I can say loudly and openly what I have been saying to myself on my knees.”

May God help us to understand him better in death than we did in life.

Keep Your Eye On The Farm

World concern has been shifting, at least temporarily, from oil fields to grain fields. The immediate physical well-being of humanity now seems more dependent upon how much plant and animal life can be raised than on how much fuel can be coaxed out of the earth. Some experts are calling this year’s crop the most important in modern times. The world should look this summer not at what goes on in the big cities of North America but at what happens on the great plains, source of an estimated 60 per cent of the world’s trading wheat. The farmer may be taking some of the spotlight away from the politician.

Last year, many American and Canadian farmers made substantial profits in the inflationary spiral (North Dakota, thanks to the wheat price rise, was the state with the largest increase in per capita income: 30 per cent). But in 1974 a lot of farmers have been caught in a price squeeze, and bountiful crops could depress their market to the point of ruin. Soybean prospects have already plummeted because of the return, after a two-year absence, of millions of anchovies to the waters off Peru. In the past these fish were used for animal feed, and when they became unavailable, soybeans were substituted. This drove up the price of soybeans so that underdeveloped countries that had relied on soybean imports for protein were unable to afford them.

Such seesawing variables make the overall picture very complex. But at least one thing is clear: Christians must try to sort out the facts and determine what is being done in the economic realm out of respect and love for deserving human beings and, on the other side, to what extent there is exploitation of difficult situations. That’s not always easy to determine, but it is better to try and err than to ignore the problem.

For years, the big farm problem in North America was surplus. Now the U. S. government has taken all limits off food production for the first time since World War II, and the Department of Agriculture is urging farmers to produce as much as possible. The stewardship responsibility that this places upon all Americans from grower to voter warrants priority attention from everyone, but especially from Christians who seek to exercise compassion and who realize that all we have ultimately comes from God and that it is he who gives the increase.

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The Limits Of Discussion

Anyone who has sat in a Sunday-school class or Bible-study group is likely to know and appreciate the value of give and take. Group participation often gives content a sticking quality not to be found in sheer lectures.

But the discussion approach to teaching also leaves itself open to abuse. The lazy, unprepared leader can get off the hook by posing a few provocative questions at the outset. In most groups that is enough to insure a debate lasting the whole session. Of course, the unguided discussion is quite likely to get off the subject, and to leave some false statements unchallenged.

There is also a temptation, especially when class members hold widely differing opinions, to gloss over crucial issues. Not uncommonly a teacher poses a question, then assures responders that there is no one answer, that what is important is what they themselves think the answer is. This may defuse a volatile situation, but it certainly does not serve the cause of truth. To many important questions, particularly in the religious realm, there is only one answer; other answers are wrong. Good teachers should recognize that it is not in the best interests of students to allow error to go unchallenged, or to imply that contradictory statements can be equally valid.

Good discussions require good ground rules.

Silence Hath Charms …

Picture if you will some solar ray suddenly causing all radios, cassette players, stereo sets, and televisions to stop working. Trembling hands impatiently twirl dials, adjust knobs, flip switches. Eyes are dilated with fear. Breathing comes in spasms.

Marx was wrong. Religion isn’t the opiate of modern man. Incessant sound is. We’ll listen to anything to avoid silence—long, pointless talk shows, boring conversations, round-the-clock news, and even rock and country music.

We like sound because it blocks out the despairing cry of our own souls as well as the still small voice of God. But we need occasionally to take God’s hand and journey into the fearful land of silence. It can be both painful and healing with the presence of the One who is able to still the despairing cry and give us a new song of thanks.

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