Civil Servants – Rev. Henry Brinton
January 9, 2011
Shots were fired.
The date was January 9, 1861. Exactly 150 years ago. A Union ship called “Star of the West” was attempting to deliver troops and supplies to Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Cadets from The Citadel fired on the ship, and forced it to return to New York. This was the first time that gunfire erupted between Southern and Northern forces.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
Now some of you who are historical purists might argue with this date, saying that the war actually started in April 1861. That was when Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces.
But tension was running high in January of that year; South Carolina had removed itself from the Union, quickly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The attack on Fort Sumter prompted four more states to secede, leading to an 11-state Confederate States of America.
Just as Rome was not built in a day, the Union was not split with a single shot.
As we look back on the start of the Civil War, let’s consider what this conflict can teach us as we face the wars going on in our congregations, communities, and country today. Shots were fired again yesterday in Tucson — a judge was killed and a congresswoman wounded by a young man with extreme anti-government views. We need to continue to look to the past, to understand the present.
One remarkable thing about the Civil War was that both the North and the South assumed that God was on their side. Both felt that the Lord was speaking of them when they heard the words of Isaiah, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him” (42:1).
The South, in particular, had some powerful and persuasive preachers, and they used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. Taking the Bible literally, they preached that humans had no business questioning the Word of God when it said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5) … “let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor” (1 Timothy 6:1) … “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9), and “slaves, accept the authority of your masters … not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18).
Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up. No wonder the people of the South believed that God was on their side.
The preachers of the North had to be more creative in their biblical interpretation, but they too found a way to defend their cause. Some emphasized that the Union had to be preserved, because without it the advance of liberty around the world would be slowed or even stopped. Said one preacher in a Thanksgiving sermon, “If America is lost, the world is lost.”
Historian James Howell Moorhead points out that other ministers drew on the Book of Revelation, and suggested that a Northern victory might prepare the way for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Still others preached that God would not allow the North to win until it took decisive steps to end slavery. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung so powerfully by our choir this morning, summed up the beliefs of the Union well:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Theological shots were being fired, from both the South and the North. And both sides were convinced that they were acting as the Lord’s servant, with God right beside them. They were bringing the words of George Washington to life, a warning that had been written 70 years earlier — Washington had said, “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”
Religious controversies. Acrimony. Irreconcilable hatreds.
True then. True today.
But then another president, Abraham Lincoln, offered the most constructive of perspectives on religious warfare. “My concern is not whether God is on our side,” he said; “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
That’s the question that we are left with today, in the middle of our contemporary civil wars: Are we on God’s side?
We feel this question very acutely here in Fairfax, so close to Washington at a time of political transition in Congress. This question also has deep roots in our particular location, steeped in Civil War history. According to the historical marker on Main Street, right across from our church entrance, we are on the site of the birthplace of the Confederate Battle Flag. This flag was created in September 1861, to lessen confusion between Union and Confederate forces in the smoke of combat. Civil wars are very real to us, both past and present.
So the question remains: Are we on God’s side?
We will be if we act like the servant of the Lord in Isaiah, the one who “will not cry or lift up his voice,” but instead “will faithfully bring forth justice” (vv. 2-3). Those who serve the Lord have a mission to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (vv. 6-7). Christians who do these things are always going to find themselves right where they need to be — on the side of God.
This is not a North-South issue, nor is it Right-Left, Blue-Red, Gay-Straight, Tea Party-Progressive, Republican-Democratic. Wherever we find ourselves on the cultural-theological-political spectrum, we are challenged — when shots are being fired — to be the Lord’s servant. The key is not to take a particular stand, but to play a distinctive role. A servant role. We are to be Civil Servants.
Look at the role that the servant takes on in the book of the prophet Isaiah. God says, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1). The servant is filled with God’s spirit in order to bring justice to the nations, which means to go out into the world to protect the rule of law, uphold human rights, deliver social justice, and maintain right relationships.
The Bible is particularly concerned about people who are often denied justice because of their lack of power — widows, orphans, resident aliens. Here in Fairfax, many of us are concerned about the challenges faced by the homeless, and a number of church members will be attending a City Council meeting on Tuesday, to address a zoning issue affecting the Lamb Center shelter.
So the first role of the servant of the Lord is to “bring forth justice” — to bring the justice of the kingdom of God into the middle of human life. We do this whenever we treat people fairly and respect their rights, seeing them as precious children of God, made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). We do this when we pay special attention to people who are vulnerable and in danger of being mistreated by others.
Jose Rosales was a man who came to Northern Virginia to work and support his family. He sent every spare penny he made back home to Guatemala, and spent all of his free time in church. He might have been looked down upon by many people in America today, and even abused by some, but he worked hard and earned the trust of the Brar family of Centreville, who gave him steady work in their construction and real estate business. They treated him fairly, especially during tough economic times.
The Brars looked at Jose as a child of God. And then he became a hero.
One morning last May, two armed men broke into the Brars’ four-car garage. The gunmen threatened the family, and Jose tried to protect them. He jumped one of the invaders, shots were fired, and Jose was killed.
The two intruders fled, and the Brar family was stunned.
“Without Jose, I firmly believe I would not be alive right now,” said Robbie Brar to The Washington Post (May 19, 2010). “He stood strong to protect people who are not related to him. He’s a guardian angel.”
Robbie Brar said he plans to help Jose’s family “like he helped my family …. help his family out however we can.”
That’s bringing forth justice. Being a servant of the Lord.
Notice also the ways in which true servants do their work: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (vv. 2-3). These servants are not loud or obnoxious, destructive or domineering. They do their work quietly and compassionately, with respect for the people around them, while also standing strong for what they believe in. “He will not grow faint or be crushed,” predicts Isaiah, “until he has established justice in the earth” (v. 4).
This is a passage that should be studied by protesters from the Far Left to the Radical Right. There is a better way than waving signs and screaming insults, firing verbal shots — or bullets — at the opposition. We are to be civil towards one another, and focused on service. Civil Servants.
True servants of the Lord always produce more light than heat. In fact, they are sent to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (vv. 6-7). God’s servants bring light into darkness, and help people to see new ways of living together. They work for the liberation of anyone who is trapped — in poverty, in addiction, in homelessness, in loneliness, in despair.
The servant of the Lord is constantly working to free the slaves.
So here we circle back to the Civil War, in which North and South did battle over slavery. In our civil wars today, we are fighting over a number of cultural, political, and theological issues. And, oddly enough, the way out of our struggles is not going to be to fight harder, but to serve better.
How wonderfully ironic this is. Now that the question of slavery has been settled, the challenge of the future is servanthood. Amen.
Moorhead, James Howell. “Religion in the civil war: the northern perspective,” TeacherServe, October 2000, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org.
Jackman, Tom. “Putting others first, right to the last,” The Washington Post, May 19, 2010, A1, A4.