Bless? Did He Say What I Thought He Said?

I just heard something amazing.

At the end of an address to the U.S. congress, the speaker concluded with the required words, “God bless America,” and for the first time, to my dissident ears, the phrase meant something believable, it sounded right, honest, humble, like the prayer that it is, not a claim of entitlement, nor the pretense of being the chosen-special-unique-privileged-divinely illuminated nation, the city on the hill casting a glow down upon the lesser lights of the unblessed world.

This was a blessing, a real blessing.

The speaker, of course, was Pope Francis.

The words, when spoken by an outsider, an observer, a co-traveler, who is also a friendly critic, now became a good word (a bene-diction) spoken not in self-interest but in the humility that seeks good for the neighbor.

I caught my breath, or my breath was caught away from me for a moment.

“Did he really say that? “

Yes, yes he did.

“What was he thinking?”

Wouldn’t we like to know?

“Did he mean what that usually means?” Or not?

In asking that final question, the familiar becomes strangely fresh. “God bless America,” the requisite refrain for any “pontificating politician” becomes an honest to God supplication by a pontiff. Trite turns true, old morphs to new.

Each time a president, senator, representative, general, admiral, or whatever official addresses the nation, it is obligatory that he or she conclude with this ritual cliche of civil religion. It is such a given, it flits by without eliciting a great deal of thought. It rarely occurs to most that the benediction repeats the practices of many ancient theocracies or recalls the holy empires of the past. One might see again the great sweep of iconic symbols from the cross fixed on Roman Emperor Constantine’s spears or emblazoned on his shields. Or (Achtung! ) look again at the inscriptions on German helmets and belt buckles claiming “Gott mit uns.” Jawohl! Or hum a few bars from our American The Battle Hymn of the Republic that makes the death on the battlefield equivalent with that of the Galilean on Golgotha. Or really listen to the lyrics of national anthems, our hymns of nationalism, offering the piety of patriotic hyperbole.

“God Bless America” echoes many texts from the Old Testament —“The Lord of Hosts” is a military designation, the commands for genocide in the name of G__D, are in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel; the Psalms provide imprecatory prayers for the enemy’s annihilation. All these empower the current conviction that Some One Up There is on our side, or validate the request that Some One Bless Us, the U. S. above all.

But when one of the greatest detractors of greed, one of the keenest critics of the exploitation of the powerless, one of the world leaders who is calling the rich to question their right to riches, when such a person prays that God bless the American nation , we must stop and ask what it might mean. Is it asking a blessing on policies that often reward greed, on practices that exploit masses, on propaganda celebrating both violent success and excess?

We should remember that Francis was praying to the God of Jesus Christ, so we might suspect that his three word prayer was only the introduction to some very intriguing sentences.

Bless? How? Bless with what? Bless with unlimited prosperity–or– with a commitment to the welfare of the planet? Bless with military omnipotence–or– with a passion for making peace? Bless with international dominance–or –with a a new spirit of cooperation and collaboration that works with other peoples to inspire hope?

“God bless us everyone,” said Dicken’s Tiny Tim. Maybe that is all he meant, but wait . . . . .

. . . did you see a flash of light? This particular “God Bless America” is like an odd laser of truth—blink, protect your eyes; or like an unexplained jolt of electricity—breathe deeply, your irregular heartbeat may go away.

. . . did you see a flash of light? This particular “God Bless America” is like an odd laser of truth—blink, protect your eyes; or like an unexplained jolt of electricity—breathe deeply, your irregular heartbeat will go away.

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