From the Prologue
In invoking the metaphor of story, we have begun to build the case for an under- standing of political process that reclaims the historical dimension of nation- hood and the essential role of memory in fostering a vibrant and just society while at the same time taking into full account the modern phenomenon of diversity. When national identity is understood in terms of historical ontology rather than abstract theory, the question of who we are as a people invokes the historical question, where do we come from and what are the narratives and practices that shape our sense of shared goals? When those questions evoke memories of flights from bondage to freedom and an inheritance of copious streams and fecund fields, a sense of pride infuses the national consciousness. But when deeper scrutiny discloses the expropriation of those streams and fields from their native owners, the role of memory in defining national identity tempers national pride with self-critique.
To be sure, many citizens, desirous of an ebullient picture of the past, cultivate a national story that resembles fable more than fact. Patriotism becomes the pretense for bowdlerizing the textbooks teaching American history to the next generation. To pledge allegiance to the flag takes on the aura of worship that categorically erases any sense of regret or need for redress. But as we have learned from Nazi Germany, history teaches a severe lesson: if a sanitized version of the nation's story becomes official, lies trump hard truths, sanctimoniousness excludes all sense of remorse, and a climate is created in the nation's citadels of power for combative politics and belligerent foreign policy. A potentially deadly disease invades the heart of the land.
Though less pernicious than the demagogical hijacking of Scripture, another dubious interpretive practice is widespread in the United States. It involves consulting the Bible as one would a recipe book or a repair manual in search of clear answers to complex questions that deserve not facile directives but careful analysis drawing on the profound moral insights of Scripture. Flat-footed proof- texting errs by failing to recognize the subjective aspect of all interpretation. The way forward must be one that courageously and patiently seeks to honor traditions by hearing them in their own voices and then patiently and diligently strives for answers benefiting from the contributions of all participants in a diverse society.
Moving forward in the case of this study has as its goal the formulation of a theopolitical hermeneutic capable of channeling the cacophony of religious beliefs and moral principles that reside in contemporary society into a rich and productive public dialogue. But before we embark on that theological task, our historicist perspective calls for two historically oriented investigations to provide essential background. Both will reflect the concrete cultural location of the author, one his US citizenship, the other his biblically based religious orientation.
In part 1, we shall trace chapters of a story that over the course of several centuries has fashioned the heart of US identity and, in new chapters that continue to be written, unfolds further its open-ended plot. Because of the resiliently religious character of the American people from colonial times to the present, we shall be attentive to the role that biblical tradition has played in shaping the national story. That that role was considerable is understandable in light of a shared quality: the nation's history and biblical history are both filled with identity-building stories, stories depicting origins, adjustments to new experiences, enrichment through encounters with the alien and the unexpected, and above all, a sense of purpose that asserts the need to make sense of the whole. In the case of ancient Israel, this implied the triumph of epic over myth in the case of the U