July 5, 2020

“Independence Day 2020,” Bob Ryder

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title:  Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.” Barack Obama, Farewell Speech – January 10, 2017

This past week I’ve found myself repeating rote variations of the traditional season’s greeting out of habit. “Happy forth!”  “Have a happy 4th of July – be safe!” Most years that rolls off the tongue easily enough.  But this year it comes out awkwardly. It feels discordant, hollow. It causes cognitive dissonance. “Happy 4th!”  Is it, though?

This year the 4th of July doesn’t much feel like cause for celebration.  We’ve got so many serious problems, so many self-inflicted wounds taking place at the moment – that it’s not enough just to borrow glory from the founders. This year it feels like the 4th of July is more an occasion for humility and repentance than it is for pride. Perhaps the protests happening across the nation are what we ought to be honoring – the original 4th of July was nothing if not the announcement of a protest, and it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

Increasingly over the past few years – and during 2020 particularly – America unintentionally held a mirror up to itself – probably as much due to smartphone cameras and social media as anything – and the reflection isn’t flattering. It’s like seeing a photograph of ourselves we weren’t prepared to have taken, with our unconscious slouching posture and our face in true orientation rather than the mirror image we’re accustomed to – our asymmetries obvious and glaring.  We’re unshaven, our teeth aren’t brushed, and we have our resting bitch-face on. Our clothes are ill-fitting. We’ve let ourselves go. We’d need a shower and at least 6 months of exercise and healthy eating to make ourselves look presentable.

Thinking about American Independence Day is like looking at that photo of our collective identity this year – we can’t miss the deep stains of systemic racism, the willful stupidity of those who ignore science, the slovenly entitlement of those who claim their civil rights are being violated when required to wear a mask and practice social distancing during a deadly pandemic. It’s the blank stare of our own complicity for not speaking out urgently and rising up quickly and making contributions sacrificially to causes for freedom and justice on behalf of the neglected and exploited. That’s what we admire when we think of the founders, after all. It’s a President so corrupt and incompetent – and a base of support so blindly devoted – as to defy belief. It was exemplified most recently at the base of Mount Rushmore during a 4th of July celebration serving as thinly veiled hate speech where thousands gathered unwelcome on native land, crammed together without masks in defiance of science common sense. Our nation has humiliated itself. But “Happy Fourth!”

If there is something to be proud of, perhaps is that there are enough people with the conviction to protest angrily – still believing and insisting America can be better than this. As our Senator Tammy Duckworth observed recently, protests are about the most American thing people can be doing now. If we’re attending to something beyond the revolution against King George, let it be in recognition of those still trying to hold this nation to its highest ideals, and pointing out what a very long way we still have to go before we can claim “liberty and justice for all.”

At its best, Independence Day should be perhaps one part commemoration of a gargantuan historical accomplishment, one part reverence for the high ideals of human rights and democratic government that inspired it, and all parts sober reflection and repentance, acknowledging how tragically short we have fallen in realizing those ideals in the actual life of our nation.

To be sure, it is ever appropriate to take pride in the circumstances from which the United States was brought forth. Thirteen subject colonies of England, sorely abused and exploited, absolved themselves of allegiance to the British Crown and against staggering odds achieved a military victory over the greatest Army and Navy in the world. The courage and sacrifice of the founders – women and men, politicians and soldiers, citizens and slaves – stands out as among the most noble in history. We are the heirs of heroes in the truest sense of the word.

Also, it’s ever appropriate to admire the professed ideals upon which our nation was founded.  While no language is perfect, much less the execution of its intentions, this passage from the American Declaration of Independence is among the most perfect ever written. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” Those words are as sacred as holy scripture from any faith tradition.  Likewise, the final passage of the Declaration is worthy of our reverence and aspirations… “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.” Such should be the sentiment that binds us together as citizens of a nation today. Indeed, such should be the ethic by which we identify ourselves as citizens of the world, dedicating our own lives, fortunes and sacred honor for ever expanding causes of justice, freedom and peace.

But above all, this 4th of July must be a moment of self-reflection and repentance. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this week, historian David Blight observed,

We are unfinished. Nothing about our history is static.  We can honor the founding fathers. We can admire the genius of those principles, but look how unfinished we are. That’s exactly what Lincoln called the American republic in the Gettysburg Address. It was unfinished. This is part of the American dilemma. We like to think that we were [ ] born pure and then got more pure. And that’s just not true. It’s always [an] experiment trying to make and remake itself. And the trouble is, of course, that we only do the remaking out of terrible [ ]  and often violent crises. So we may be on the verge now of some kind of new civil rights regime that it is our responsibility to create. If so, we want to think we’re going to get it right this time. But it’s always unfinished.

As I said at the beginning of our reflection, 4th of July doesn’t much feel like a celebration this year, but more an occasion for humility and repentance. Systemic racism and – political corruption are just some if those unfinished projects on our national agenda.  Rev. Jay Wolin writes, “…we will never find wholeness if we do not do the work… the internal work to understand [why we] act the way we do [and] ignore the things we ignore – and the external work to bring justice and healing to a fractured world.”

To conclude, I invite you to check out a rendition of the speech given by Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist who fought for social reform in the 1800s. The speech, given at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester New York, pointed out the hypocrisy in the holiday and in the Founding Fathers’ ideals. As NPR describes it, “In this short film, five young descendants of Frederick Douglass read and respond to excerpts of his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which asks all of us to consider America’s long history of denying equal rights to Black Americans.”

You can find it here: https://youtu.be/NBe5qbnkqoM

Prayer – O thou, sacred mystery who calls each of us into being, who calls us to the causes of mercy and justice, look on our nation and on us with forgiveness. Our society has confused military might with righteousness, and economic power with justice.  We condone racism and inequality as if those were someone else’s problems. We have admired prosperity as if it were the reward of a virtuous life, and neglected justice for the poor, the immigrant, the outcast. As we consider the origins of our nation, fill us with the conviction that we can and must be better than this.  Remind us that the worship you desire is compassion for our neighbor and kindness for the vulnerable and dispossessed.  As we gather at your table, let our care for one another be given and received. We lift into your care the hopes and worries, the joy and sadness we have named both aloud and in the silence of our hearts.  Likewise, burden us with a responsibility to bring that same concern to our neighbors nearby and throughout the world. Give us concerned hearts and a spirit of generosity to share the blessings you have entrusted to us. Amen.