Independence Day means many things to many people. To some it is a day to celebrate our nation’s past. To others it’s a day to honor the symbols of our country. For others it’s a long weekend at the lake with family. For some it’s a reminder of the stolen land and stolen labor on which America’s great wealth has been built. For others it’s a reminder that the promises of freedom have been painfully slow in their fulfillment. While we may be tempted to turn away from the contradictions and complications of our homeland, Jesus invites us to take a closer look. Our God invites us to stretch our hearts in a wider embrace.
Through Jesus Christ you free us from sin. Though we remain selfish, we can choose generosity. Though we remain fearful, we can choose to act with courage. Though hatred raises its ugly head all around us, we can choose love.
God of unity,
Knit us together. The fabric of our nation is continually fraying. Though we need each other, our greed, anger, and ignorance keep us apart. Make us weavers of the social fabric. Make us lovers of the common good. Make us builders of a better world for all.
Monday I participated in two really wonderful Zoom conversations. The first was our joint First Church South Church Bible Study. The second was a New York Times Wellness conversation with Rev. angel Kyodo williams. Both conversations were wide ranging. In both conversations the theme of freedom arose repeatedly.
This is not surprising. Saturday, July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day, a day commemorating one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence formalized a process of political separation between the English colonies of North America and the British Empire. The process was long and bloody. American colonists fought a War of Independence from 1775-1783 and then a “second war of independence” known as the War of 1812 (1812-1815). In between the colonists wrote a Constitution (1789) formalizing a new political entity they called “The United States of America.” The preamble of the Constitution begins with the famous words, “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” From the beginning our experiment in freedom on this continent has attempted to hold unity and separation in tension.
But “we, the people” did not mean “all the people.” In 1789, “we, the people” meant white, land-owning men, who were the only people allowed to vote at that time. What on the surface seems like a statement of unity in fact covered over the deep severing from our own humanity that was required to make the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and the second class status of women and impoverished people on this continent possible. This collective wound has been 400 years in the making. It will take some time to heal.
Given this history it’s not surprising that COVID-19 has brought the tension between separation and unity, independence and freedom to the fore. Stories of people refusing to wear masks, for example, because it infringes on their “freedom” though disheartening are based on an idea that freedom is fundamentally about “separation.” This is the freedom of “no one can tell me what to do.” I find this understanding of freedom incredibly narrow–childish, even. It makes me sad that freedom as separation and division has reached such a level in America that behaviors to protect each other from a deadly virus are framed as a partisan “culture war.” What have we become?
But freedom as separation or “independence” is not the only way to understand freedom. Christian freedom, as defined by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, is freedom from the “flesh.” The “flesh” is Paul’s word for the human ego, selfish desires, human sinfulness, willful ignorance, and negative emotions such as fear, greed, anger, and hatred. Christian freedom means our lives no longer need be controlled by these powerful internal forces and we can instead freely give, freely receive, freely act out of our moral commitments all because of our relationship with Christ.
COVID has revealed that the fundamental nature of the universe is connection. COVID does distinguish Democrat and Republican, American and British, rich and poor, Black, white, or Indigenous. As long as we in America continue to demand our “personal freedom” regardless of the cost to our neighbors, our health as a nation will continue to deteriorate. Recognizing our interconnection, Rev. angel Kyodo williams suggested that this July 4 we celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I invite you to pray that we as a nation wake up to the reality that all are connected. I invite you to pray for the true freedom that is found in an open and loving heart that honors the inherent dignity of each and every one.