celebrating independence day?

Image: And Justice for All -- Pledge of Allegiance 5-9-09, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from stevendepolo's photostream

Happy Independence Day!

I am conflicted about this holiday.  I love the United States of America.  As a student of history and politics, I truly believe our democracy is the best political system in the world, even though I also know it can be deeply dysfunctional and destructive, and is always in need of reform.  I believe a major reason our nation is great is that we are a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, where variety adds to the beauty and strength of our people, though I question how we can celebrate that history even as our people fear monger about our neighbors to the south who desire a better life in our country.  And I also know that we are still not great at living side by side as a diverse nation.  I know that our past and our present bear the stain of hatred and cruelty and violence and oppression.  I know that institutionalized racism and sexism continue to this day, that our Founders were not perfect men, but rather falliable humans who created an imperfect document in our Constitution, great as it is, because they denied the full personhood of nonwhites and nonmales.  I know that the American Dream is all but impossible for many who are born here and even more who are not.  I know that much cruelty and violence and oppression have been carried out in the world in the name of American values, and I abhor all war and violence.

I think my discomfort with this very American holiday comes mostly from my love of Jesus.  I’m reminded of a Derek Webb song called “A King and a Kingdom.” (Well, actually, I’m reminded of more than a few Derek Webb songs today, including “My Enemies are Men Like Me”.)  “A King and a Kingdom” includes the line “My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man. My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood. It’s to a King and a Kingdom.”  On a day when so many churches will be singing patriotic songs and waving American flags, we need prophetic voices like Derek’s reminding us that we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God.  That we are first and foremost servants of the God who is Love, and, as I read in a piece by Shane Claibourne on the Huffington Post today: “Love is infinitely boundless and all about holy trespassing and offensive friendships.”

The God we love and serve is no respecter of boundaries or borders or citizenship or anything that separates His beloved children from Him and from each other.  He doesn’t bless one nation to the detriment of another, but, as the Bible says, sends rain (a very good thing) to both the righteous and the unrighteous—God longs to bless and love each and every one of us.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, David LaMotte: “God bless the people of EVERY nation.”  It’s what I say to myself when I hear others say “God bless America.”

I’m sure most people who say “God bless America,” don’t mean “God bless us and not others.” Or, “God bless us, and curse our enemies.”  But to me, it’s a statement that is fundamentally exclusive of most of the people whom God loves very deeply, and it’s a statement I’m just not comfortable making.  We are already so amazingly, lavishly, almost disgustingly blessed.  I know some have amended “God bless America” to “America bless God.”  I think I would amend it further: “America, be a blessing to the world.”  That is my prayer today.  I pray it would be on my heart always.  Much like God’s covenant with Israel, to bless them that they might be a blessing to the world; much like Spiderman’s theology of “with great power comes great responsibility,” I think Americans have been given so much that they might give it away.  I strive to live that out, but I need to try harder.  I need to declare independence from consumerism and materialism, so that I might turn from my own selfishness and be more of a blessing to others.

And I’m sure if my more conservative friends could read this, they’d think I’m a “typical liberal” who “wants America to fail” or who is “ashamed of her country” or part of the “blame America first crowd.”  Maybe that’s all true.  I will say that I know that in no other country in the world would I be who I am.  In no other country in the world would I have the opportunities I have had.  And for this I am grateful.  But I do not believe these things come from my country, or my government.  I believe these things come from God.  And I believe God wants good things for all God’s people, whatever nation they may call their earthly home.

So today, I will go down by a river, sit on a blanket, hear a symphony play Sousa marches, and sing along with patriotic songs.  I will watch fireworks exploding in the night sky.  And I will be thankful to have grown up in a country where I am free to love Jesus and think critically and conscientiously object.  I will think of the beauty of our land and our people, and will pray that we may be better stewards of both.  I will dream of a day when we live up to our potential, because we have so very much.  And I will pray, “God bless us, everyone, all whom you love, stand beside us, and guide us, through the night with a light from above.”

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