Can the Fourth of July be a Spiritual Holiday, Too?

Even in progressive churches, congregants typically expect some recognition of national holidays. While there is good reason to affirm the Anabaptist separation of church and state as well as recognize the dangers of too-close ties between Christianity and the government, the doctrine of divine omnipresence, ironically, opens the door for experiencing holiness in the midst of national days of self-affirmation.

If God is present in all things, then the affairs of state, celebrating space as well as time, fit into God’s vision for the whole earth. The history of Israel demonstrates how far nations can fall from God’s purposes for communal life; but it also affirms the prophetic vision of healthy and just communities and nations. The ever-present God moves through every aspect of our lives. There are no godless zones, and that includes nations, governments, peacemaking, and military service. Despite our personal and communal turning away from God’s vision of Shalom, God still moves through our lives, calling us to larger visions of ourselves and of our communities. Healthy spiritual formation involves infusing the “secular” with spiritual values, rather than reducing the spiritual to the secular.

Still, most preachers struggle to find the right balance of differentiation and critique, and affirmation and celebration, when it comes to the intersection of nation and congregation, especially in terms of national holidays. Given the fact that most congregants see a relationship between God and country, the wise pastor will seek to affirm national holidays while calling the congregation to go beyond nationalism and empire toward a just and peaceful realm.

Independence Day involves the recognition of important moments in our nation’s story and the gifts we have received as citizens of our nation. While there is much to repent (and realities of genocide and slavery as well as the upsurge in racism and anti-immigrant sentiments should call us to confession and not denial), there is also much to celebrate in our — and every nation’s — national adventure.  Our national parents were not perfect and from the vantage point of over two hundred years, their “sins” are obvious to us. But we might suspect that, in light of a higher vision of national life and global loyalty, our “sins,” many of which are taken for granted as the norm, will be obvious to our successors. We may hope to receive as kind judgment from our successors as we give to our predecessors. We are all the children of our time and this is the source of both moral limitation and the possibility of moral achievement.

In the dialectical movement of not “too much” and “not too” little, when it comes to the relationship of Christianity and national holidays, let me suggest some spiritual practices for the Fourth of July. These will place our national celebration in light of the God’s present and future vision for our nation and the earth.

First, let the Fourth of July be a day of prayer for our national leaders. In some congregations, it will be controversial to pray for Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi; in others, it will be challenging to pray for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. But, our calling is to pray that our leaders find wisdom and self-transcendence. In this time of culture wars and national schism, we can pray for national wisdom and healing, reflected in commitment to dialogue, truth telling, and common cause.

Second, let us give thanks for the commitments, offerings, and sacrifices of our predecessors — pacifists, soldiers, founding parents, and others who have shaped our national life. In our time, we are called to carry on their highest values. As I stated in my reflections on Memorial Day, it is contrary to the spirit of national holidays, celebrating the commitments of our predecessors, to elevate material gain, tax protests, and absolute rights to property and firearms over the well-being of the community. National holidays call us to common cause, not isolated individualism.

Third, let us affirm the diversity of our nation as a blessing and gift. All of us, including the native peoples, came from other lands. Affirming diversity in ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, is at the heart of our nation’s ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (overall well-being). In a time of circling the wagons around “me and mine,” we need to remember that we are a nation of immigrants. Communal synergy emerges in the integration of diversity with loyalty to a common cause.

Fourth, let us affirm global interdependence. We are all interconnected, and while national sovereignty is important and should be preserved from terrorist and aggressor, we are part of a community of nations, each of which is gifted.

Fifth, let us recall that other people love their lands as much as we love the USA. We are not unique in our love of our land, but share this even with our “enemies.” These days we need to seek and embrace more self-transcendence and less parochialism in our national life.

Sixth, we need to make a commitment to world loyalty as well as national loyalty. The prophetic tradition and the teachings of Jesus call us beyond our borders. Our love of our country calls us to be partners in a greater cause — especially in light of global climate change, oil spills, and natural disasters — to be God’s partners in healing the earth.

Wise pastors recognize their congregants’ values, but invite them to imagine a larger world and then work to achieve it — the “impossible possibility” of justice, planetary health, and Shalom.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

  • Baby_Raptor

    “Healthy spiritual formation involves infusing the “secular” with spiritual values, rather than reducing the spiritual to the secular.”

    Why do you need to get your religion into every single little thing?

    Do you realize that by advocating for subtly subverting secular things by sticking your spirituality into them, you’re violating the spirit of the separation of church and state that you claim is good?

    And why the scarequotes? You seem to be implying that no such thing as secular actually exists. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you meant, and if it is then you’re mistaken.

    Why not just celebrate the day for what it is instead of trying to find ways to insert your theology into it? You make a lot of noise about respecting diversity, but your actions are attempting to stifle anything that doesn’t fit your views.

  • Michael

    “Why do you need to get your religion into every single little thing?”
    With respect, I don’t think Bruce is referring to religion parse but the spirituality that exists in all of creation, regardless of an individual’s or a community’s religion/religious views.
    True religion – proper spirituality – is about diversity and inclusivity.
    I wish all my American friends the very happiest Fourth of July. God Bless America – she, like the rest of the world – needs every blessing right now.

  • D. Andrew Kille

    Bruce- good observations, overall. I was tripped up by one point that was not central to your post, but which I think is important. I’d like to suggest that the phrase “history of Israel” is problematic, especially when used as an illustration of how “nations can fall from God’s purposes.” I’m assuming you’re referring to the Biblical accounts of Israel, as distinct from the modern state of Israel, but it’s not clear. There’s an unfortunate tendency for many people to conflate the two, which gives rise to some pernicious attitudes at best and vicious prejudices at worst.


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