Independence Day is always a bit of a strange holiday for me. In fairness, nearly every holiday is strange for me. Christmas and Easter are big work days, others that fall in the middle of the week just end up being like another work day. (I’m doing sermon prep today, can you tell?)
Independence Day is a bit different, though, because I have a complicated relationship with my country. I love being an American. Let’s not kid ourselves… by virtue of being born here we all won the geopolitical lottery. This place is pretty great. However, I think one of the hardest needles to thread for any Christian is to not conflate love of country with faith in Jesus, especially when so many Christians actively campaign to blend the two into a seamless whole.
Independence, freedom, and liberty are pretty important concepts for the American psyche, and they will get a lot of airtime today. At the same time, however, community remains every bit as important to our society. In fact community has been the starting point for nearly all healthy societies. Americans seemed to understand this at the beginning… I hope we still do.
Walter Brueggemann often says that in the Old Testament there were two schools of thought contending for the souls of the Jewish people – the priestly and the prophetic. The Priestly school emphasized purity, the prophetic school emphasized justice. What Brueggemann likes to point out is that neither school was ever given the power to silence the other.
That’s how I feel about personal freedoms and the common good – neither can ever be given the power to silence the other; both must be heard and pursued. There is no such thing as an independent person. We are all tethered to one another. No man is an island. No one can survive without community. Community cannot be absolutized either. The dignity of the person cannot be erased without doing great damage to the soul of the society and the person.
Personal rights and freedoms, liberty, independence… these things are only virtues when held in tandem with the common good. Societies do not achieve liberty by pursuing liberty alone. Liberty is actually the byproduct of a just society. It is the pursuit of justice which ensures personal liberty, not the other way around (this much should be clear from the stories of how the Declaration of Independence came to be written).
The pursuit of liberty without an equal commitment to the common good has a trajectory and momentum which is not trained toward democracy, but fascism. In a world of laissez-faire capitalism and absolute individual liberty, might is the only right — that’s fascism. Only sociopaths assert their rights and freedoms without concern for the common good.
Any healthy society must constantly balance personal rights and freedoms with the reality that we need one another. A strong commitment to the common good is the necessary counter-weight to personal liberty, and vice versa. The common good forces personal freedoms to be held in tension with the values of community and justice. No one can enjoy absolute liberty without undermining the fabric of a just society. Liberty is not an absolute capable of standing on its own. It must always be held in balance with the common good and the pursuit of social justice.
Today is Independence Day; the day we celebrate the fact that our forefathers declared their independence from Great Britain, then fought and won a war to gain their independence as a country from the British Empire. It’s also important to remind ourselves that we are not yet a perfect union. On this day, above all other days, we have to summon the courage to tell the truth about the ways in which we violated community by dispossessing and killing millions of Native Americans, and by prospering on the backs of black slaves for centuries. We have to have the courage to say that we are still violating community and social justice in the way that we are treating many of our Latino brothers and sisters. As we celebrate the greatness of American freedoms and liberties, we have to remember that this story we’ll tell on Independence Day feels very different from the point of view of many Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos in our midst.
Christians should constantly profess that even in our independence we are integrally bound to one another and to this planet. I think the celebration of July 4th – at its best – is an expression of that conviction. Plus we get to blow things up, which is really fun.
So today I will celebrate independence and interdependence and relish them both. I will remember those Americans who suffered for human liberty, and I will remember those Americans who suffered at the hands of their own country as that very liberty was denied them. I will remind myself and my children that human thriving will always depend upon our ability to work together, to seek the common good, to love one another, and sacrifice our own wants and desires in order to seek the welfare of our human community.