With the American holiday of Independence Day smack in the middle of this week, I’m all kinds of discombobulated, so sorry for the even-later-than-usual post. Happy belated 4th, if you’re in the states or an ex-pat—I mean, happy as a relative term.
Patriotic holidays have always been…squelchy for me, even before I was a person of faith. I’m a historian and a writer, and both of those lenses make it hard for me to pledge allegiance to stuff—much funnier in light of my also being an Enneagram Six, which means that my personality desperately wants to pledge allegiance to stuff and be loyal forever but can’t because we’re super skeptical about how that’s going to go. But certainly this year I was not feeling all that proud of the red, white, and blue.
Before we get into a discussion, Internet, about the respect for the soldiers and the need to recognize sacrifice and all that, let me tell you a couple of things. I sit in the middle, as with nearly everything: my maternal grandfather served in the Navy in WWII and stood with pride at every possible parade or service he could up to his death; my paternal grandfather was a Conscientious Objector, a pacifist who had to write the American president to get permission to be a CO because his mayor and governor both dismissed his claim as unpatriotic. My stepbrother served in Afghanistan and watched his best friend’s head get blown off by a sniper. I have watched classmates and family go to war and I have watched classmates and family stay here. I have friends who have served and friends who have not. I myself nearly signed up for the Army before I realized that I am temperamentally unsuited for it in every way, shape, and form.
But for this particular holiday, none of that matters. One of the unfortunate things about American patriotism (nationalism) is that we bleed our holidays together. Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day become a hazily similar mix of troop support and fireworks, flags snapping smartly along street lanes in small towns and everyone settling into the heat for a good American barbeque. And I have nothing against fireworks and barbeque, but the Fourth of July is a historical thing. We are celebrating, as a nation, the time when our ancestors told an empire that enough was enough, that freedom was a right.
Funny how the right of freedom was terribly limited even as the words were written, which we’re getting better at acknowledging. But Independence Day is, as I said, squelchy to me because I ascribe to a faith system that believes in freedom up to and including from global systems and human-made power structures. I am free in Jesus Christ, not because I’m American. I’m also free as an American, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
Several years ago I was doing pulpit supply (basically substitute preaching) for a small church near the Land of Pilgrims and it was Independence Day weekend—it may actually have been July 4 that Sunday, actually. At the children’s moment, an older gentlemen stood up and told the kids it was the holiday weekend and had them recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag that he brought out of the corner so they could see it.
I was so floored I couldn’t have said anything even if it were my place to do so, which it decidedly was not. In this “nation under God” (a phrase that is very modern and not original to the Founders, who very much understood there to be a separation of Church and State; God is in the Declaration of Independence as the Supreme God, Providence, and a Judge because the Founders were appealing to the divine right of revolution, not because God was the overseer of this new nation) we get really mixed up about who’s in charge. Here’s the thing: our earthly citizenship is fine and dandy, but it is not and cannot be our ultimate allegiance. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” says Psalm 24; when we take our American pride into God’s house or when we elevate it to a civic religion of our identity as Americans being a cornerstone of who we are, that’s a problem.
So I hope everyone had a good Independence Day, I really do. I had sloppy Joe’s and watched part of a cornhole tournament (yes, there really is such a thing) and saw some fireworks from the back porch; I get the delight of celebration. But when we cheer on the fact that we as a country separated from another country because they were trampling on what we perceived to be our rights, we should cheer only after taking a really hard look at whether we’ve become what this nation fought against in the first place. And whether we’re celebrating a national identity that idolizes the eagle, the flag, or the soldier.
We can be Christians and Americans. But our being Christian had better shape how we’re being Americans, or there are some things we need to figure out.
“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.” (Daniel 2:44-45, NIV)