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In The Episcopal Church, we celebrate Independence Day as a religious holiday—a major feast in the life of our Church. As you might expect, that is not without controversy. Although this church was founded in parallel with the founding of this country, The Episcopal Church has since become a global institution, with dioceses and parishes and people in seventeen different nations from France to Taiwan, from Columbia to Haiti, from Micronesia to the Navajo Nation. Although they use the same prayer book and have the same Presiding Bishop, their national symbols and observances are different from ours.
Another controversy surrounding our Church’s celebration of Independence Day centers on the collect. As Byron Rushing, Vice-President of the House of Deputies, writes in an annual e-mail, “Many of us do not consider the words, ‘the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us,’ in the Independence Day collect to be accurate. Look around your congregations and reflect if all the ancestors of the ‘us’ got their liberty then.” He continues, “This phrase is only possible because slavery was forgotten or [because] the ‘us’ was not meant to include me.” This year, I find his reminder particularly damning.
Most of my ancestors came to this country by choice. They may have been fleeing a potato famine or religious prejudice, but they boarded the ships that carried them across the Atlantic because they hoped for something better. Those who were forced onto ships at gunpoint and in chains did not come across the sea with any hope of a better life. Nevertheless, their descendants’ narrative, although markedly different, is not separate from my own. Our stories overlap. As a white American, my freedom and prosperity were built upon their ancestors’ enslavement. The collect for Independence Day, therefore, not only fails to consider those citizens of our nation whose freedom was not won by our country’s founders but also fails to reflect the enslaving chains and dehumanizing three-fifths compromise upon which those founders built this nation. We cannot rewrite history—nor should we try—but we can confront its complicated, ugly legacy in order that we might do better.
The story of Israel’s founding provides an insightful parallel. After smashing the first two tablets in anger at his people’s apostasy, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai to receive again the Law from the Lord. When he returned, he offered these words that summarized the relationship between God and God’s people:
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being…Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 16-19)The story of God’s people is inseparable from the story of slavery. In bondage, the descendants of Abraham learned that God has a preference for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Accordingly, their founding documents stress the importance of welcoming and loving and caring for the stranger. In Deuteronomy 10, we learn that such behavior is as important to the Jewish identity as circumcision. Our nation’s founders, on the other hand, experienced slavery from the side of the oppressor, giving them the luxury and privilege of forgetting or ignoring a whole mass of people when they declared, “…all Men are created equal.”
We may still have the luxury and privilege of naiveté, but we are not compelled to forget or ignore the inequality written into our national story. We watch human beings who are fleeing violence and poverty risk their lives to cross into this country. Literally, they are drowning in search of freedom. It may be a subconscious calculus, but our national response is evidence that we still believe that their lives are less valuable than ours, that brown skin is less precious than white skin. How can we call ourselves children of God? Our God is the God who “executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Our biological ancestors may not have been slaves, but our spiritual ancestors were. This year, as we celebrate the birth of our country, the “Land of the Free,” I wonder whether we might stop to consider the ways in which freedom remains unequally distributed among the residents of this nation. I wonder how we might take up our founders’ hope and make it even better.