Independence Day reflection, 4 of 4

LOVE

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies…Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[1]

Jesus points to the heart of what Israel’s law and prophecies teach about love. There is to be no boundary between us and the beneficiaries of our love. Who are they? Everyone. And there is a barrier between us and the targets of our vengeance. Who are they? No one.

This would strike me as abstract idealistic nonsense, if I didn’t remember that when Jesus spoke these words he had enemies in mind; the oppressive Roman Empire and the religious rulers who, considering him a threat, wanted to kill him. Thus, Jesus, acknowledging the concrete socio-political particularity of his day, by these words, advocated no naïve do-goodism.

Taking Jesus at his word, even, especially when I am wronged, I am called to render unconditional benevolence to everyone, while restraining my desire to avenge myself and refraining from my tendency to comfort myself by calling my vengeance justice.

Does this mean I never voice an objection? No. Does this mean I never advocate war? No. It does mean that I seek perfection. Not in the Greek philosophical sense of absolute moral goodness or rectitude untainted by involvement in the material world. That’s impossible. But rather, in light of the Hebrew word, tamim, meaning wholeness or completeness, striving for perfection points to a larger context, a greater concern than my individual interest. To search for perfection is to serve the purposes, to embrace, embody in thought and action the best interests of the whole creation, all of humankind.

Is this perfection difficult to discern? Yes! Even when discerned, is it hard to do? Doubtless. Yet nothing is simple or easy when grappling with the ambiguities and relativities of life in this world. Nevertheless, this, I believe, is the call for any one – whether individual, family, community, yea even nation. This is the meaning of independence from (perhaps always) our greatest overlord, our selfish self-interest, be it personal, familial, communal, or national.

 

Footnote:

[1] Matthew 5.43-44a, 48 (my emphasis)

Independence Day reflection, 3 of 4

I also wonder about patriotism (from the Greek patriōtēs, “fatherland”); that love of country, pride in its history and customs, and devotion to its welfare.

American flag image

Our colonial forebears were not agreed about what constituted patriotism. Today, we are no less conflicted. One person’s fidelity to one position is another’s unreasoned zealotry or craven disloyalty, and vice-versa. (The swiftness with which folk cite their differences one from another is a chief sign, I think, of an earnest hunger for certainty. Though sincere, one still can miss the mark of truth, which, I also think, always is larger, greater than, beyond the bounds of the perimeter of a particular, even multiplex perspective.)

Bible

At times like these I read the Bible with a particular eye. Not casually, seeking personal, private spiritual insights. Nor as an always incipient student, probing ancient languages searching for deeper meaning. Rather I look for my reflection, yearning to know more about who I am to be and what I am to do at this time in this world.

Independence Day reflection, 2 of 4

thinking

When I think about a decision, particularly one of grave historical, far-reaching consequence, like nation-formation, I wonder: What makes it good? Not “the judgment of history,” which, by definition, comes later, but rather at the moment of deciding?

I’m not sure, but one thing seems clear. A decision’s virtue does not, cannot rest in the often hoped for, yet elusive ideal of unanimity. The colonists were not of one mind. Local and regional self-interest quashed any hope of absolute agreement. And today, concerning a host of issues, America is a divided nation.

If not unanimity, then I’ll make a case for consensus; making a decision about which all may not agree, but all can support. Consensus-building, a toilsome, even tedious process, calls on all to speak with clarity and to listen with charity; the cardinal virtues, I believe, of all communication.

Today, I am troubled terribly by what I perceive to be a lack of such dialogue in our national public square. Partisan voices hold sway with rising, ever greater influence o’er the past generation. Divisions are hardened. Distinctions sharpened. Life’s multiple muted shades of gray are painted over in black and white colors, making difficult, well-nigh impossible the recognition of nuance and the appreciation for ambiguity…

Independence Day reflection, 1 of 4

July 4. Independence Day. Our national holiday commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Our national holy day celebrating the consecration of freedom as a sacred value.

Declaration of Independence

Briefly recalling the story…

The people of the 13 colonies had grown restless, rebellious about paying taxes to England without benefit of representation in the English Parliament. The First Continental Congress, although unhappy with England, did not declare war. However, British troops marching on Concord, Massachusetts, Paul Revere’s stirring alarm, “The British are coming”, and the subsequent battles of Lexington and Concord with “the shot heard ‘round the world” signaled the war’s unofficial commencement. The Second Continental Congress, unable to resolve the conflict with England, formed a declaration draft committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. At an initial tally, nine colonies were in favor, two opposed, one undecided, and one abstained.

Now, 240 years later, we cannot know fully the hope and despair our founding forebears faced in reaching their momentous decision. I am glad they decided! Though my joy is subdued for honesty compels the confession that the Declaration’s bold pronouncement “all men are created equal” included neither all men nor all people.

Nevertheless, it is a common human experience to be caught in the crucible of historic events with which every era is laden (indeed, overladen!). In our time, among many, contentious electoral politics, ever-widening economic gaps between the poor and rich, renewed and heightened racial tensions, and the threat and reality of international and homegrown terrorism. In this, I see parallels between America at its founding and now.

making the dream real – a reflection for July 4th

American flag image

The 4th of July. A national holiday, holy day, celebrating the birth of this country. My country…

‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,

of thee I sing;

land where my fathers died,

land of the pilgrim’s pride,

from every mountain side,let freedom ring.

I don’t know what Samuel Francis Smith was thinking when he composed these words, which, set to music, were first sung in Boston on July 4, 1831. For the words of another, whose thoughts and feelings I cannot know completely, always mean more than my interpretation. Still, the truth of a text, the wisdom of a word lies not only in my quest for the author’s meaning, but also in my search for my understanding, looking through the lens of my experience and perceptions. So, as another’s words always mean more than my interpretation, they also always mean less or other than my understanding.

Seeking to make meaning for myself, when I read and sing, “My country, ‘tis of thee”, I do so bittersweetly, rejoicing sadly in a great ideal not yet reached, a wondrous dream not yet realized.

In 1938, James Langston Hughes, poet laureate of Harlem, wrote:

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be…

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real,

and life is free,Equality is in the air we breathe…

I cannot know fully what Hughes was thinking when he penned these words. Still, seeking to make meaning for myself, he speaks lovingly and longingly of a day gone by when he wishes the American ideal had been reached. In this, he gives voice to his anger. Speaking of “a land (of) Liberty”, quickly he replies, “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’”

Hughes’s poem is a stern polemic, arguing that any nostalgia for a past golden age is at best naïve idealization. Yet this is more than the diatribe of a bitter victim. It is a call to action, a summons to actualize, to make real the dream.

Who does Hughes call? All the disenfranchised of his day: “the poor white…the Negro…the red man…the immigrant” and later, “the farmer” and “the worker”. Hughes calls all people to fulfill America’s promise, daring to speak for all, “America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath – America will be!”

Through the words of a song and a poem, I look around and see an America not quite free. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., if any one is not free, then none are free. And if I take seriously the poet’s cry, then I am bidden, with what I am and what I have, when and where I can, to help make real the dream.

How? In the words of a favorite hymn, “I know not where the road will lead I follow day by day, or where it ends: I only know I walk the King’s highway…” As a follower of Jesus, I embrace his life and ministry of unconditional love and justice for all. In that, what I have sought to do, consciously and committedly for a number of years, is to hold in tension my desire to be in relationship with those with whom I disagree – even on matters of race and equality, theology and ethics – and in that conversation to speak my truth with integrity for myself and to listen with respect for others. Though I cannot know if I have been or will be successful, I strive to be faithful, alway praying that on some future Independence Day I can sing, not bittersweetly, but rather with the gratitude of having joined my hand in labor with countless others to bring the ideal to greater light:

Let music swell the breeze and ring from all the trees

sweet freedom’s song;

let mortal tongues awake,

let all that breathe partake,

let rocks their silence break,

the sound prolong.