To celebrate July 4th, I want to share again a post I wrote some years ago, just after my late wife Katharine and I had hosted an exchange student from Kenya, while still serving as a Progressive Christian Alliance pastor near the army town of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and before joining the United Church of Christ and beginning to serve as a hospice chaplain.
What tensions about our celebration of patriotism does July 4th bring up for you?
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Growing up in Fayetteville, NC, the southern town that supports one of the largest military bases in the country – Fort Bragg – the Fourth of July has always been an important time for me. Just thinking of it I can taste sweet watermelon in my mouth and smell the barbecue grilling thing up. My toes are already imagining being wet and wrinkly, since often times we would go down to a man-made lake in town to swim. One year I remember my dad being in a contest where folks swam into the lake, trying to compete to win holiday watermelons.
I remember my excitement laying down by the car, watching the fireworks by Fort Bragg exploding with light and fury.
Without a doubt, nearly every year since I was child I heard the following every fourth of July:
Some of you, like me, begin to hum along and sit up straighter as those notes begin to play.
This year as I join family and friends for fourth of July celebrations, I have an odd mix of feelings.
As I mentioned earlier, this past year my wife Kat and I were blessed to host an international exchange student from Kenya. As the one of the two of us who reads history books for fun (yes, I am that much of a nerd, believe it or not), I ended up being the one who got to help her study her US history class. That, together with watching together this year’s US election and also following the news for the election in her home country of Kenya put things in perspective.
On the one hand I can say, with Lee Greenwood, that I am very proud to be an American. Our exchange student who, like my wife, has spina bifida and thus gets around in a wheelchair, told us many times how nice it was to be staying this year in a place where, although discrimination against people with disabilities happens, it is against the law. She told us that the US was the first real place she’d been to where every business and institution had to put in wheelchair ramps and other features to make sure people like her were not excluded. Her dream, she said, is to become a human rights lawyer like the one who works with my wife Kat when she encounters barriers. “I want my country to become a place where people don’t have these barriers to get around too”.
Also when the election came – and she was an Obama supporter (“His family is from Kenya, after all”) – I heard questions like this: What if the election is contested? Will there be violence in the streets? She was reassured to be told, no, we have not had that happen in a long time over an election. She told me how in Kenya that had happened in the recent past, and how often concerns about corruption happened. For the first time in my life I told the tale of George Bush, Al Gore, and the hanging chads not while hanging my head down low, but proudly. Whatever can be said about that incident, it didn’t end in violence. Instead the rule of law prevailed.
This year there are many reasons to be proud to be an American. We have in around 200 years or so gone from enslaving black people, to having the first president of color. We have just ended two laws that have been very harmful to GLBT people – Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.
For many, many reasons I am proud to be an American.
Yet talking to her this past year, also got me realizing that there are many things I don’t think I would stand up next to you and defend America about still today. One moment in particular that made me think about this was when she asked me, “So, you all are not Europeans?”
“Um… not exactly.”
“So you are like my people in Kenya – your ancestors are from here?”
“No, my ancestors are from Europe”.
“What happened to the people who lived here before you?”
This led into a discussion of how my ancestors took the land of Native American tribes, of the Trail of Tears, and of centuries of systemic discrimination.
This reminded me that we need to be careful of thinking loving our country means agreeing with all it does.
Reverend Jarrod Cochran, who helped found the association I serve in and is its current chair, once said that too many “believe that the American flag and [their favorite political] Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus”. Too often, especially here in the south, we identify American culture and government with Christianity, as if the American way is the same thing as the Gospel.
Philippians 3 tells us, on the other hand, that “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Our Lord himself encourages us in Luke 20 “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This means that, yes, we do need to give some honor, respect, and appreciation to our country, but we can’t make it take the place of God and God’s kingdom. Instead loving our country should challenge us too sometimes. A part of loving our country is helping let it know when it is not living up to the prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. It is being able about certain issues to say as Dr. King said in his sermon opposing the Vietnam War,
“I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.”
In reality, this side of glory there will always be areas where any nation or community will fall short of making things on earth as they are in heaven. Our call, if we are to truly love our country is, in those moments, to show our love by speaking out against how we fail to live up to our best ideals and calling us back.
How do you live out that tension? About what things can you say proudly you would stand up next to me and defend our country for today? About what things would need to say “I oppose” this “because I love America?”
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,