“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”
It was July 5th, 1852. Frederick Douglass had been invited to deliver the keynote speech at an Independence Day celebration in New York. What he delivered instead, was truth. Historical, political, theological, irrefutable, and convicting truth. As we approach our own Independence Day celebration, 167 years later, I have been unable to shake the words he spoke so boldly. Unable to shake the tension between national pride and national despair. Unable to shake the feelings of hypocrisy as we prepare to feast and celebrate freedom while at the same time I am surrounded by those still enslaved and imprisoned.
Make no mistake, my love for my country runs deep. I am the granddaughter of an Air Force Colonel, the daughter of a Naval Officer, and the wife of a “former” Marine (Semper Fi and Oorah). My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by those who have served, protected, fought, and died for their country. I honor them. I respect them. I owe a debt of gratitude to every individual-of all ages, genders, and ethnicities-that has taken upon themselves the mandate to serve and protect.
And yet, I also support movements such as #TakeAKnee. I understand that it is necessary still to speak and act out against the oppression and injustice that is alive and well in our great but flawed nation.
This is the tension of living in the “both/and.”
I am both proud to be an American, and appalled at how we sometimes conduct ourselves.
I am both thankful for the privilege and freedoms I enjoy, and enraged that they are not shared by all.
I am both hopeful for our future, and heartbroken by our history.
Douglass expressed this “both/and” tension best in his address when he said, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
Yet at the same time he admitted, “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
And so it is today, while many can rejoice others must mourn. Just as Douglass asked “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”, I cannot help but ask myself the same question today.
What, to the systemically oppressed black man, is our 4th of July?
What, to the woman and child enslaved in the sex trade, is our 4th of July?
What, to the thousands of immigrants imprisoned at our borders, is our 4th of July?
It seems that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” came with fine print. Apparently these “unalienable rights” given to all humans by their creator which governments are created to protect, are relative. Shame on us.
And so, as we approach this day where we will celebrate our freedoms, I have to ask myself- how am I stewarding my privilege? Make no mistake, by the very definition of the word (“a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most”), freedom is indeed a privilege. I believe that privilege is not meant to be hoarded and held closely, but rather to be shared and used to empower others. If I am not using my privilege to elevate the voices around me that are not being heard, then I don’t want it. If I am not using my freedom to free others, then I don’t deserve it.
I have to ask myself, which identity matters more- the fact that I’m an American, or the fact that I am a child of God? Has my nationality superseded my humanity? I do not believe that God came to “bless America.” I believe that His plans, purposes, and concerns are far greater than that. I believe that there is a time to celebrate our national pride, and a time to identify ourselves as part of a greater global community that we can contribute to and also learn from. I believe that freedom doesn’t come free, and I honor and respect those who paid the ultimate price to secure the freedom and privilege that I today enjoy. I also believe that I must make an honest assessment of what I’m doing with the gift that was purchased at so high a price. While the words of Galatians 5:13-14 are intended to address our spiritual rather than our political freedom, the message still applies- “You have been called to live in freedom. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.”
So today, I will be celebrating.
I will be teaching my children about the family members, friends, and generations past who ensured that we could live free today-because at the most basic level, we must acknowledge and show gratitude for the privilege we enjoy. Yet I will also be reminding them that our freedom was secured and built on the backs of those in chains. I will teach them about lament, and what it means to repent from our inhuman failures and selfish pride. I will remind them that all are not yet free, and we have a responsibility-both as Americans and children of God-to confront injustice, oppression, and prejudice. As a family we will be living into the tension of the “both/and” life, and we will prayerfully and boldly consider how to raise our voices and continue the fight for freedom for those who are yet in chains.
“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country…I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope…In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:
God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered rights again
God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good, not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end.
And change into a faithful friend each foe.
God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But all to manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
THAT HOUR WILL, COME, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall go forth.
Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive-
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
*Read Douglass’ address in it’s entirety here.
*For those desiring to leverage their freedoms for the benefit of others, check out these resources for next steps:
Be The Bridge– an organization dedicated to equipping others towards racial reconciliation
World Relief- an organization working towards overcoming violence, poverty, and injustice in immigrant and refugee communities
“Welcoming the Stranger”- a fantastic book addressing responses to refugee and immigrant communities
KIND– an organization promoting the protection of detained immigrant children
IJM– working to end slavery in the form of human trafficking throughout the globe