National holidays can be a great break from the daily routine for those who get to hit pause on the workday clock. They’re also another time when society pumps energy and attention into the old, old myths that the status quo tells itself so it can sleep well at night.
We don’t have to comply.
This weekend churches around the US will include remarks and prayers about “this great country” and “liberty” and how many people “came to this country in search of freedom.”
There’s a much deeper collective story than that, and it’s up to us to choose to tell it, especially when it’s awkward to tell, especially during the holidays.
What if, rather than singing a one-verse hymn about grateful, voluntary immigrants fleeing Cuba or European economic quicksand, churches this weekend shared a more complex song?
What if we said something like this:
This weekend the nation will pause to remember our war of independence from Great Britain and King George III. This weekend, we’ll gather with our families and talk of greatness and freedom and opportunity and hope.
But not all of us came here to find freedom. Many of us were crushed in the great vice of the colonial militias and United States army. Many of us are here because our neighbors’ ancestors stripped our elders of their freedom, ripped them from their homes, and dragged them to a new hemisphere.
We and our ancestors before us have always struggled to live up to the ideals that we recite and teach our children—that the truth of our value is self-evident, that all of us are equal, that our rights are inalienable, that none of us are really alien, that all of us are welcome, that all of us are free.
We struggle to live up to those ideals. But we’re here now together. And we have so much work still to do to build the nation that we dream of, that generations before ours wrote about, and taught their children, who taught their children, who taught their children, who taught us.
They declared independence in a moment, but the work of living freedom in this world of interdependence and soft boundaries between nations is a much deeper work.
We dare not take imperial might for granted, as they did. We dare not take the righteousness of the nation-state for granted, as they did.
And we dare not march forward without reckoning with the Native people among us. They preceded us all by 12,000 years, and this is their land, no matter our doctrines and our laws. Our independence is a debt we owe to them.
As people who claim “citizenship” in the kingdom of God, belonging beyond our membership in shifting, fickle, and fragile nation-states, we need wisdom to recognize the responsibilities that freedom demands of us.
Freedom means we accept that our ancestors used God and church as a weapon against the vulnerable, that they bound themselves with the abuse they inflicted on others. They weren’t free.
Freedom means we acknowledge how we today follow in their tracks, using God and church as a weapon against the vulnerable, and binding ourselves. Where we oppress, we aren’t free.
Freedom means we face the gap between our mythology and the muck of the lives we live. Freedom means we get to choose what we sow in the world now.
It’s not easy. It’s not festive. But it’s true.
One of my all-time favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption, includes a scene that I remember every Fourth of July.
[If you haven’t seen this movie, why not? The next paragraph includes a spoiler; so sorry. You should see the movie anyway.]
The lead character, Andy, makes his escape from prison under the cover of a vicious nighttime lightning storm. There’s torrential rain, thunder, and crashing lightning, and he strikes a sewer pipe with every crack of lightning. This grand, gorgeous story plays out in the heavens, while Andy splashes about in the prison sewage down below.
Andy is the United States when it realizes it can’t get free without wading through its sewage. The process won’t be easy and it won’t be festive, but even with the holiday fireworks bursting overhead, we can still tell the truth.