As we look forward to celebrating the 4thth July it’s good to think over what
it is that we’re celebrating, and, also, what we’re not.
The official name for the holiday is “Independence Day,” with the reason for the date being the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.
It’s acknowledged as “the birthday of the nation,” although the labor involved in that birth lasted through eight years of war, and the form that the nation would take would require even more years of experiment and adjustment until the ratification of the Constitution. Just over seventy years later we found ourselves “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Independence didn’t come in a day.
And, perhaps, “independence” really never has come, or could come, if we
take that word literally as meaning “not dependent.” Were we dependent on Britain before the war and not after? Was Britain, maybe, more dependent on us than we on them, given that they were the ones who were fighting against our independence? In some ways we traded one interdependence for another, trading Britain for France, or at least for other colonies that came together as a nation.
Maybe independence isn’t really the right word. In Sanskrit the word
“independence” is translated as “Swatantra,” which means “self-control.” My father liked that idea better, since it more clearly brought out the power
implications of the relationship in the refusal to be controlled by another, even if in some sort of dependency. It also makes clear the responsibility that comes from such an assertion. If you won’t be controlled by another, then you’d better be able to control yourself.
We’ve had, of course, a mixed history with that. The independence and
self-control asserted in Philadelphia did not extend to slaves or the indigenous people of this land. One of the reasons that the British gave for fighting the war was that they were concerned that the colonists might mistreat the native people. On such a national holiday it should be possible to enjoy a “salute to America” with pride and honor, while at the same time holding a few moments of silence to commemorate those whom our glory has harmed, to reflect on what we owe as well as on what we own.
The bell next to Independence Hall is called the “Liberty Bell,” the lady in
New York harbor welcoming to our shores “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” that was given us by the French in honor of the centennial of that first 4th is called the “Statue of Liberty,” bringing in another synonym for our 4th of July celebration. It’s a word with ancient roots, which should tell us that this condition isn’t something we just came up with 233 years ago. Liberty is the “right and power to act, believe, and express oneself in a manner of one’s own choosing”, although liberty is not a license to do anything we want to do. My liberty must be checked at some point when it interferes with your liberty. The second verse of America the Beautiful reminds the citizen to “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Our laws are the communal attempt to establish the maximum liberty for the most people. They change and develop as we notice their failings, but we learn to respect them, especially when we see them ignored
I save the word “freedom” here to express a more spiritual than political
idea. In the Epistle for June 30 Saint Paul tells the Galatians that “for freedom Christ has set your free.” That kind of spiritual freedom can’t be given through any declaration by men, no matter how wise, or be taken away by any, no matter how foolish. Dependent or not, controlled or not, slave or free, Jew or Greek, American or otherwise, all people are free. It betrays an immature, nationalist arrogance when we try to own that concept as “leaders of the free world”. As Christians the resurrection shows us that spiritual freedom is a fact of human nature. Perhaps such freedom is human nature…that unique rising up of the conscious awareness of being for itself, blowing, like spirit, wherever it will…an awareness that we are living a life dependent in most ways, controlled in some ways, but always flying free in eternity and love.
Have a happy 4th of July.