I have mixed feelings this year about Independence Day. I love my country, I really do. I believe whole heartedly in “The American Experiment, in the building and growth of a nation founded by immigrants who ran the gamut from poor looking to escape their poverty, adventurers, people fleeing oppression, and opportunists. There are many more reasons, I’m sure. Through great difficulty, the spilling of much blood, and stubborn resourcefulness, we carved a nation from difficult and dangerous circumstances. We are one of the freest nations on earth. Many of my ancestors came here and built a life much better than the one they left behind.
All that being said, our nations began with our founding document counting a huge portion of our population as having the worth of only a part of a person, and those persons had no legal rights. This was highly contested, and remained in contention from the signing of the Constitution. But it was deemed better for the nation to table the issue until the nation was strong enough to withstand an issue that had the potential to break the nation.
When it was finally contested, it did indeed divide the nation in half. The Confederacy would rather become a separate country and fight a war than give up the degrading and horrific practice of slavery. Slaves were emancipated in 1863, slavery was abolished by 1869, attempts were made to start a civil rights movement in 1875, but it was squashed by the Supreme Court. Our government seriously considered shipping a significant part of the black population to Libya in an attempt to sweep guilt and responsibility under the rug. In 1896 the Supreme Court established the idea of Separate But Equal. Good people fought this injustice consistently, carrying the flag of abolitionist founding fathers and those who brought slavery to an end, but real progress wasn’t made until 1948 when the military was desegregated. Segregation was found unconstitutional in 1954, but that didn’t mean much until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, a hard won victory paid for at great cost. 91 years after the emancipation of slaves, 85 years after the abolition of slavery.
But making discrimination illegal didn’t end the fight. Things have gotten better, but discrimination was ingrained for almost 100 years, in which a significantly large number of citizens were still treated as less than human. Lynch mobs with blacks being hanged for usually imagined offenses were not a rare form of extrajudicial “justice”, rape was rarely prosecuted, and black Americans continued to keep their heads down in subservience. They were legally free, but many black Americans lived lives that were barely better than the slavery they left behind. We’ve left the worst of that behind, for the most part. But even that must be qualified. It is a matter of statistics that blacks receive worse medical care than whites, and are significantly more likely to die from preventable causes.
Women, who have had their own struggle for rights as full citizens, are more likely to also receive compromised care and have their symptoms ignored or treated less seriously. Black women have astonishing statistics in compromised health care and mortality. We could talk about prisons, judicial sentences, education, media and entertainment bias and a host of other issues. On and on.
We have made so much progress, the world is measurably better, but…
Native tribes have suffered since we first met them, many times maliciously and officially slaughtered and oppressed by our government. Treaties violated repeatedly, the sanctioned slaughter of tribes, relocations that were a special form of hell, forced sterilizations, the forced removal of children from their parents and communities in order to raise them as proper Americans. An intentional attempt to destroy their culture. Many tribes continue to suffer from illegal and immoral practices at the hand of our government, but most Americans are barely aware that they exist.
Until very recently, it was de facto illegal to be gay. Whatever our religious beliefs, it isn’t the place of the government to deny rights to these citizens. This must be a matter of personal decision, not of legal mandate. Sexual preference, gender preference, these cannot be permitted to be causes of discrimination. Violence and discrimination continues to be a serious problem, so that, despite explicitly stated government protections, citizens are still afraid of discrimination, and continued attempts to legally have rights stripped from them. They have been and continue to be treated as a cancer that must be removed or at least hidden from sight.
The government has for nearly two decades engaged in consistent and repeated attempts to force people to act against their religious conscience, up to and including jail time for refusing to violate deeply held beliefs, despite the Constitution. Most of these fail, but the attempts have not stopped.
Chinese immigrants were treated as little better than slaves for labor in building infrastructure like railroads. We put Japanese in interment camps during World War II, just in case. We turned many Jewish refugees away and too many of them died. We put refugees and asylum seekers and hopeful immigrants into containment camps and treat them horribly. Recently we have traumatized thousands by tearing families apart, often with no explanation of why, and with little to no communication between parents and children. Many parents have lost their children and there is no system in place to find these kids and reunite them with their parents. Most of the refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing political and social situations that have crumbled into violence and madness as a result of our actions in destabilizing their governments and economies. We have made a mess in many countries out of concern for our own interests, and didn’t clean up the mess. Now we are refusing to help the people fleeing situations for which we share responsibility.
We engage in human rights violations and seem to have lost a cultural consciousness of these evils and why they are so grave.
These issues weigh heavily on my heart, especially when I see the words of friends, family, and strangers too, expressing their fears and showing us how these issues continue to cause them harm. Across the board, we are having yet another cultural identity crisis, and there is no guarantee for how these issues will be resolved, if they are resolved.
When I woke this morning, I felt a general uneasiness and weariness with these and other thoughts crowding in the back of my mind. But as I sat in my room, I heard my housemate’s twelve year old burst into song. It took me a moment, but eventually I realized that he was singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing. My perspective changed immediately. For those in danger, those being hurt, those being discriminated against, who are the object of bigotry, the situation isn’t any less dire. But as a Catholic, I know, I believe, that this really is the first chapter of our story. The danger is real, the wounds and trauma and injustices and killings are real. The hatred and indifference and selfishness which cause these problems are real. I don’t want to diminish those. They really are horrible, and nothing lessens that horror. However, I also believe that this is the first part of our story, the worst and hardest part of our story, but this is not where our story ends. The history of our race is writ large with these stories, but in the face of them are those who resist, those who dedicate their lives to making something better, and those who willingly lay down their lives in that search. I believe in resurrection and redemption. There will be a day when these wounds are healed, when these injustices are met by the merciful Judge and those wrongs will be righted. The lost will be found, those living in oppression and slavery will be freed from every external and internal domination, the frightened will find comfort, those in darkness will be brought into the light. Every wound will be healed, and this terrible chapter will be met and surpassed with every joy and grace. Because the One who made us loves us, truly and deeply beyond all measure.
There’s a twelve year old boy singing a Christmas hymn on Independence Day. We are all pilgrims in diaspora, longing for home, for freedom, for what life ought to be. Our human institutions will continue to make progress for the better (we hope) but they are imperfect and will always be found wanting. We will come home, to a country that is truly just and truly free and truly a place where we can build lives free from all these terrible things.
Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in which we declared that we have a certain dignity as human beings, and according to that dignity, we have certain rights which belong to everyone. Full stop. In accordance with that dignity, and that dignity having been violated, we as a people purpose to form a nation wherein we can create a government that will right those wrongs. This day was a heralding of the birth of a new nation, full of hope and promise.
Christmas is the heralding of the opening of the gate to that country wherein there will be no injustices against which to revolt, a country wherein all the arduous hopes on which our country was built will finally be realized in perfection.
Catholics believe that we are all of us wandering, in exile from our true home, and that the end of that exile is within sight. Our lives here in this world, in this chapter of our story, should be oriented toward realizing the promises of the love of the Gospel as fully as possible through service to the individuals around us and the communities in which we find ourselves. We do the best we can to build toward that paradise. But we know that the promises of the Gospel and the hopes of the Declaration of Independence can only be fulfilled imperfectly in this life.
We are a Christmas people, an Easter people, and we are always mindful of both what necessitates such a birth and such a resurrection, and of the grace that makes it possible to eventually enter into that country.