Growing up, the 4th of July was always one of my favorite holidays.
Every summer from as young as I can remember until 11th grade, my family spent the 4th of July with my Aunt Carla and Aunt Jill – where we spent time together as a family at the pool, eating ice cream, shopping, watching movies, playing card games and, of course, going to the 4th of July parade and fireworks. I took pride in my collection of patriotic GAP and Old Navy apparel, and as I grew older, was excited to find trendy ways to make my outfits red, white and blue.
I still love the way I can’t stop smiling while watching fireworks burst across the sky. I love the sense of unity felt when standing amongst a sea of red, white and blue. I even love the long lines for ice cream, and the punny t-shirts and instagram captions.
But, I have a much more complicated relationship with this day now.
Am I grateful to live in a country which has given me such a wealth of opportunities? Immeasurably so. I am grateful to live in a place with public education, labor laws for children, freedom of speech and religion, and am very grateful for the brave men and women who have fought, to the best of their knowledge and ability, to preserve my liberties, even at the cost of their very lives.
In the midst of gratitude for my own American experiences, though, lies the tension in recognizing the very freedoms I just recounted, are not freedoms fully experienced by each American. Public education is still largely segregated — not only by race, but by resources and opportunities — vulnerable immigrant communities being manipulated and taken advantage of by greedy businesses and corporations, people disrespected and called “sons of b*tches” for protesting their own American experiences and Jewish and Muslim Americans being threatened, degraded, and murdered for their faith.
No, these freedoms don’t belong fully to everyone.
Even more troubling, is the very history of the holiday. On Independence Day — July 4, 1776 — the overwhelming majority of signers of the Declaration of Independence not only owned slaves, but also perpetuated racist theory and language to justify excluding freedom from all people, even as they signed “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Not to mention the land we live on now was all stolen from indigenous peoples who had lived and thrived here long, long before we settled the first colony.
No, these freedoms have not always belonged to everyone.
In 2019, African Americans constitute over 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million incarcerated population, five times the rate of white people. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and federal courts imposed prison sentences on black men that were 19% longer than those imposed on similarly situated white men between 2011 and 2016.
No, these freedoms don’t belong fully to everyone. And, the sad reality is that many people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, people who practice religions other than Christianity, experience large and “small” acts every day which threaten the freedoms they do have.
I know and love people who have and are serving in our military. I love my country. But I do not love the blind love that keeps many of us from being able to recognize the injustice and pain that exists for those disenfranchised Americans, who, are just as American as the most patriotic among us.
We can love our country without idolizing it. We can love our country while recognizing it’s room for growth and need to make reparations. We can love our country while advocating for it to do better.
Being a Christian, especially in the South, it often feels like some sort of blasphemy to criticize my country. Or as if I am somehow doing more harm making others uncomfortable with drawing attention to injustice, than the injustice itself is doing. This line of thinking, is not of or from God. Idolatry of anything, even country, is not of God. Nor is God American, or America the modern promised land.
We can love our country and not idolize it. In order to truly love it, I think we must see it as it truly is — the opportunity, injustice, wealth, invention, pain, triumph, love and hate all mixed together.
We must live in the freedom we know. And part of living in freedom is, yes, celebrating it. But celebrating is not a cause for blindness, but rather, sharing. Sharing the freedoms we have with those who don’t. Advocating for freedom to be more accessible to all people. Truly believeing “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As a Christian, this means rooting myself in the freedom I have in Christ ABOVE the freedom I have as an American. And living my life to share that freedom I have with others, to glorify God and love others well. To share the eternal freedom I know through the grace of Christ alone, and the earthly freedom I possess due only to where I was fortunate enough to be born.
So let us celebrate the freedom we do have. Let us thank our service men and women for preserving the freedom we know, and thank God for the blessings we enjoy, without ever thinking we are somehow any better for knowing freedom.
We don’t need to be ashamed of our freedom, but as Christians (and just decent humans!) we have an imperative to share it.
This 4th of July may bring more complicated emotions for me than before, and it may even bring pushback or pain from the words I’ve written. And you, just as I have exercised my own right in doing, have the freedom of speech to disagree with me completely. I urge you, whether you love America, or even hate it, to use this day to reflect on the freedom won, and the freedom yet to be fought for.
So tonight, as I watch fireworks, and hear scattered shouts of “MERICA!,” I will let myself grin as widely as before, when I knew nothing yet of our country’s unjust history, or our modern failures. I will grin, not simply because of the beauty of the fireworks, presence of friends, or even out of gratitude for the vast freedom I know. Instead, I will grin with the hope that truly celebrating freedom means sharing it.
Because, yes, this freedom can belong to everyone.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” // 2 Corinthians 3:17-18