Usually, on the Fourth of July long weekend, we try to keep religion and patriotism in their own corners, lest we confuse them to our peril. Still, there is a way in which they come together: in which Scripture speaks to our citizenship and the national celebration partakes of our faith. Our national Independence Day is not a religious holiday, but it stirs in us much that is religious – that has to do with high ideals and high hopes and a dream of justice and equality that requires a deeply costly and sacred commitment.
It has been suggested that the founders of this country dreamed the nation into being. Imagine it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” Those words are powerfully stirring. But, it hit me with special force this year, what they describe is not self–evident. It isn’t self-evident now. And it wasn’t self-evident then. The world in which the founders lived did not look like that. Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves and even after the Revolution, the only people who had a right to vote were white men who owned their own property and had the deed to prove it.
Liberty? Rights? Equality? Hardly. But the vulnerability and the tenuousness of those convictions did not end the dream. And new people picked up where the old ones left off. In church today, we hear of Elijah’s healing of the Aramite general by having him immerse himself in the river seven times. (1 Kings 5:1-14) Well, this country has needed to dip into the river more than a few times to keep on healing our national consciousness. Between 1776 and now, African-American men have won recognition of their citizenship and the right to vote. Women didn’t achieve that right until 1920. And the truth is, it took the mighty Civil Rights Movement of the last century before African-Americans in all parts of the country really could vote without risking their lives and property – a right that is looking dubious given the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of critical sections of the Voting Rights Act. Even so, between then and now, children have won a legal right to equal education, African-Americans and white people won the right to marry an opposite sex partner of their choice, and, only last week, gay people in this country won recognition of their right, equal with all others in this country, to marry and create families.
When we look at our country on this weekend of celebration, we can see progress in our stretching for what the Rev’d Martin Luther King, Jr. called the justice toward which the arc of history is bent. The process, hallowed by Jesus, of continuing to expand the circle of acceptable people, entitled to rights and God’s love. And we can also see great gaps – in our wars, in the ways we treat prisoners, in our continuing racism and homophobia and plain old sexism, in the violence – physical and emotional — with which we continue to resort as a response to threat or fear.
But as it turns out, that’s where God is – in the gap. God works in the struggle, the stirring, our recommitment to what we are about. And, on this weekend, I believe God is calling us to renew our faith in his power and in his grace and in his goodness – to believe and to act — in hope – for the good of all those who are yet on the margins – looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Giving thanks for this country and thanks for the dream. And letting our faith guide our citizenship in the knowledge that God’s plan is sure. That God’s plan works through us. And that God’s grace can provide all that we need to help heal the world. One piece here, another piece there. All in the gaps.