Well, this weekend is about as American as it gets, is it not? Certainly tomorrow is the national holiday above all others, the American holiday.
But what does it mean? What is it all about? Not long ago, a group of youngsters was questioned about America. What did it mean to them? Here are a few of the responses. Jackie, age 9 – “We’ve got more stuff and things in American than anywhere in the world. We have pizza as well and it don’t grow any other place on earth except maybe Italy.”
Elliott, age 9 – “Everybody wants to live in America because we own the moon. The President bought the moon from God for a million dollars and I saw him send spacemen up on T.V.” Tina, age 6 – “America is great because you get the best friends here. The last time I counted, I had a thousand friends – and I don’t know anyone with as many friends as me.”
David, age 9 – “America is great because it’s bigger and has more supermarkets. I don’t know much about other countries except Russia. I know there’s a lot of Russians in Russia.” Sean, age 9 – “America is great because they have the most plumbers in the world. That’s because we’ve got more tubs. I want to be a plumber like my uncle ‘cause he’s real rich.”
But I think that Jonathan, age 8, hit at the heart of what America has been about. He says, “Other countries aren’t free like America. They won’t let you go to church and if you do, they throw you in prison.” While there are other free countries and while liberty is growing in our world, America has been the one place on this globe, which from its beginnings has sought to be a place of liberty for all.
Someone has suggested that July 4th is a unique holiday. Where else but in America can you find people who are paying off a revolving charge account, a home-improvement loan, a 30 year mortgage – and still celebrating their freedom?
Marlene and I returned a few weeks ago from a tour with some twenty of our members, a tour through Greece and Turkey in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. There we renewed our vision of a faith that burst upon the human story two thousand years ago, a faith that in the hands of Paul took the world by storm and, it is fair to say, culminated in the freedoms we enjoy today. For all its faults and failures, there really is no land quite like ours in its dedication to liberty.
But not only did we revive our commitment to the ancient story, we also experienced the uniqueness of our land in contrast to those we visited. By no means the worst in their curtailment of human liberties, they still stand in contrast to our own. A small example: citizens of Turkey and Greece must carry at all times an identity card, a kind of internal passport, on which must appear their religious affiliation, Christian, Muslim, Jewish. In Turkey sects are forbidden.
So on the Fourth of July we celebrate, above all else, the idea at the heart of the founding of America, the ideal of liberty for all.
As John Gunther once said, “Ours is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea.” The fifty-six signers of that Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to the success of that idea. Most of the names you would not recognize. And many of them not only pledged their lives, but lost them: five to torture by the British, nine of the wounds and hardships of war. Twelve had their homes burned to the ground. One of them lost two sons to the cause. Only the great idea and their sacred honor remained when it was all over.
Yet how are we doing in our know-ledge of, gratitude for, and commitment to that great idea? Not long ago, 2,300 federal employees in twelve Washington agencies were shown extensive parts of the Declaration of Independence, without being told what it was, and were asked to sign it. Sixty-eight refused flat out. Some claimed the quotations were from the Christian Science Monitor, others said it was from the Communist Manifesto. The students in a fifth-grade class in American History were given an examination. Among the questions to be answered was the following: The Declaration of Independence was written chiefly by (fill in the blank). One of the students neatly penciled in, “Candlelight.”
So America is first of all about the incredible gift of freedom, a freedom so many in our world can only dream of. A gift in that it is ours more by accident of birth than anything else, by the gracious providence of God and the sacrifice of those who created and sustained it down the two hundred years of its life.
A gift…and a challenge. Not only to carry on the idea and dream in our time. For it remains that. Freedom is not fully realized for all our people even now, let alone around our world.. And we fail our gift and heritage if we do not seek to perpetuate and extend freedom not only here in our own land, but beyond to those who still suffer under the exploitation and oppression of unjust and cruel powers. America may be the home of freedom, but there is nothing particularly American about the hunger for freedom. It is a universal human hunger.
But even more important is the challenge implicit in the gift to be the kind of people for whom freedom remains a possibility. Reality is: a free country depends not only upon founding fathers and documents. Freedom depends upon people who are capable of self-governance. There is no such thing as true freedom where there is not discipline, order, self-control.
Freedom must be contained within the limits of self-discipline and restraint or it loses all meaning. The Constitution is a structure for citizens who are dedicated and motivated. It will not save a society that does not vote, does not care, has no sense of posterity, and is addicted to hedonism. We are losing those stern virtues which made us a great nation in the first place and becoming an overindulged people with hedonistic values that are not compatible with long term greatness.” Hence the meaning in the prayer of our almost national anthem, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
A. J. Bacevich writes. “We celebrate liberty, and rightly so. We also wallow in it. As a consequence, the foundations upon which liberty rests —self-restraint, self-denial, and civility — erode. Untethered from truth, freedom leads to weariness, indifference, greed, cynicism, self-absorption and the slough of despondency. Indeed, absent moral disciplines that guarantee a culture in which the giving of self, rather than the aggrandizing of self, is the noblest aspiration, freedom will inevitably decompose into license, license into anarchy, anarchy into imposed authoritarianism.”
And there is a more personal side to this challenge as well. Not only is personal discipline and growth essential to the survival of a free society; it is the meaning of any real freedom in our own lives. All the political and social freedom in the world means nothing unless our spirits are free from the vast array of addiction and bondage that constitute life for so many in this or any society.
We began our tour in the area to which Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. It is his “Declaration of Independence”, his “Charter of Freedom” for people who then lived in a very unfree world. This ultimate freedom which is life involves inner personal freedom from self-indulgence, worship of false gods, antagonisms, rivalry, jealousy, bad temper, malice, drunkenness, freedom for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
So the challenge of the gift of a free land, with all its opportunity and prosperity is the question: “Am I truly free from the habits and passions that erode real life?” Who really runs my life? Is it the anxieties and ambitions that destroy, or is it the patience and peace, which afford joy? Without some measure of this inner freedom from compulsion and addiction, envy and fear, no external freedom will ever be worth much.
This free land bequeathed to us by a loving God and the thought and sacrifice of so many down the years, this free land is full of men and women and young people who are in bondage, slaves to fears and passions, bottle and drugs, envies and angers.
Not free. Not free at all.
A gift and a challenge and a promise. For it is God-given, this inner freedom which is the hope of both society and self, given to those who hunger and trust and seek to live in such freedom. As Paul also reminds his friends, “Let us never slacken in doing good; for if we do not give up, we shall have our harvest in due time.”
Paul’s words are not only about gift and task but also promise. If we are under God as a nation and as individuals, this also means we live under a God who does not easily give upon us and whose Spirit is still at work in our hearts and minds remaking us after his image in true freedom.
The morning newspaper does not tell the whole story of our future. Our pessimism is partly a problem of perception. We need to be careful when we talk about “the people.” We are usually talking about perceptions shaped by mass media, perceptions that are highly selective and ideologically skewed. A recent study of media personnel indicates that only 20 percent of them have any association with organized religion. It is by no means clear that our perceptions are totally in line with reality, that “all Americans are hedonistic, sexually permissive, unmotivated and undisciplined.
A survey of leading American teens indicates that 81percent are involved in religion, six of ten attend weekly worship, 82 percent look forward to a traditional marriage and family, and over half do not use alcohol. These are the leaders of tomorrow. A market research report indicates that the current generation now has the toys and is looking for something to enrich their lives. Almost everyone is searching for something of social value, is investing more time and energy in their homes, families, friendships. One comments, “We need to leave our mark, give something back to the community, leave something for our children.”
The late Charles Kuralt, from his experience with the television show “On the Road” tells this story about us. “Fifty miles down a dirt road in Wyoming one time, the old bus suffered two flat tires, which was one flat tire too many. We sat there for an hour wondering what to do about it before a rancher came along in his pickup truck. ‘Looks like you boys need some help,’ he said. He took us to a gas station on the highway, waited until the flats were fixed, drove us back to the bus, and helped us jack up the wheels and change the tires.
“By then it was getting dark. He said, ‘Nothing to do but take you boys home with me, I guess.’ His wife cooked us elk steaks for dinner, tucked us under warm quilts for the night, and sent us off full of flapjacks and sausage the next morning. Her husband followed us to the highway to make sure we didn’t have any more flat tires. I don’t know what he planned to do with those twenty-four hours, but he ended up giving most of them to some stranded strangers.
Kuralt continues, “To read the front pages, you might conclude that Americans are mostly out for themselves, venal, grasping and mean-spirited. The front pages have room only for cheating defense contractors and politicians with their hands in the till. But you can’t travel the back roads very long without discovering a multitude of gentle people doing good for others with no expectation of gain or recognition. The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines. Some people out there spend their whole lives selflessly. You could call them heroes.” And I’ll bet if you stop and think about it, you know a lot of these folk personally.
Furthermore, the quality and direction of a community or country has never depended simply upon numbers. Majorities may decide elections, but they rarely shape a culture and future. The ancient Israelites voted for a king and their history became the story of one corrupt monarch after another, yet a solid remnant always kept the old lessons alive, remained faithful to the invisible king, and sustained a future when the dynasty fell. And finally gave birth to another king, King Jesus.
It is still worth remembering that most of the religious and political liberties we enjoy originated not in glorious consensus—but in contested views held by a devout and demanding minority. This was true of the early Puritans. It was true of the founding of the nation. The colonists were a small band taking on the world’s greatest power; and no more than twenty percent of Americans were ever willing to fight for the Declaration of Independence.
Think of Abraham Lincoln. A year after victory at Gettysburg, July 4, 1863, only a fraction of the public supported him, and he despaired of being reelected and of keeping the Union together. Yet his Gettysburg Address gave rebirth to the faith in the Declaration of Independence.
The God under whose providence we live as individuals and as a people, whose providence has brought us to this day, more often than not works His will through the lesser child, the remnant, the humble few, the small but faithful band. So it is for us to rededicate ourselves to deeper gratitude for his gifts of freedom, within, without, stronger commitment to His will, greater hope for our future together in this good land. For we live in this world with its earthly powers, loyal ultimately to another world and King whose we are and whom we seek to freely serve as long as he gives us life.
“Stand fast therefore in the freedom wherein Christ has made you free…fully free.”