“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”
Thomas Jefferson – 1776
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus – 1883
Today is July 4, 2017 and many US citizens will be engaged in flag waving, parades, picnics, and other activities that we have enculturated into the American experience. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have the day off will overload ourselves on barbeque and beer, perhaps catch a patriotic parade either in person or via the internet, and generally congratulate ourselves on being the “greatest” country in the world. I have to admit I am approaching this with mixed feelings. I don’t feel particularly patriotic today. I look at our country today and am somewhat saddened. While we have indeed done wonderful things, I find that we have only skirted the ideals penned by Thomas Jefferson and Emma Lazarus written above, not yet fully realizing those heady words written all those years ago.
Before you get up in arms or tell me to “Love it or Leave it,” let me explain my context. I am one who served 7 years, 4 months, and 21 days in the US Army, but who’s counting, and the ideals of duty, honor, and country have been well inculcated in my character. Indeed, it has been 31 years, 2 months, and 2 days since my enlistment ended and there are days that it feels just like yesterday that I wore the uniform. I remember all of my comrades, men and women, who shaped a naïve 18 year old kid from Rush, KY and pray in thanksgiving for their gentle and not so gentle guidance that helped to make me who I am today. If not for age, I would gladly wear the uniform again, although it would be as a chaplain. I remember the feeling of awe as a 14 year old kid I stood in Independence Hall, thinking of all the great men of history who sat in that room and forged a nation, breaking away from the British Empire. Many of them gave all that they had; their health, their wealth, and even their lives in the struggle for “freedom.” As an adult years later I visited Washington, DC. Even being the cynical progressive that I had become, one who was dissatisfied with the direction our country was heading, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of nationalistic pride as I viewed all of the edifices that our empire had created. My context also includes that I am white, male, and heterosexual. So, as I was experiencing those feelings of pride and of nationalistic fervor, I am reminded that just by the virtue of those three identifiers I automatically had a leg up on everyone else. I was bound and am only bound by my own ambition and ability.
So there is that disquiet, that uneasiness in my mind that tells me that we have not arrived, we have not attained the ideals embodied during our time of revolt and political separation from the country that spawned us. Oh yes, I remember the “Give me Liberty or give me Death” speech from Patrick Henry, I remember reading about George Washington and his army’s trials at Valley Forge as well as Nathan Hale’s poignant “I regret that I only have one life to give for my country,” speech and am moved by their willingness to sacrifice all in the cause for freedom. But in that reflection, I also am reminded that these high sounding words and deeds were just a prelude to a story that has yet to achieve fruition.
I remember that even as these noble words were said and these noble deeds were done, we as a new nation built on the ideas of freedom and self-determination carried with it a sin, sins actually, that profaned the very words and deeds done by these men we revere as the “Founding Fathers” and that these sins still plague us today. I think of the Native Americans whom we cruelly decimated, making and breaking treaties with them as we moved our empire westward. I think of the African-Americans we enslaved from colonial times up to and through the American Revolution, and at the writing of the Constitution counted only the males as three-fifths of a person. I think of the Asian Americans we abused as we built railroads that cris-crossed the country and our shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, I think of lynchings, Jim Crow, and the KKK and wonder are we really free? I think of Stonewall and the Pulse nightclub. I think of the glass ceiling experienced by women in our society. I have to think, do we even know the meaning of the word freedom?
Independence Day is the day that we declared our sovereignty as a nation, separating ourselves from the rule of King George and the British Empire, but we have yet to gain true freedom. I say this because we are still bound in the tyranny of white privilege, bound in the tyranny of oligarchy, bound in the tyranny that would separate and set us against one another based on race, gender, religion, sexuality, class, education, and immigration status. We have yet as a nation to fully embody those noble words spoken all those years ago. That is not to say we are without hope, because those words quoted above are indeed noble words, and words to make a part of our national dialogue as well as our individual ethos. We can become free. We can indeed live into those noble words and remember the noble deeds. But we are not free unless all can share in those unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. We are not free unless our Black brothers and sisters are free from the threat of violence by the police. We are not free until we have gender equality. We are not free until we stop judging and marginalizing people because of their sexuality. We are not free until we stop judging people based on their religious views or lack thereof. We are not free until we recognize that civil rights are just that and not something for the privileged few of the ruling class. We are not free until we stop marginalizing people because of their country of origin. In short, we are not free until we are all free. How will we celebrate that? How will we bring to fruition the noble words and deeds of those who came before us?