Last Thursday we celebrated the 4th of July, a national holiday commemorating the 243rd anniversary of The Declaration of Independence. This founding document of our nation proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and have the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps more than any other national holiday, the 4th of July is a time for patriotic celebrations throughout the nation from small rural towns to large urban centers. Yet even as we celebrate our nation’s independence and founding principles, we need to remember that patriotism is not only about celebration and national pride but also confession and repentance. Throughout our history, brave people have dared to speak up when our nation’s deeds did not live up to our espoused principles. These are our “American Prophets” who were often rejected in their own times but whose witness helped us to make progress toward greater integrity. I want to share quotes by two of these prophets, one from the nineteenth century and one from the twentieth century. Their words still speak to us today, and I hope you will take time to reflect on them in light of our current struggles to affirm the God given dignity of all people regardless of race, gender, national origin, or economic status. How is God calling you, me, and the Church to be the patriotic prophets of the 21st century?
On July 5th 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Here is an excerpt from that challenging prophetic speech:
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
On February 4, 1968 exactly two months before he was murdered, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct.” Here is an excerpt from that sermon:
…nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.