Independence Day

Independence Day is here again and I’ve been reflecting, as one should on such occasions, about the meaning of it all.

I grew up in a small town in upState New York in the latter years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. My first schoolhouse had four rooms for the first four grades (2 up, 2 down) and there were pictures of Lincoln and Washington at the front of each room. We began the school day with the pledge of allegiance. In those days, you placed your hand over your heart as you said, “I pledge allegiance” and then extended the arm outward toward the flag at the words “to the flag” That manoeuver was curtailed when it was decided it looked too much like the German “Heil Hitler” salute. After that, we kept our hands over our hearts.
Later, I remember being told in school assembly that we would also change the words of the Star Spangled banner. Instead of “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,” we would now sing “for our cause it is just.” I remember feeling slightly uneasy about that, but ten-year-olds don’t usually question these things.
I also remember marching in the school band on Memorial Day and helping to ring the church bell on V-J Day.
Patriotism was easy in those days. At least it was for me. I now know that there were conscientious objectors and pacifists who found it harder to be uncritical.
But I would like to think that my patriotism may be stronger now than it was then – but more critical. How could I not be critical when I consider that this country has squandered the world’s good will in a series of ill-considered foreign adventures, that the majority of my fellow citizens believe the death penalty is an appropriate remedy for violent crime, and that they are safer at home if they have a gun or two on hand. I ponder also the fact that in a majority of the elections I remember (9 of 16) the same fellow citizens have selected the less qualified candidate. No wonder we find it difficult to commend democracy to the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, I have requested that the congregation I will serve next Sunday sing “America the Beautiful” as the closing hymn and that we say the Prayer for our Country in unison at the end of the Intercessions.
I guess I feel the same way about this country that I feel about the Christian faith. Would you belong to a faith which, for the largest number of its followers world-wide, is ruled by an infallible pope, and whose most vocal and visible representatives in this country make fools of themselves on a regular basis?
But consider the alternatives! Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst system of government except all the others.
I remember the Australian couple who showed up at St. Alban’s Tokyo one day on their way around the world with their 8-year-old son. He had not been baptized, they told me, because they wanted him to be free to choose. But then they had traveled widely and seen other religions first hand. Now they wanted their son baptized.
It’s not the reality I salute; it’s the vision.
I see the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, still ahead but worth striving for. I call to mind the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, the Susan B. Anthonys and Martin Luther King Jrs. and so many others who have believed in the possibility and brought it a step nearer. Who would have believed that this country would ever nominate an African American to run for President? Who knows what is still possible? When I was growing up, I believed we would get there sooner. But what other vision is so worth working for, praying for – and voting for?

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