What Price for Independence?

On Tuesday we will celebrate Independence Day. I thought you might enjoy these thoughts from an unknown author:

Only in America . . . can a pizza get to your house faster than an ambulance.

Only in America . . . do people order a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a DIET coke.

Only in America . . . do we use answering machines to screen calls and then have call waiting so we won’t miss a call from someone we didn’t want to talk to in the first place.

Only in America . . . do we buy hot dogs in packages of ten and buns in packages of eight.

Only in America . . . do we use the word “politics” to describe the process so well: “Poli” in Latin meaning “many” and “tics” meaning “blood-sucking creatures.”

Back on that hot summer day in Philadelphia in 1776, the gentlemen who signed that document declaring the colonies’ independence were putting their lives on the line.  They knew that the ink on that paper would be considered high treason by the crown.

Is there anything in life that you value so much that you would actually die for it?

As we reflect on our life as a people, we see the parallel between first century Palestine and our time. The Hebrews could look back to years of slavery when Moses went to Pharaoh and said, Let my people go!” In reply Pharaoh did not say, “Sure, y’all go free; send me a post card from the Holy Land!” No, Pharaoh’s troops went after the Hebrews. Even after they crossed the Reed Sea, the children of Israel spent a generation and a half wandering in the wilderness. Even after they entered the Promised Land they struggled to possess it.

Americans celebrate July 4, 1776 as Independence Day. We shouldn’t. We should call it our DECLARATION of Independence Day, for merely signing, quite literally, our John Hancocks on the declaration did not establish our independence. King George did not read the Declaration and then say to Thomas Jefferson, “Nice piece of writing Tommy, y’all enjoy your USA, send me a postcard from Colonial Williamsburg.” No, it took seven years of struggle before the Constitution could be written.

Have we forgotten the struggle involved in this noble experiment of democracy? Do we cherish this land or do we shy away from a word like “patriotism” because it’s been co-opted by the fanatic fringe? To be “patriotic” is not to be blind to our nation’s sins. Like every nation, we have our weak points.

We love our country, but none of us believes it is perfect. And when America is in the wrong we need to speak up. Indeed, in a principled democracy, not to speak out against wrong would be a lack of patriotism. To be patriotic (from the Greek PATRIS, which means fatherland) is to appreciate the sacrifice of our forefathers and foremothers who wanted this nation to be extraordinary. Many of them gave their lives that we might be free as a people, just as many people gave their lives that we might have our Christian faith. Now it is our turn to maintain and to improve on what they have passed down to us.

How shall we do that? How shall we maintain and improve that which we have been given?

First of all, we need to remember where we came from.

We like to think we came from the aristocracy of Europe. Well, a few Americans may have, but most Americans are descendants of those “huddled masses yearning to be free” that Emma Lazarus wrote about several generations ago. Her words are inscribed on our Statue of Liberty that stands proudly in the harbor of New York City to welcome millions of immigrants to America.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Who can read those words without being reminded of the words that grace our Statue of Liberty? “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.”

These words grew out of the history and heritage of a Jewish woman named Emma Lazarus. When France was about to present America with a statue called “Liberty Enlightening the World,” Emma Lazarus was approached to contribute a poem. Emma Lazarus wrote the poem, The New Colossus, but in October 1886, when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, she was gravely ill with cancer and did not attend. She died a year later at the age of 38. Her life was short, but her words live on, engraved in the concrete of a statue of acceptance.

Except for our Native American friends, we are a nation of immigrants. We trace our ancestry back to many kinds of people in many different lands. Maybe that is why it is our tradition as a nation to welcome the stranger with kindness and compassion. There are some in our land who would change all that. They would turn us into a fortress. But we need to be mindful of our history. We will maintain and improve that which has been handed to us, first of all, when we remember where we came from.

Second, we need to remember what we stand for.

Growing up in the black ghetto of Baltimore, young Thurgood Marshall was an early, though unwilling, student of the U.S. Constitution. Often in mischief, he was required to stay after school as punishment for his classroom antics. For each infraction of a rule, Marshall was required to memorize a portion of the Constitution. As a result, Marshall reported, he soon knew the whole thing by heart. Marshall’s primary school teachers would have been astonished if they could have foreseen that their unruly pupil would one day put that knowledge into practice as a distinguished attorney, and then as this nation’s first African-American United States Supreme Court Justice.

Wouldn’t it be great if every American child could know our Constitution by heart? We are a people whose existence depends upon our sacred documents: The Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. As Christians we would add another sacred document – the Bible – for every principle we hold dear as Americans was first established in God’s Word. The words on the Statue of Liberty remind us where we came from. The words in our sacred documents tell us what we stand for.

The third thing of which we need to be reminded is the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf.

This land is ours today because men and women have given their life’s blood in our behalf. Back in 1912, at the age of 17, my grandfather decided he no longer wanted to live under the Tsar. He was a Pole living in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.  But both Lithuania and Poland were ruled by Russia. So my grandfather made the decision to join his older brother in America. He walked over 600 miles from Vilnius to Hamburg, Germany, where he took a steamer to Philadelphia and a train to little Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

Although he could speak no English, he enlisted in the American army in 1917.  He fought with the 2nd Division in France at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood. He was wounded by German machine gun fire, which blew out all his teeth.  After a long recovery period, he returned to Pennsylvania, where he worked in the coal mines for the next 35 years.

Don’t think that there are no heroes left in this world. There are many men and women in this generation and in each generation over the past 200 plus years who have literally been willing to lay down their lives for this country. And we owe them a great debt. Part of what kept these folks going was their faith in God. My grandfather was a Christian who said his prayers each night and was in church every Sunday.  His faith was strong and played a large part in his desire to come to America – and to serve in the U.S. Army.

This is the stuff of which our commitment as Americans to freedom, justice, and equality is made. Our faith helps us live out our commitment to freedom. Why? Because we understand that only in giving up some of our autonomy as individual citizens do we truly become free.

In Jesus’ time, oxen were linked together by means of a wooden yoke across their necks that helped to evenly distribute the weight of a load so that both oxen carried it. Together, they were able to pull far greater a load than either one could pull by itself.

When we are yoked to Christ we are better able to stand up for the things we believe in. When we are yoked to Christ, we are better able to repay the sacrifices made on our behalf. So, as we reflect on the meaning of Independence Day, we thank God and we thank those dedicated persons who made it possible for us to worship in freedom this day. And we are thankful that on our Statue of Liberty still read those words that remind us of the words of Jesus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . .”

May God bless America.