The 4th of July in the United States is usually a time for picnics, fireworks, and joyful times with family and friends. For many in my congregation, however, this national holiday reveals the deep, ongoing tensions around race, history, freedom, and what it means to be a citizen.
As a pastor, I’ve had extensive conversations with congregants around this holiday. What I have experienced over the years is the diversity of thought on the nature of our country, and what should and shouldn’t be emphasized and celebrated. On the 4th of July, especially on social media, we will see a wide array of memes, articles, tweets, and heated debates. As a pastor, I’m entrusted with the challenging task of helping others (online and offline) understand each other in a way that leads to healing, mutuality, truth, and love. This article is a small attempt at that. This piece serves as a pastoral word to grasp some of the common ways people go about thinking through this holiday.
When it comes to perspectives on the 4th of July, I’ve found that Christians usually fall in one of four camps. In naming these perspectives, I surely paint with a broad brush, and each perspective is not as neatly packaged as might be suggested in this article. My experience in a very diverse urban community of people from over 75 nations, however, has helped me see large swaths of thought. I have people in all four of these camps at the church I lead. I love these people deeply, and we all have opportunities for growth. In many ways, this congregation is a microcosm of our country. Each perspective carries with it something to hold onto, something to reject, and a way forward for ongoing personal and communal transformation. It’s in this spirit that I hope you might be able to resonate with this analysis.
The four areas to explore are the perspectives of:
- the Conservative Christian
- the Progressive Christian
- the Grateful Immigrant Christian, and
- the Indifferent Christian.
The Conservative Christian
The Conservative Christian sees little to nothing wrong with this country. These are the folks who proudly plant the American flag on their front yard and post multiple memes on freedom. For this person, the 4th of July is an opportunity to focus on our freedoms made possible through the founding fathers and our military. This is a day to defend and celebrate America. They don’t want to dwell on the past, but rather, want to emphasize the progress that has been made. These are the folks who, instead of focusing on the lynching of Black women and men in the early 20th century, will proudly look to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to shift the focus to the positive movements.
This person often adheres to the Christian foundation of the country. To many of the people who are in this line of thinking, the US is a Christian nation that God has blessed with all kinds of freedoms. Therefore, there is much to celebrate on the 4th of July.
The problem and limit with this line of thinking is this person is often painfully unaware or blatantly living in denial about our country’s complex history.
For this person, growth comes in the form of listening deeply to others who have not enjoyed the same freedoms. Moreover, this person must begin to see that critique of country is not necessarily a sign of disdain, but of love. On this 4th of July, remember that critique of one's country is not necessarily a sign of disdain but can in fact be an act of love. Click To Tweet
The Progressive Christian
If the Conservative can’t see any wrong, the Progressive usually tends to see only what’s wrong about our country.
Instead of waving the flag and posting freedom memes, the Progressive will post memes on who is still not free. The 4th of July for this person is a painful reminder that freedom has not always been ubiquitous in this country. It’s also a reminder of the ways our country still needs to develop. The Progressive wants justice and truth, and will use this day to bring social awareness to the ways political and military institutions have not lived up to our ideals.
The danger is that the emphasis on what’s wrong with our country can lead to corrosive anger and resentment. In this respect, the place of awareness and growth for this person is not in creating a history that didn’t exist. Rather, it’s in facing history (and current reality) in a way that holds truth and grace together.
Moreover, for the Progressive, growth requires facing one’s own inner contradictions with the same tenacity projected onto those in power. Our country from the onset has existed in a state of terrifying contradictions—so does every individual. Growth is having the courage to examine ourselves for the same sins we’re spotlighting in those in power. In other words, let your critique be offered not from a condemning distance, but from a spirit that says, “I am part of the problem, and because I love this place, I hope for better in myself, in you, and in us.”
The Grateful Immigrant Christian
The Grateful Immigrant Christian sees the 4th of July much like the Conservative, however, they speak from a different set of life experiences.
For many Immigrants, America is truly the land flowing with milk and honey (especially when contrasted with their tumultuous experiences in their country of origin). As a pastor who leads a congregation with many people who are foreign-born (50% of Queens residents are foreign-born), I hear this a lot. Over coffee, or in a small-group meeting, I have heard congregants applaud and celebrate America without reservation. When compared with expressively violent and dysfunctional regimes, Immigrant Christians are simply grateful to be alive and free from what often felt like tyranny. They have received a new lease on life. This needs to be understood and compassionately heard.
The danger, however, for many Immigrant Christians is the lack of historical perspective. As a pastor who preaches regularly on racism, I’ve found that many immigrants have virtually no framework (or any desire, to be honest) to hear about the struggles of people (particularly Black people) in this country. Many have suffered and moved on, and some often wonder, Why can’t everyone else do the same?
The point of growth for the Immigrant Christian, then, is to hold the tension of historical and present moral mixed together. For them, this country has been a land flowing with milk and honey—but they need to see that for many others, the milk has been spoiled and the honey has been unavailable.
The Indifferent Christian
The Indifferent Christian is the person who really doesn’t focus too much on history, symbols, or the debates that fill the social media timelines of others. On this 4th of July, they just want to grill and eat!
One could argue that people with each of these four perspectives want to grill and eat, too. But the difference is that the Indifferent Christian doesn’t want to rock the boat.
For this person, the 4th of July question is, “Can’t we all just get along?” The Indifferent Christian doesn’t want to focus on the gifts of the country, per se, and neither do they reflect on the deep shortcomings of our country’s history. They just want to eat!
The path of growth for this person is to move out of peacekeeping into peacemaking. To be a Christian is to be concerned about the matters that impact others. It requires us to risk being discomforted from time to time. This doesn’t require that every BBQ turn into a political debate, but it does mean refusing to be an adherent of false peace.
Becoming Non-Dualistic Christians
There are many in the church I lead—and in churches around the country—that fall into one of these categories. We are all on a journey. But prayerfully, our respective journeys will lead us to being able to navigate a complex holiday like the 4th of July with greater nuance and vision.
To do that, we must intentionally move out of dualistic thinking. In explaining dualistic thinking, Richard Rohr writes,
The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception … (excerpted from The Naked Now).
I’d like to submit that on the 4th of July (and generally), we need non-dualistic Christians who are able to see both the gifts of American life and the deeply troubling legacy of American oppression. We must be able to say “Yes!” and “No!”
By God’s grace, the non-dualistic Christian is able to move beyond idolatry and anger. They are able to transcend fear and apathy. The non-dualistic Christian is one who is prepared to engage holidays like the 4th of July with moral and theological clarity. They are not bound by the forces that constrain us into taking sides.
In short, they are able to saying things like, “Our country is not perfect, but I’m grateful for the good that has come forth.” And in the same breath, they are able to say like James Baldwin,
I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on criticizing her perpetually.
Not either/or, but both/and. On this 4th of July, let us remember James Baldwin once said, 'I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on criticizing her perpetually.' Click To Tweet