For the past several years I have publicly discussed why I tend to avoid associating myself with Independence Day. For a few years in a row I posted what was called my “annual unpopular post.” It all began in 2009 (when I hardly blogged), with a post titled: An “unpopular” 4th of July Post… Why this is Not a Day to Celebrate [later re-blogged and nuanced the following year: here].
As you can imagine, the reaction to such a stance in a country like ours has been diverse. Numerous times I’ve been told things like: “If you don’t like America, then why don’t you move out of the country or something!?”
In these instances, it becomes even more clear how much the story of Christianity has been prostituted to the story of Empire. That may come across as harsh, but I honestly do not intend to be harsh. And in all honesty, controversy is not my favorite pastime, as I don’t love conflict. I am saddened that I’ve lost friends over this conviction. Yet, the more I read the Scriptures and get to know the Christ of the Scriptures, the more I’m compelled to speak the truth in love.
The ones who have experienced the full wrath of Empire in the US, of course, are sisters and brothers of color and indigenous persons. I have no words for their experiences because these are not my stories. But I do believe, as a person of European decent, that I am invited to follow Jesus in hearing the cries of the marginalized in this nation and beyond.
At the same time, I think there is much about this country to celebrate. For instance, I think American culture is something to take a degree of pride in. We have a unique bond as Americans. I love American people! I love living in America – in case that isn’t clear. But, I love something even more–or should I say, I love Someone even more. The way of Jesus invites us to name the good in culture while simultaneously living countercultural lives.
So, on this Fourth of July (like every other day), I want to celebrate the good and wear kingdom “lenses” at the same time. I suppose that I don’t actually celebrate what most people celebrate on Independence Day (as I see this day as no more significant than any other day – it isn’t a Christian holiday). You won’t find me saluting flags or wearing its colors, but on July 4th – like every other day of the year – Kingdom people in America have things to celebrate.
On the Fourth of July (and every other day), Kingdom people celebrate…
- The beauty of living in the United States of America while counting the unchristian and violent costs of such a privilege. Our American story started with European conquerers stealing this land from its native caretakers–and continuing in this pattern through alleviating our white guilt by subjugating the great native tribes to ghetto-like reservations. And speaking of “ghettos,” let’s not forget that we did similar acts of evil with the wonderful Africans that were brought to this land against their will.
- The gift of freedom, while recognizing that this ultimate gift comes not from a sword, tank, machine gun, or fighter pilot – but from an executed revolutionary named Jesus who in his essence subverted the tendencies of nationalism. Even if America didn’t exist our freedom in Christ would remain. Just ask the Martyrs of old.
- The countless stories of refugees who found a home in this land, now free from oppression but often subjugated to racism.
- The historically marginalized Christian voices who spoke against taking up arms to fight for “Independence.” One of the heroes of faith in this country, is a man by the name of John Wesley, who said the following (see this blog):
Look into America… see that Negro, fainting under the load, bleeding under the lash! He is a slave. And is there ‘no difference’ between him and his master? Yes; the one is screaming ‘Murder! Slavery!’ the other silently bleeds and dies! ‘But wherein then consists the difference between liberty and slavery?’ Herein: You and I, and the English in general, go where we will, and enjoy the fruits of our labours: This is liberty. The Negro does not: This is slavery. Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?
- The beautiful fireworks in the sky and a great excuse for grilling up veggie burgers (if you are me!) with friends and loved ones, while realizing that the bombs bursting in air during the War for Independence, blew up under the disguise of a”Just War.” As I have demonstrated in previous articles, this war didn’t qualify under the theological categories for a classical just war. In fact, it could be argued that most wars America has participated in doest not fit in these categories – with the rare exceptions such as finally involving ourselves (and I mean *finally*) with liberating the Jewish folks in concentration camps. You can read all about why the Revolutionary War didn’t fit the classical criteria for a “just war” by reading: Just Jesus & Unjust July 4th: Why I don’t Celebrate Independence Day. I mean, should Puerto Rico rebel against us since they legitimately can chant “no taxation without representation?” Just sayin’ 😉
- The wonderful people in America who believe that we all should be free to worship God in our own way! At the same time, the unfortunate truth is that we have a history of using God as a prop for justifying bloodshed and inequality. Many people equate “freedom to worship” with the worship of a specific version of the Christian God.
- The potential good that comes from a system where everyone can legally vote (nuanced, to be sure). At the same time, those of us who follow a different King, namely Jesus, are invited to spend each day of our lives the routing through how we live – not merely once every two years at a ballot box [this comment is, of course, inspired by Jesus for President].
- The great people in our country who follow Jesus as Americans while recognizing that God’s kingdom is one that transcends borders. Many of us sojourn in America and have US Passports, but we ultimately refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag. We give ourselves to a Slaughtered Lamb whose banner isn’t marred by violence, but is lifted high through love. This love goes out to our sisters and brothers throughout the globe: Europeans, Palestinians, Canadians, Peruvians, Iraqis, Israelis, Africans, Asians, Mexicans, Afghanis, and to the ends of the earth!
So, let’s celebrate together on July 4th, but let’s do so with Kingdom lenses on. Enjoy the lights in the sky and the wonderful food. Enjoy the wonderful people of America. But, for those who follow Jesus, how can we subvert tendencies like the idolatry of flag pledges with humility? This, and many other questions that this day raises, will need to be handled with generous love towards those who disagree with us, while not compromising our true Kingdom allegiance.
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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