Independence Day Reflections
July 2nd is Independence Day for the United States! So insisted John Adams, always the contrarian. You see, Adams and others believed the festivities should be celebrated on the date the thirteen colonies officially voted to separate from Britain.
There are many parts of our nation’s birth story that are subject to question, even revision. The musical “Hamilton,” for example is a recasting of our nation’s earliest years. Hamilton gives new focus to the significance of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. (And the musical provides a delightful reconsideration of our ideas about folks like Washington and Jefferson.)
I have been thinking about the mirror images (and differences) between the United States and Canada. Canada celebrated its 150th Birthday on July 1st. We have so much in common. Two nations, so similar in cultural traditions and yet so different. We are, and we are not, mirror images. We both reflect the quest for democracy and freedom in North America… and have much to learn from one another.
Web searches on the topic of “Myths about U.S. Independence” or “Misconceptions surrounding the Revolutionary War” will uncover lists of the fallacies regarding our easily held stories of the nation’s birth. It is helpful to be reminded that our knowledge can always be advanced; our own self-identity is much more complex than our fifth grade history lessons portrayed. An engagement with the story of Canada, for example, makes these myths even more fascinating.
In May I had the privilege of meeting Sam Sullivan, recently elected to a second term as a member of the British Columbia legislature in Canada. Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver, B.C., was left paraplegic following a skiing accident at age 19. A civic reformer, inventor, leader in rethinking urban landscapes and how we might live in more environmentally sensitive ways in the future. Sam is a delight to be around. He loves challenging the taken-for-granted worlds which too often confine us.
Sullivan is a student of history, especially the founding of our two nations. In our visit he enjoyed retelling the U.S.’s founding story, from a Canadian perspective. He reminded us that had there been no so-called “revolutionary war,” slavery would have been outlawed in the colonies decades earlier, women would have had the right to vote sooner and the taxes over which we have been told were the basis for the Boston Tea Party were, in fact, rescinded before the revolution began. He suggested we take a closer look at the ways France played a critical role in our founding as an “independent” nation.
If my perceptions surrounding Independence Day are distorted, what might I need to reconsider about the current social, cultural and political realities?
It is too easy for me to speak of the narcissism of the current occupant of the White House. He is indeed a troubled soul, so hungry for adulation that he surrounds himself with people who agree to only see the world through his lenses of reality. There is, no doubt, plenty to criticize. (I have given much space in this blog over recent months to doing so.) He seems to forever be looking for validation and praise, seeking self-worth by looking in the mirrors of the media for images that portray him as hero and victor. If he doesn’t like the reflection, it is “false.” The myth of Narcissus is, in fact, the story of one so hungry for adulation that he dies beside the stream admiring his own image.
But this critique is too easy for this Independence Day. How many times did I preach of the importance of seeing oneself clearly in the world in which we live and work? Drawing on the thoughts of great theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I encouraged myself and others to be aware of the “Little Hitler” that exists in every human breast.
Now for those of you who don’t like this theological assumption of original sin, I confess that I don’t like it much either.
I would prefer to speak of human beings as being originally blessed, avoiding anything to do with original sin. Honesty, however, compels me to believe that both make up the human condition. Our nation’s history and our personal ones argue that we are subject to less than noble self-understandings and actions. The temptation to move to binary thinking (one is all good and another is all bad) leads us to places where we can easily condemn the other and remain immature and unfulfilled ourselves. Let me recommend the teaching of Fr. Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation on the limits of such binary theologies. [See Richard Rohr].
Please do not read this as suggesting an equivalency between the current occupant of the White House and Adolf Hitler. That is NOT the point. My suggestion is about the rest of us — that we all need to be freed from our tendency to divide the world too easily and believe our understandings are the only way to proceed. We, the people of the United States, need some honest looking in the mirror around our history, our bigotry and our potential.
The call is toward renewal, personal and social. The call to be freed from distortions in our self-perceptions and idealized views of our being somehow more special than others. This, I would suggest, is a true way to celebrate Independence, on July 2, July 4 and every day of the year.
I leave you with the words from the song of that great philosopher, Michael Jackson:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change
[Performed by Michael Jackson, written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett]