July the fourth, 2021. It has been 245 years since the Declaration of Independence which separated us from England and King George III. As Benjamin Franklin was coming out of the Constitutional Convention some years later, a woman asked him, “Mr Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” “A Republic, madam,” he answered. “If you can keep it.” And since those days we have been involved in a struggle to live up to the words, a more perfect union, establish justice, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity. The United States was born under a dream of a better life for everyone. But over the years we have had to redefine “everyone”?? And what liberty, i.e. freedom, means, and taking care of ALL the people, and ensuring a JUST society. And the whole world has watched us down through ages and copied us and come here to make their home. Because this was America and this was better. There are multitudes of stories of what these people found when they arrived — the struggles, the prejudice, the poverty. It seems before they could really call this home, everybody had to shed a little of their blood in some form to make this dream a reality.
I have been reading the wartime sermons of Peter Marshall, the pastor of Riverside Presbyterian church in New York City and also chaplain of the US Senate during World War II. His sermons were legendary as he called to the American people that the country was struggling. The war was a last resort for the hopes and dreams of humanity everywhere. We said we were fighting for liberty, but Dr. Marshall noted in our own country people of color and indigenous people were not free to vote or experience economic opportunity. Dr. Marshall said that God was calling his people to accept the gospel message of loving God and loving your neighbor to create a world where everyone could live without fear. His sermons from those pivotal years in our history ring out loudly today. “Our Government is in danger of control by corrupt party machines — cynical, ruthless, self-seeking, lovers of power and authority, which should challenge every true patriot.” We are fighting the same battles today as political parties lash out at each other in a stream of hate-filled words trying to undo any good the other party has done. Humanity cannot advance when this is the path that is taken. This is not what the founding fathers and mothers intended.
It is worth thinking about on this July 4th and asking the question, “Will we turn from our rebellious and stubborn ways?” Could there be a rededication to the ideals that the original signers imagined when they put their names to the Declaration of Independence? They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to get the dream moving toward reality. We are not there yet, but there is a spirit in the American dream which holds to the promises of “liberty and justice for all.” May it happen soon.
My cousin sent me an op-ed from her local newspaper. The author was writing about racism, how it is practiced all around us and has been since the founding of the country. But the turn of the editorial is that we are finally recognizing it and starting to push for the changes necessary to right these wrongs. My sense is the whole world is watching how we deal with what our history was and how we move forward in making our country and world a better place.
As a student of history, I don’t want to dwell on the past — I want to understand it and then apply what we have learned to improve. I have always known George Washington was a slave owner and that was not a good thing, but he was raised in an era when it was accepted. He was the first president of the United States. He turned down the offer to become king. One source tells us: “Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice. At the end of his life, Washington made the decision to free all his slaves in his 1799 will - the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.” Through our history we struggle with the balance of good and evil. The importance of recognizing slavery was wrong had to come first. The ensuing struggle to continue that move forward was nasty throughout the Jim Crow years following the Civil War. It still isn’t what it should be and some people are still trying to keep people of color from voting and pursuing economic equality. It is a slow process, but I hope with the addition of the words “systemic racism” into our vocabulary we are learning to examine ourselves, our own prejudices and right some wrongs a little faster.
I have been a “Trekkie” ever since I was a kid and I always appreciated the great diversity of the program from its very beginning, not only within the crew but the inclusion of people from other planets. When the Federation began to make peace overtures with the Klingons, it was a battle on both sides to get acceptance and peace. Another early episode found the crew interacting with a race at war — the color of the people was half white and half black — the struggle was over which side you were black on — the right side or the left side.
There is a saying, “The only constant in life is change.” And then we hear people say and I say it myself, “I don’t want things to change. I want them to stay just as they are.” Sorry, not going to happen. We can look back on our own lives with pride for the good things we have accomplished, but to finish the picture we also have to remember the “not-so-good” things we have done. History operates in the same way. When Galileo was attempting to convince people the earth revolved around the sun, when people believed the earth was the center of the solar system, that meant he was condemned by most of Europe including the Church which was the most powerful institution at that time. If the earth was only one planet among many, then suddenly we were not that important. We can teach about the cruelties of slavery but we can also teach about the improvements of working conditions and the ending of child labor laws. There is much we have to improve, but we also have much to be proud of.
We can move forward and we can teach history as it really was — the good and the bad. It is evident we are going to have to de-mythologize some of our history — “No, the pioneers did not open the West.” It was already populated and open and lived on by people with an important culture and history in this country. The greed of the railroads was a principal reason the buffalo were nearly exterminated to take away the food source of the Native peoples. Education for all of us is key to understanding. We may not like it, but it was the reality of that time and place. How do we now work toward changing the reality and moving forward with eyes open, with awareness to the sensibilities of all the people around us, and making a society where no one is excluded for any reason. We live with good and bad, how the balance tips is up to us.