This weekend me, my friends and neighbors are going to BBQ and blow up things. My social media feed will be full of American flags and Happy Independence Day GIF’s and memes.
I enjoy a good 4th of July celebration. Fireworks are nostalgia for me. Growing up in a small town of log truck drivers and mill workers (my dad one of them), the 4th meant BBQ’d chicken, which my dad joked was a burnt offering. It meant parking alongside the road up the hill from our fair grounds to watch (for free) the explosions in the sky.
As my sons entered their school-aged years, I began searching for stories and lessons from history that would help my sons know more about their country than the suburban white culture they lived in was teaching them. My mom tried to do the same for me, taping images of babies from various ethnicities to the wall next to my crib. As I began my search for more diverse material to inject into my kids’ senses, I began to learn what I was never taught growing up.
I learned that the White House had been built on the backs of African American slaves. I read Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass and shuddered. I learned about the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum and the black American’s who had suffered and died to access the freedom this nation sings. I discovered William Wilberforce, John Newton and Hannah More. And so I began to realized those hot summer night, 4th of July grilled meats sure tasted good, but they didn’t help me realize I’d been swallowing the bones of my American freedom my whole life.
Yesterday I listened to a podcast with Dr. Walter Strickland. Strickland discussed his book, For God So Loved the World- A Blueprint for Kingdom Diversity. Strickland described the African American Christian community bringing to Christian theology a Berean-like practice that chews the meat of the gospel but spits out the bones of errant tradition. Strickland pointed out this Biblical practice has been part of the African American Christian way from it’s inception. Why? Because if African Americans had swallowed whole the Christian faith they were force-fed as slaves, they would have rejected it all together. The gospel the slaves learned and embraced was filled with a bunch of dead boned theology that their slaveholders used to defend slavery.
The Africans who were enslaved in the U.S. and on whose backs the U.S economy and government structures were built, were able to chew the meat of the gospel that Christ died for their sins to reconcile them to God and spit out the bones of the evil of their slaveholders. How can I do any less?
In Fredrick Douglass’ now famous speech What to the slave is the 4th of July, the former slave eloquently lays out the irony and wickedness that young America was willingly blinded to. He pointed out how our father’s thought it right and noble to seek independence from Britain’s crown, and celebrated their victory in gaining this freedom, while chained to the dark-skinned men, women and children they denied this freedom too.
“You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and
that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country…. ” (What to the slave is the 4th of July, 1852)
But even Douglass, so freshly scarred and wounded in a time of open slavery, was chewing the meat of the virtues America ironically violated in their slave holding, while spitting out the bones of our country’s wickedness.
“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” (What to the slave is the 4th of July, 1852)
I love America. I love her diversity. I love that she has an ethic of hard work and human rights. I love that she invites the immigrant and the poor. I love the bravery of those who fought and died for her. But those very appetizing traits have come with centuries of splintery bones we all too easily swallow in our fourth of July nostalgia. Tomorrow I’ll eat barbecued chicken and cherry pie. I’ll light up some store bought fake fireworks and sing our national anthem. But I want to celebrate with the wisdom of the men and women who perhaps sang the greatest anthem to come from America’s freedom- the cries of former slaves who discerning wisdom from above, took the meat from America’s declaration of independence and spit out all her bones.