The images are beginning to fade, but for the last few weeks it has been hard to miss the drama being played out on the streets of Iran. Iranians have been protesting what was clearly a rigged election, but more deeply they were raising their own heartfelt cries for freedom. Doctors, teachers, merchants, and laborers took to the streets to stand up for the most essential rights of human beings: to be able to choose their leaders, to have the freedom to think, pray, and speak according to their consciences.
I was amazed by the courage of those people—unarmed and vulnerable to whatever the government’s forces chose to do. Many were arrested; some were killed. They were freedom fighters like our own founders, willing to risk everything for liberty.
As I watched the events in Iran, I couldn’t help thinking of a line from “My country ‘tis of thee,” one of our beloved national hymns, that goes, “From every mountainside let freedom ring.” The hunger for freedom to ring out goes to the heart of what it means to be human.
Yesterday we celebrated the fourth of July, the nation’s birthday. It is of course our most patriotic day. For many years my family and I celebrated Independence Day in a small town in rural Tennessee with a parade that included every fire engine, Shriners on their tiny motor-scooters, high school marching bands, and 4-H Club queens sitting up on the back seat of a Chevrolet convertible waving tirelessly at the crowds. Everyone and everything was draped in red, white, and blue. There was a moving flag-raising ceremony that started the day and a spectacular fireworks show at night.
The fourth of July feels like America’s family holiday. It’s what happened on the mall here in Washington last night when hundreds of thousands gathered for music and fireworks. It’s a time when we give thanks for the gift of freedom in this country, for our founding fathers and mothers, and for all those who fought for freedom, whether as soldiers on the field of battle, or as demonstrators on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama.
One of the greatest testaments to freedom I know is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Road to Freedom. There you see just how much people are willing to sacrifice for the sake of liberty. Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years for the crime of fighting apartheid. Listen to how he described what he learned:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I know anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.
The Bible itself is one long story of freedom. Go back to the beginning in the Garden of Eden and you see that Adam and Eve are free to choose whether to obey God or not, free to be faithful and responsible or not, and we know that starting in the Garden of Eden human beings misused the gift of freedom and rebelled against God. The central story of the Old Testament begins when God acts to liberate the people of Israel who are enslaved in Egypt. And from then on we see God constantly calling, provoking, intervening to bring out a free, just people.
Yet freedom always seems at risk. When things get really tough as the people of Israel travel through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and the water and food run out and everyone is exhausted, many of them start saying slavery in Egypt wasn’t so bad after all and they are ready to go back.
Part of the sad human story is how ready people have been to give up their freedom, especially when they are afraid. It happened in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, it happened in the McCarthy era of the 1950s when Americans were so afraid of Communism that they were prepared to impose severe limits on free speech and the Bill of Rights.
And after 9/11 some Americans began to think we had to give up some of our essential freedoms. They said we had to deny the full protection of accused criminals under our law, we had to allow levels of surveillance that until then we had seen as serious invasions of our privacy. The government began to use methods of interrogation, humiliation, and even torture that when used by other nations before we had prosecuted as war crimes.
Freedom and liberty are always fragile and at risk.
Ask someone on the street today what they mean by freedom and chances are you’ll hear about the right everyone has to do what they want. People ought to be able to go where they want, to get what they want.
But that is a far cry from what freedom means either in the Scriptures or what it meant to the founders of our nation. You see, it matters not only what we are freed from, but what we are freed for. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul wrote. So often we seem clueless in knowing what is worth pursuing, and we become slaves to our consuming desires and our anxious needs to move up the ladder. In fact, our Christian faith says that only as our lives are bent toward Christ’s life, until we are freed to more loving, generous, and compassionate, will we be truly free.
Today we are meant to be patriots, people who love our country, who are grateful for all those who have made life in this land of freedom possible. But we Christians are also meant to be patriots of a certain kind. Our Old Testament lesson today reminds us that we Christians are accountable to a God who knows no boundaries, and who calls all nations to lives of justice and peace. In fact, God’s only partiality seems to be toward those who are poor.
The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, … who executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. [We could translate that, You shall love the immigrant, for your people, too, were immigrants in the land of America.]
In the Gospel, Jesus says “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
When we Christians love our country, we are called to love God, and God’s vision for all human life first. And that means we will have many lover’s quarrels with our country—about how it treats the poor, immigrants, prisoners, and people in other countries.
As we wrestle today with issues such as nuclear arms, or climate change, or desperate poverty, Christians can’t simply ask what is good for America. We have to ask what is best for all God’s children, and what is God’s will for the whole human race? Should not we, the wealthiest nation on earth, lead the way in reducing air pollution and not continue to be dragged along by other countries?
In a cover article in Time magazine last year the writer said that American patriotism wears two faces, and that we need both. One is the patriotism of affirmation: July Fourth patriotism. It’s when we celebrate our nation’s greatest ideals and accomplishments—its commitment to freedom and equality, its tradition of welcoming wave after wave of immigrants coming here seeking freedom and opportunity, its generosity in defending freedom around the world.
But then there is also a patriotism of dissent, which is so committed to America and its deepest values that it is ready to challenge and question and argue mightily when it believes those ideals aren’t being honored. For example, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners, and slavery wasn’t to be outlawed for nearly a hundred years. It took political dissenters and abolitionists decades to make this a freer country. It took women fighting for the vote and all the struggles of the civil rights era to make a freer America.
We need both kinds of patriotism: affirmation and dissent. Maybe we should look at America the way we look at our family. It is ours, it’s who we are, and we are proud of our family. It deserves our love and loyalty. But it also demands our willingness to see what’s wrong too, to speak the truth, to do what we can to help it be better.
At the end of Communion we’ll have a chance to sing what is for me the most moving of all our national songs, the one I wish were our national anthem. “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,” we’ll sing. Then in the second stanza we will sing the words not just of our love of America, but of our lover’s quarrel:
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.
Freedom is one of God’s most precious gifts. But we must never forget that we have been freed for lives of generosity and service.
So let freedom ring across America, this land of the free and home of the brave. Let liberty rise from its purple mountains’ majesty and its fruited plains. Let us be grateful that we have the privilege of living in a nation that continues to be the envy of the world for its freedom and opportunity.
And let us commit ourselves to building together an America that is bold, generous, and worthy of its highest and noblest ideals.