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I think I’ve found a way to celebrate patriotic holidays.
For many of you that’s a silly “discovery.” You’ve probably celebrated them with your conscience clear for years. But I’ve been struggling.
Maybe I’ve struggled because I grew up immersed in an Americana culture that baptized patriotism and equated “correct” voting with spiritual health.
It was commonplace to find devotion to country and worship of God conflated into one moment. I’ll never forget beginning Fourth of July worship services with the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag and concluding with a sermon extolling American excellence and supremacy.
Even at a young age I rebelled against this culture. Born to a Welsh mother and Mexican-American father, I was raised with a different worldview than many of my peers. My parents’ politics became my politics and they didn’t line up with the Southern Arizona norm.
And so, after I spent my teenage and college years wrestling with my peers on issues ranging from gun control to economics, I decided to pursue a career in politics. A school in Philadelphia offered the opportunity to work with some of the greatest Christian activists my Party had to offer.
My wife and I moved across the country. But, to my dismay, much of what I thought was being left in Arizona was waiting for me in Pennsylvania: an Americana culture that baptized patriotism and equated “correct” voting with spiritual health.
The issues were different, the ethos was the same.
So I distrust the uneasy relationship between the Christian church and American patriotism. For years I could see no viable reason for a Christian to embrace any form of national identity and pride.
But lately, I’ve been reconsidering.
I began questioning my position after observing many believers, including my Pastor, as they successfully resisted blind patriotism without denying national identity. They were Christians above all. But, for them, this did not cancel out their “American-ness”. How had they struck this balance? How were they faithful to the Lord and to their country? How did one not necessarily conflict with the other?
I’m not sure how these faithful brothers and sisters answered these questions. But I think I’ve found my answer in an unexpected place: Romans 12.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
In this section of the letter, Paul transitions from difficult conceptual questions of Christian identity to practical “What now?” questions. How were Christians to live?
Paul begins by discussing how we are to do life together in Christian community. How do we love one another and build one another up in the faith?
Then Paul shifts his attention. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
The careful reader will note that Paul has transitioned from how the Christian is to live within the body of Christ to how the Christian is to live in the world in which God has placed us.
We, like those of the first century Church, live in a world hostile or indifferent to the Christian faith. How are we to live among our unbelieving neighbors?
It is in this context that we find the oft-quoted verse, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We often apply this verse to life in the body, and appropriately so. If we are to do this with someone outside our family of faith, how much more should we do so with our sisters and brothers?
But the context looks outward. We are commanded by Paul to rejoice with unbelievers when they rejoice and to weep with unbelievers when they weep, provided of course that our rejoicing and weeping is not in support of sin.
I think we can bring this principle to bear on the question of national celebrations like the Fourth of July.
A Day for Rejoicing
The American Christian doesn’t seem to have much trouble rejoicing with his or her neighbors on patriotic holidays. But we ought to why we rejoice. Do we rejoice because America is so special? Because it is the ultimate good? No. We celebrate with our neighbors in order to better love our neighbors and to build our reputation with them for the sake of the kingdom.
That was why Paul told the Roman Christians to rejoice with their neighbors. If we celebrate with our friends, perhaps they will hear us when we speak to them of our Kingdom, of a Kingdom greater than any kingdom the world could conjure, and of her King who is greater than any King who has walked the earth. Our rejoicing is about the reputation of our King and his Kingdom.
Americans mark days like the Fourth of July with fireworks and cookouts, time with family and laughter with friends. These are common graces, gifts from the good hand of God. And there is much to celebrate in the ideal that is the United States of America.
Values like freedom, justice, and self-determination shouldn’t be held lightly. These are ideals that many people in other countries long to have. In America, if you have the means, you can go anywhere, do anything. The American ideal allows for freedom of worship, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience. We are able to pursue dreams, strive to better ourselves, and develop communities that work for the common good. The idea of America, a land of freedom and opportunity equally available to all, is a beautiful idea.
Now, it is true that the American ideal has not been achieved. In fact, we fall woefully short time and again. I’ll talk more about this in a moment. But just because we fail to live up to our ideals does not mean the ideals should be ignored. We can and should celebrate the good of our ideals and take a moment to be thankful for the gifts of country and government that God has blessed us with.
If you know people around the world, you know that such gratefulness is not unique to the United States. To be grateful for God’s gift of country is not to slide into American exceptionalism and idolatry. For many of our brothers and sisters around the world are equally grateful for the gifts God has given them. There are even those who suffer persecution in their countries yet continue to pray for Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, and others. They do not want their countries to disappear but to heal. They pray for revival and justice and peace, not because they hate their countries, but because they love them.
If my persecuted sisters and brothers can love their country, why can’t I?
A Day for Weeping
Any celebration of American history or identity must be accompanied by weeping over the sins of our nation. I prosper because generations suffered. I have opportunity because millions had their dreams sold at auction or given away to others by powerful political and corporate interests.
It is not too dramatic to recognize that the United States was built on a foundation of blood. Early settlers committed inhumane acts of genocide against the Native Peoples who first inhabited these lands. Economic prosperity and innovation was possible only on the back of the exploitation and abuse of African slaves. Generations of black bodies and families were mutilated in the name of American “progress.”
Manifest destiny nurtured a spiritual justification for this evil, spreading white supremacy throughout the North American continent. Latin American countries were forced to give up lands to the growing United States and some portions of the Southwest were outright stolen from Latin landowners and claimed by white settlers.
We weep over our past. Also, in order to properly observe this national holiday, we must weep over the current state of affairs. We rejoice in the ideal, sure, but not at the expense of our national reality.
We live in a nation plagued by abortion and racism, divorce and infidelity, mockery and scorn. We are daily assaulted by stories of violence and police brutality. We wake up to more deportations and less peace.
Yes, this is the state of things. So how can I not weep? How can I join those who are rejoicing during a national holiday without also weeping over injustice and evil?
I encourage all Christians to join me in taking some time this Fourth of July to weep over the sins of our fathers. May we even be willing to face the results and continuation of those national sins today.
National sins enshrined by systems and laws over decades and centuries are not overturned by a simple act of Congress or even the passage of time. The sins of generations will be atoned for by generations to come. So we must repent and we must weep.
In the end, I will rejoice with my American brothers, sisters, and neighbors as they celebrate the founding of the country and the many good things this country has accomplished.
I will also weep over how this country was founded. I will ask forgiveness for how I have taken part in systems of oppression and tyranny.
I will spend my Fourth of July rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. Will you join me?