Forty-five years ago today, I was standing at Lands’ End in England with a group of young people and adults from my Methodist Church. We were on the Methodist Heritage Tour, visiting sites important to John and Charles Wesley — the founders of our denomination. It was a sunny, warm day and we had spent it on the beach and in the resort town near the campground where we had stayed the night. After dinner, we sang “Happy Birthday” to America at top voice. There’s more to the story, but today, I’m remembering how it felt to look homeward and sing our patriotism across the Atlantic.
Times are much different today, though I strongly resist calling those days of my youth the “good, ole days.” First, I couldn’t be in England this year as the borders to traveling Americans have been closed in just the past few days. The folks around me have been listening to and watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film of the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton” and recalling the establishment of this national experiment. The worldwide pandemic has colored our holiday plans; originally, we were to be sharing a cottage with dear friends along Lake Michigan, but the prospect of putting folks from six different households into one space gave us all pause. Instead, we’re gathering for an afternoon picnic, appropriately distanced, sanitizing serving utensils, masks handy. Local fireworks displays have been cancelled.
But 45 years ago, we were in the throes of the aftermath of the Watergate crisis. President Nixon had resigned less than a year prior, and Gerald Ford was president. The criminal trials of persons central to the break-in and conspiracies surrounding it had completed earlier that year. There was a great deal of ambivalence in our national climate.
A Sense of Ambivalence
It feels like my heart and mind are very full of memories, anxiety, joy, worry and hope. What does it feel like to make room? To make room for national celebration? To make room for the exuberance of youth far from home? To make room for hope?
On this July 4th, Parker Palmer shared his commitment to a new sense of patriotism, grounded in the documents of Alexander Hamilton’s America. I am inspired by his hope and resolve to seek a renewal of the revolutionary spirit that enlivened our nation with all its strengths and weaknesses.
Palmer begins like this:
The 4th of July, 2020: The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important
documents in the long history of humanity's quest for freedom.
But from the day it was issued to this day, 244 years later, its vision has gone unfulfilled.
The U.S. … is still debating whether black lives matter,
while acts of violence against people of color occur every day.
Some folks will celebrate the 4th as if none of this were true.
For me, flags, fireworks and yet another exercise in national narcissism will not do.
The most patriotic thing I can do on the 4th of July is to reread
the Declaration and feel the weight of the claims it makes on my life.
We know the early lines of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We also know how difficult it has been to uphold these rights over history. But, just above the signatures, the final words of the Declaration move me greatly. They give me hope. They identify the path forward.
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
My hope for the next 45 years of this country — years that will see my grandson to adulthood — is that God’s providence and care will move us all to the mutuality that reminds us of sacrifice that brings the good of all to fruition. The signers pledged their very lives, their fortunes, and their honor. May we do the very same. (And wear your mask.)