Guest meditation by Larry Grimes
Declaration of Independence
In Congress, July 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Luke 6:20-36 20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
What to a kid is the Forth of July? I remember it occurring in two modes. First, when I was five or six, the Fourth meant a picnic gathering at my grandparents’ home. Hot dogs and burgers on the grill. Potato salad. Baked beans. Watermelon. And most important of all—homemade ice cream. We supplied the ice cream mix—cream from the one Jersey cow we kept in the herd for this purpose, eggs from our chickens, and Mom’s secret ingredients. Ice was purchased by the blocks at Cox’s ice house and crushed by sledge hammer in gunny sacks. Everyone got to turn the crank. The littlest ones got to lick the paddle. And there were firecrackers an sparklers in the night.
All this depended on the corn actually being knee high by the Fourth of July and no hay crop down for baling. When the Fourth was a farming day, and most often it was, I remember when I was 12 or 15, sweating away plowing corn rows with temperature in the 90s with humidity to match. We’d be on the tractors until milking time. By then dark clouds usually rolled in. It was growing dark when the milking was done—then the fireworks began. The cosmic fireworks from the beginning of time. Great flashes of lightning. Canon peals of thunder. And the heavy rain came down.
And that, for this kid, was the Fourth of July. No civic gatherings. No speeches. We either had family fun or spent one more day tending the land.
So, I ask now. What to an American is the Fourth of July? And I ask this question knowing the answer is myriad, even as America is e pluribus unum—one out of many. This was driven home to me in a most powerful way the first time I read a speech given by ex-slave, Frederick Douglass, in 1852. The ground bass of this speech was this line: “What to a slave is the Fourth of July?” Read it today. It’s free online. His answers to this question provoke questions for us all, some of which have still no answer. This speech also helps one understand the great joy experienced this June when Juneteenth became a national holiday. I hope you will read the Douglass speech and take a close look at the Declaration of Independence today, as you try to formulate your own answer to the question, what to and American is the Fourth of July. In particular, the professor in me can’t help dispensing bibliography, Google Jefferson’s draft of the document and note the final grievance he raised against the King—on the slave trade. The issue of slavery didn’t make it to the final draft. “… he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Now the question of the day, One I thought about not raising. One that Craig and I pondered as many pastors do when the Fourth rolls around. Do we preach civil religion on that day—a kind of mix of Christianity and politics from one slant or another. Do we burrow deep into the lectionary and delight in a text that has nothing to do with the Fourth at all. Or do we ask the question—What to a Christian is the Fourth of July?
The question is complex and has many answers. What follows is a personal is a personal inquiry toward an answer. Do feel free to make your own quest, one far different than mine. My focus is on four words in the Declaration of Independence as refracted through words and actions of Jesus. Those words are “truths,” “life,” “liberty,” and “happiness.” I think these words need to be pondered this day both as social and political concepts and as theological and spiritual guides. I’ll leave it to you to do the social and political pondering.
Jefferson speaks of truths (plural) and life. The Gospel of John talks about the way, truth (singular) and life. Jefferson appeals to John Locke’s philosophy predicated on the idea that there are certain natural, and unalienable rights with which all men (I do think he was being gender specific) are born. John, on the other hand, holds to the notion of only one truth. It is an ontological truth, a truth about the nature of Being itself—that truth is Jesus, the way of Jesus, which is life abundant and life eternal.