This weekend we will celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. Over the course of my life the details of that celebration have changed. I have been to parks, riverfronts, a few overseas, and for several years after fireworks became legal, we had a decent show at my parents’ house with all my siblings, their children, and several neighbors.
My understanding and appreciation for this holiday has changed over the years, as it should. If one lives long enough there will be protests, riots, social movements, and heroes and villains. During each of these phases the mood of the holiday can change slightly. Most years it is imperceptible, but I do still remember 1976 (bicentennial) and 1981 (the country’s mood changed as I remember it), and who can forget 2002 (the year after 9/11).
The story of our nation has a few major events (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, several wars, and various movements — suffrage, union, civil rights, and ecological) around which we build the narrative we teach to our children. What we decide to tell around these events is heavily influenced by current events, the mood of the nation, our faith, and the economy. Each generation reconfigures the story such that our founding fathers may look like saviors or villains.
They were neither. They were courageous men who wrote one of the most incredible non-inspired documents in history. They leaned heavily on the Greek philosophers and were influenced by Christian principles, even if many would not pass the test of “Christian” according to some. The Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights contained in them ideals that even the most righteous of them failed to live up to. I believe that they knew what they were doing, even if they could not foresee what would follow.
Our story is full of flaws. It includes every sin known to man (slavery, genocide, corruption, immorality, and every -ism we can imagine). It is not unlike every other nation’s story. But it is still a good story. On the whole, I believe that it has done more good than harm. On the whole we are still able to offer hope to many and opportunities beyond imagination in many other places. We are still a nation that respects law — even if that law needs to be corrected.
It will remain a good story if we can manage to incorporate our sin in the picture without destroying each other in the process — which we have nearly done a couple of times.
There is a way to think about our nation’s story the same way we think about our personal stories. Or about how we understand the Biblical story. They all begin simply enough with an emphasis on what is good, or rather what makes us look good. As we grow and mature, we should develop the ability to be self-critical and look at those parts of the story that are not pleasant. It makes us better people and it makes us more gracious and empathetic.
One of the challenges that we now face concerning our nation’s story is that it is being reconfigured and retold by those who now have more of a voice than in the past. Those voices have always been there, but they have not always been heard. Frederick Douglass in a speech known as “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”, delivered on July 5th, 1852 said, “Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
We are slowly beginning to listen and incorporate our sins into our story as seen in various months dedicated to the history of different groups. For those familiar with the Biblical story this should come as no surprise. All one needs to do is read the history of Israel and Judah in Samuel and Kings and then read it in the Chronicles. They are different because they were written at different times. The nation had different needs. Kings was written before the Babylonian exile and rightly included the sins of David, Solomon, and all the kings that followed. It explained their trouble. Chronicles was written as they were coming out of captivity. They needed a different story.
The story of our nation that my grandfather’s generation passed down was cleaned up because that is what we needed. This includes our current version of the Pledge of Allegiance. The story that my children are learning is one that considers our national sins. It is what we need right now.