Independence Day Through a Gospel Lens

Fireworks from Flickr via Wylio © 2012 ·tlc∙, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Independence Day can be a tricky holiday for some of us. It is for me. As a Christian, my highest allegiance is to God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God loves—even privileges—those who are poor, sick, and otherwise troubled or cast to our cultural margins. God makes clear that if we love him, we must care for those who are starving, sick, or suffering. God tells us that wealth and possessions can draw us dangerously far away from him. God says that radical love—not violence or military might—is the most powerful agent of change for our broken world.

Our country, in contrast, is home to an ever-growing gap between rich and poor; a powerful cultural ethos celebrating individualism and personal success over community and cooperation; and a tendency to embrace violent defense and offense as primary solutions to all kinds of problems. Sometimes it seems impossible to be both a good American and a good Christian.

And yet, we have so much to be thankful for as Americans, from our constitutionally protected freedoms and basic material comforts (such as clean water) to our breathtakingly beautiful and varied natural resources and habitats. Because "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights," (James 1:17) the many bountiful gifts of this country draw us back to their source, the God of all creation.

Like us, our nation is both terribly broken and abundantly blessed. How do we celebrate Independence Day in a way that stays true to our Christian values and vision? Is it appropriate to celebrate Independence Day in church?

A colleague in the progressive Christian blogosphere, Benjamin Corey, wrote last week that:

Celebrating Independence Day at church is among what I believe to be the most offensive things we could do in a place that is supposed to be reserved for worshiping the God we see fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ...Celebrating Independence Day at church is to celebrate something that is the polar opposite of the Jesus of the New Testament. It’s offensive. It’s idolatrous. It’s something I hope you’ll skip.

I'm a fan of Corey's writing, but I think he got this one wrong. Now, Corey is from a fundamentalist/evangelical background, and seemed to be particularly offended by an excessive type of church-based July 4th celebration that is utterly foreign to us Episcopalians who, at most, sing a patriotic hymn if July 4 falls on a Sunday, or hear a sermon that mentions the holiday (or none of the above; we Episcopalians are nothing if not flexible!). Corey's blog post features videos of red-white-and-blue robed choirs accompanied by fireworks. Such displays are definitely over the top and, I agree, offensive in the context of worshipping our nonviolent, subversive, peacemaking savior.

But I believe that being a Christian means considering every area of our lives in light of the gospel, including both our love of country and our hope that it can better embody the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice upon which it was founded. And I think that church can be a place where we ponder the paradoxes of living in a country that inspires both pride and pain, especially around Independence Day. Christians aren't called to ignore the most troubling or puzzling aspects of our world, but to look for how what is broken might be healed and what is fallen might be redeemed, with God's help and our participation.

In the D.C. church where my husband Daniel and I met, I occasionally wrote liturgies for special days, including Independence Day. The Independence Day liturgy centered on a "Litany of Confession and Celebration," in which we spoke aloud, together, all that was broken in our country and all that we were thankful for. We asked forgiveness for our consumerism and worship of wealth, and gave thanks for our material comforts and innovative, entrepreneurial spirit. We asked forgiveness for a history "built on a foundation of war and violence, where peacemaking is a rare and precious art," and gave thanks for the "politicians, peacemakers, soldiers, artists, visionaries, and people of God who have fought for what they believed in with integrity, humility, and courage." We asked forgiveness for our short-sighted exploitation of natural resources, and gave thanks for a bountiful landscape of "streams and snowy mountains, oceans and sandy beaches, mesas and deserts, swamps and lakes."

After allowing time for congregants to talk around our tables about what America means to us, what we are most ashamed of, what we are most grateful for, and where God fits into our feelings about our country, the liturgy ended with these words before we passed communion bread and wine to one another:

America is full of broken places and people. The cracks that divide race from race and rich from poor grow ever wider. We watch in fear as despair and hatred take root in those cracks. Yet our service of communion reminds us that broken places can also be places where the fullness of love is revealed. For in the broken body of the crucified Jesus, we see that God so loved the world that he gave us his son. America's problems are overwhelming and frightening. We do not know how we, as individuals or voters or nonprofit agencies or protesters, can even begin to make a difference. Yet our service of communion reminds us, as we pass the bread from hand to hand and the cup from mouth to mouth, that God has given us two invaluable gifts: each other, and Gods own love for us embodied in Jesus. With each other and with God's love, all things are possible. The body of Christ, God's love for us. The blood of Christ, God's love for us.

What do you think? Is it appropriate to recognize Independence Day in church (minus the fireworks, perhaps) or not? How does your faith inform your sense of patriotism and love of country? What are you particularly grateful for or praying about this Independence Day?

Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.