Has our country ever celebrated Independence Day amid deeper divisions than we have today? The January 6 Committee is holding hearings that focus on the former President’s role in trying to overturn the last Presidential election. Despite all evidence to the contrary, one-fourth of all Americans still believe Trump won. The Supreme Court has struck down Roe vs. Wade, denying women the right to control their own bodies in half the states in our country. At a time when we are struggling to limit the number of deaths by guns, the Court has decided to limit the power of lawmakers to regulate concealed handguns in public places. And at least one member of the Court wants to strike down same sex marriage.
On this weekend when we celebrate freedom, questions swirl around differing understandings of what freedom entails.
People of faith know that the idea of freedom long predates our nation. In fact, it may be that planted within every human being, is a strong yearning to be free. In the same way that we are restless until we find God, and in the same way that we instinctively recoil in the face of unfairness and injustice, every person may be born with an innate desire for freedom.
Most biblical scholars agree that the initial spark that eventually developed into Judaism, began sometime around the 13th Century BCE when the Hebrew people were liberated from slavery. For more than 400 years, they were held captive in Egypt where they labored under rigid rulers. But through the bold leadership of Moses, God liberated the people from their bondage.
This is so basic to Judaism that the first of the Ten Commandments says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Then, when Jesus launched his ministry, he announced that God had sent him “to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18) At the core of Judaism and Christianity is the belief that God is a liberating God who wants human beings to enjoy freedom.
Each year on the Fourth of July, we in American celebrate the revolution that won our nation’s independence from Britain. Thus began the process that created a constitution which established certain liberties. Further, it cemented the notion of limited political authority in which leaders ruled, not by might, but by the consent of the people. Many of us worry that this basic principle was nearly toppled by the January 6 insurrection as some attempted to invalidate the vote of the people.
Raise your hand if you have ever recited the “Pledge of Allegiance.” The last six words comprise one of the most powerful declarations in the world: “with liberty and justice for all.” That is our ideal. Of course, we have not always lived up to our standard of granting everyone liberty and insuring that everyone enjoyed equal justice. When our ancestors drove Native Americans off of their land and seized it for themselves, when they enslaved people to work their farms and plantations, and when they denied women the same rights as men, our nation fell seriously short of its stated principles. However, there have always been loyal Americans dedicated to these ideals who have helped us draw closer to fulfilling them. If a significant portion of our population jettisons its belief in liberty and justice for all, the foundations of our country will crumble.
The Preamble to the United States Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
While trumpeting liberty and happiness, the pledge and the Constitution do not grant us license to pursue liberty and personal happiness at the expense of others. I fear that much of what is creating the chasm in our country is the emphasis on personal rights devoid of personal responsibility. A family will not stay together for long if each family member demands personal rights, but shucks all obligations. Our nation will splinter – has already begun to splinter – because many exercise rights but dodge accountability.
Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Paul declared that Christ has set us free. But, free for what? Free to do whatever we please? Of course not. As we heard from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” (Galatians 5:13)
We who strive to live according to the Scriptures, receive our marching orders first from God and second from the government of the land in which we live. In the United States, we are very fortunate that the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution are in harmony with biblical principles. Jesus and the prophets chastised the people whenever they oppressed the poor or neglected the needy. They made God’s intentions clear: we are responsible for our neighbor. Isn’t that what our Constitution and Pledge of Allegiance affirm when they call on us to “Promote the general welfare” and strive for “liberty and justice for all”?
Of course, our nation is not one uniform entity. It is a collection of people – an enormous collection of diverse people. We are far more than simply red and blue states. We have east-coasters and west-coasters, New Englanders and Southerners, Midwesterners and South westerners. We vary in races and religions, incomes and opinions. And some of us have almost all of those differences just within our families. Our differences can serve as a wedge to drive us further apart, or they can be like a spice that brings out a richer flavor.
In First Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul says that God gives the members of the Body of Christ different gifts to use for the common good. As followers of Jesus, it is our job to remind every citizen of this country of the importance of working for the common good, or what the U.S. Constitution calls “promoting the general welfare.” It includes establishing and supporting a rule of law not tilted in favor of the wealthy or the famous or the powerful, but a rule of law that seeks a level playing field for every citizen. Of course, working for the common good includes more than simply impartial law. It also focuses on providing education and adequate health care and opportunities to earn a living.
We work for the common good when we care for food insecure neighbors in our community. Ideally, you have compassion for someone who has mental or physical health issues that land them in poverty and you simply feel compelled to help. But whether or not we feel compassion or empathy, Jesus commands us to feed people who are hungry, visit people who are ill, show hospitality to strangers, liberate those who are oppressed, and work with every ounce of energy for peace.
We work for the common good when we care for God’s creation and take the necessary steps to reduce our use of fossil fuels so that future generations are not left with the numerous problems created by an overheated planet.
We work for the common good when we ignore the artificial boundaries that people construct to divide us into separate tribes. That is why it is vital for us to keep up our work on building friendships with people of good will who are of different races and religions.
A few years ago when the civil war in Syria was at its peak, there was an iconic photo of a little boy sitting in an ambulance. His home had been bombed, but he survived. He was in shock and there was blood and concrete dust covering his face.
The photo went viral and a six-year-old boy named Alex who lived in New York saw it. It stirred emotions in everyone who saw the photo of the shell-shocked boy, but Alex felt compelled to do something, so he wrote a letter to the President.
Here is what he wrote:
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him.
In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.
Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.
Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!
No one needs to teach Alex what it means to work for the common good. He thoroughly understands it. May we – and our government officials – grasp it as well as he does.
Eternal God, the Author of life and liberty, we turn to you to understand the proper place our nation is to have in our loyalties. Grant us wisdom and strength to serve you and this nation faithfully in the days that lie ahead.
Remind us of our duty to promote the general welfare, to secure the blessings of liberty for all, to see to it that justice and compassion reign from sea to shining sea, and that the bountiful resources of our land are not only thankfully received, but also generously shared with the whole human family.
Gracious God, if we are to be a light to other nations, show us what our nation must continue to become. Show us ways to unbind the chains which still limit the freedom of too many people. Enable us to win the fight against poverty which enslaves many in our country and around the world. Encourage us to overcome any prejudice based on race, sexual orientation or religion.
God, we know that liberty is a precious gift that allows us to freely choose the path of Christ. May we never take freedom for granted and may we always be ready to work for the common good.
Loving God, we are very blessed to live in a land of liberty, help us to use our freedom to speak the truth, to promote justice for all and to respond with love toward our neighbor. These are the principles on which Jesus built his ministry, and these are the virtues you call us to embody.
Now, we join our voices together and pray as Jesus taught us to pray, saying,
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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