During this 2015 Independence Day weekend, it would be right for us to give thanks to God for the bold vision of those individuals who fought and worked together to shape and craft our nation from its earliest conceptual stages, through the declaration of Independence, up to this present moment.
It is good and it is right to take time to reflect on great and courageous work of our past, particularly as such reflection prepares us to project and commit to great and courageous actions that will define our future.
Regardless of party affiliation or length of citizenship, today and throughout the weekend, we reaffirm, with joy, our great freedom story.
When our collective foreparents crafted the blueprints for our nation, and when they declared independence from the British Empire, they set the nation on a course from which it would never stray, a course of self determination, that is, we will define ourselves as a nation, and by that definition, we are prepared to live free from tyranny, free from subjugation. We are independent from the Crown.
However, no matter how brilliant the light of our freedom story may have been, much of it was hidden under the politically broad yet morally bankrupt bushel of exclusion, brutality, and nullification as made known through nation’s participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its legalized, even baptized systems of racism, enslavement, and racial discrimination against persons of Africa descent.
For the many who longed for authentic freedom and equality with full integrity, Independence Day celebrations have always been punctuated by an asterisk, one that asserts that only after the heroic, sacred, and sacrificial dedication of those who labored for Civil Rights and Equal Rights, could the nation as a whole move closer to paying credible tribute to nationalized doctrines of freedom and justice for all.
Now it is my belief that independence for the purposes of self-determination was and is the key element that was and is vitally important for the emergent and continued life of our nation. In fact, it is the independence of our nation, and the freedoms that over time we have learned to tweak, craft, and finally (begrudgingly) offer to all citizens regardless of religion, race, sex, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition, that make us the shining example of hope and liberty we are to many segments of our world.
Inasmuch as we continue to mature and accept responsibility for promising and protecting liberty for all of our citizens, as imperfect as our delivery systems may be, we will have widespread credibility in matters of freedom and self-determination of our people and people from around the world.
These understandings I present here focus on legal statutes that shape and govern us as a nation. However, I believe we now must turn our attention to the social and moral requirement necessary for us to flourish and advance as a people, and that is interdependence.
As diverse as our land has been, is, and is becoming, we now find ourselves on the threshold of an inalterable future that will be characterized and animated by diversity.
Some of us trace our ancestry back to the native peoples of North America; some to the African Continent; some to Europe; some to the Caribbean Islands; some to Latin, Central, and South America; some to Asia and the Pacific Islands; and some to other lands.
Regardless of our national orbits of the past, we’re all in the same orbit now. If this nation will move forward and avoid being pulled into the consuming vortex of self-interest, division, and hate, we must learn to tame our coveted independence and our sacred societal mythology of rugged individualism with the public declaration of our interdependence on each other, and our fundamental need to live as people who are united.
In my view, the church must always offer a visionary, leading voice in this effort as we have been given a great and glorious image of unity.
In 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that the Apostle Paul came to realize that the church at Corinth had become a conflicted and divided church with numerous parties and factions. There were fissures among the faithful over spiritual gifts and social class, and as I read this passage, I get the feeling that Paul had simply had enough. So Paul took the time to issue a simple yet powerful image for this church to consider then, and for the church to consider now: we are one. We are a body, one body, and all body parts are important and needed.
No body part can legitimately say to other body parts that their functions are not welcomed or needed on the body! In fact, Paul is clear that God has designed a sort of ecclesial affirmative action policy in the body so that stronger parts share their strength in order to assist the weaker parts. The weakest links are not voted off the team or told to pull themselves up by their own biological bootstraps. Dislike and distrust, imperfections and impatience don’t lead the strong and the majority to profile and profit off of minority or weaker and parts of the body. So that’s why when I go running and sprain my now 56 year-old right ankle, my left ankle breaks out in a Bill Withers song, singing, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
Now to be sure, life is more complex now than it ever has been. As a nation we are acutely and profoundly more diverse than ever before. Many customs, beliefs, practices, and assumptions of the past are being reexamined as new ideas, healthier images, different languages, and previously overlooked histories are coming to the forefront.
By now we understand the reality that church pastors, regional and conference ministers, and bishops contend with even when they are ushered into church service under an expectation of change and growth: Change and growth create conflict. So with the impatient emergence of new realities, much-needed justice-based social, political, and religious correctives, and the justifiable cry for a new cultural template, we now face the question that the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once inspired, “Will we have chaos, or will we have community?” Along with this question, I have my own: How can we avoid the self-selected national diminishing that comes when our many groups use their creativity, gifts, and resources for themselves exclusively, and instead elect to flourish live as a nation whose diverse parts willingly offer their best for the common good?
I think the answer to these questions lies in what I learned from watching the Christian Women’s Fellowship group of the Detroit church where I once served as senior pastor.
Every Tuesday, a group of mostly retired women from Detroit’s United Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and community would gather for worship, fellowship, lunch, and quilting. As a courtesy, they would invite this pastor to join them in the worshipping, fellowshipping and the eating, but not the quilting! Joyfully accepting their invitation, each week I would pray and break bread with these strong sisters of faith, and afterwards watch them work on the quilts. I carefully observed them as they would intentionally select individual strips of cloth and weave them together into one strong and beautiful quilt. Each strip was unique and special! They were of many different colors, shapes, and sizes. Some were visibly older while others had the shine of newness. Amazingly all of different strips were carefully and deliberately woven together to form one quilt of many colors. No strip by itself could function as a quilt. It was necessary for each strip to be woven and connected to other pieces of fabric, for only the interdependence factor could transform a collection of stray strips into a united quilt.
One day, one of the women, Ruth, said to me, “Pastor, please bring us all of your old ties and worn out shirts so that we can use them when we make our quilts. Now this may have been a commentary on my wardrobe, yet even so, I did as she asked! As she issued this request of me, I thought, how awesome it is, that older clothes were not excluded for they, too, had something that they could contribute for the good of someone else. They could be connected to newer strips of fabric and together, they all could become a beautiful, warm, and protective quilt.
As we chart the course for the future of our diverse nation, I believe we would do well to consider the work of these amazing quilting women, women who possessed skillful eyes that could see the worth and value of every piece of fabric, even those that had once been deemed as unimportant, or believed not to matter, or forced to reside in the closets of life. We would do well to learn from these women of intelligence, character, and vision, who possessed enough patience to weave diverse strips of fabric together into one strong and beautiful quilt.
We must possess the eyes of God, in whose image and likeness we all have been crafted! God’s eyes love and justice see the worth and dignity of all of humanity, regardless of whatever scrapped and stray condition we are in. We must say with one voice that all lives matter! Yet, don’t stop there, for at this juncture, when institutional racism continues to be misdiagnosed, under-acknowledged, and denied; and when race-based injustice and violence continue to be perpetrated against African Americans causing them to wonder if they can survive encounters with law enforcement personnel, or be treated fairly at work, or receive justice in the courts, or find sanctuary from racist violence even in their own church buildings, we must cry out with one voice and with loving specificity, Black Lives Matter!
Each of us must be willing to give the best of ourselves for the common good, to be woven together to form one nation, united and strong, that refuses to see diversity as a sign of weakness, as some seem to assert during election cycles, but instead as a signal of its strength. As James William Fulbright wrote, “The source of a nation’s strength is its domestic life, and if America has a service to perform in the world, it is in large part the service of its own example.”
When we adhere to a domestic life that is characterized by justice, the many and varied pieces of fabric from across our land will be woven together for the common good and the advancement of the nation and the world. When we arrive at the grand conclusion that our diversity truly is our strength, we will possess the requisite cultural vision that enables us to live in the “subjunctive mood” as the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor was fond of saying, where we are motivated not just by what was, but by what may be. It is out of this enhanced national template that we will be able to nurture our children in the hope that comes to each as a birthright. Amen.